The Pastry War is a bar. Bobby Heugel and his team pour spirits, open beers and even shake the occasional cocktail. But look closely and you’ll notice that the The Pastry War is also a story—or, rather, a series of them—that chronicles not only the deep Mexican culture that undergirds traditional agave spirits, but also Heugel and his team’s journey with those products and the people who make them.
“The Pastry War exists because of our visits to distilleries in Mexico,” says Heugel. “I was inspired by the trips I took and the lessons I learned about agave spirits, and I felt like the voices and concerns of the people I met who work first-hand with these spirits [were] not being communicated in the United States at the time.”
This goal is best reflected in the “Captain’s List,” a tightly curated collection of mezcal, tequila, raicilla and other agave spirits from some two dozen producers broken down into botanical, historical and technical categories.
Under Real Minero Barril, for example, the list explains that the dry, tannic qualities of the spirit are a manifestation of Agave karwinskii’s elongated body and narrow piña, which produce fewer fruity notes than many other varietals; that production of mezcals from Agave karwinskii often includes not only the piña, but also the stalk on which it sits, further enhancing its dry, astringent qualities; and that it was distilled by a man named Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza, in a clay still, in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.
In selecting products for the bar, Heugel focuses on what producers do, but also on what they don’t do. Somewhat famously, the bar features a large chalkboard specifying a handful of brands they choose not to carry and their reasons for rejecting those products. In particular, The Pastry War eschews agave spirits made via a diffusor.
“Diffusors, which alter the roasting process of agave spirits, are dramatically changing the way these spirits are made, in a negative manner,” says Heugel. “We are literally observing the massive alteration of a cultural product under the pressure of global conglomerates who have purchased these Mexican distilleries from abroad.”
By focusing on those producers who choose to hold tight to the legacy and tradition of mezcal, Heugel aims to educate the drinking public on what these spirits can and should be. That means pursuing producers who obtain their agave in a responsible manner, eschewing mass-production practices like monoculture and early harvest, roast piñas in a traditional stone oven and “allow adequate times for fermentation without the assistance of chemicals, distill in slower methods and in smaller stills and do not manipulate the product after distillation, outside of cutting to proof,” says Heugel.
Naturally, this limits the number of bottles that make the cut, which is part of the point. Beyond a commitment to quality, it’s important to Heugel that each producer’s story is being heard. “I try to think of their spirits the same way they do and put myself in their shoes,” says Heugel, noting that, for many of these producers, their product is less a product, as such, and more a connection to mezcal’s shared history.
“Their entire narrative is important,” he adds. “The purer that narrative, the purer the mezcal.”
The Pastry War in Five Bottles
Siembra Metl Michoacan Cupreata
This expression of Agave cupreata is rare in the United States, as its agave base is either wild-harvested or grown from seed, rather than relying on clonal propagation. “Phil Ward and I picked this mezcal out of Emilio Vieyra’s cellar in Michoacan with David Suro, who owns Siembra Spirits,” Heugel says. “The mezcals are distilled in two stills and then blended together.” The columns on the copper stills are made from native wood: one from pine and the other from oyamel. “You can literally taste the pine in Emilio’s mezcals,” says Heugel.
- Price: $60
- ABV: 46 percent
Pino Bonito, Michoacán
Del Maguey Tobala
This bottling sent Bobby Heugel down his path of agave obsession when Ron Cooper of Del Maguey poured it for him a decade ago. “Not only was it the best agave spirit I had ever tasted, it was simply the best spirit I had ever tasted,” says Heugel. “This particular tobala roasts for almost three times the average in a palenque surrounded by flowers. You can taste all of this in this spirit. Today, there are all sorts of exotic single varietal mezcals—this was the first.”
- Price: $115
- ABV: 45 percent
Rey Campero Jabalí
A “slightly wild” mezcal, as Heugel describes it, this bottling features spirits distilled from Jabalí, an agave varietal that doesn’t fit into any of the more broadly recognized categories. Jabalí is difficult to grow and harvest—the plants cling to loose soil high in the hills of Candelaria Yegolé, Oaxaca. “I hiked up these hills with these mezcaleros and a friend one day a couple of years ago. It was nearly impossible to keep up without falling back down the mountains, but they did it with such ease.” It’s not just the retrieval of these agaves that requires diligence and labor; the process itself is more intensive, given this agave’s tendency to boil over during fermentation. According to Heugel, the finished spirit “reflects the youth and strength that is required to make it.”
- Price: $110
- ABV: 49 percent
Candelaria Yegolé, Oaxaca
Real Minero Pechuga
Pechuga takes many mezcal novices by surprise: its distillation process includes fruit, spices and chicken, which result in a range of different flavors and a noticeably richer texture. This one relies on seasonal fruits, thus the specifics of the final product vary with the time of year in which it is produced. Heugel notes the pronounced flavors of cinnamon, as well as the balancing effects of clay distillation. “You can taste the minerality,” he says.
- Price: $170
- ABV: 51.7 percent
Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca
Vago Espadín en Barro
A collaboration between Heugel and Mezcal Vago, this bottling relies on a historic aging process whereby storage of mezcal in clay vessels (cántaros) that have held previous batched of mezcal imparts a unique character to each successive iteration—not unlike the Spanish solera system. “Judah Kuper [from Mezcal Vago] took cántaros from mezcalero Aquilino García López, and aged this mezcal in it,” says Heugel. “It is an amazing way to reexamine the history of mezcal.”
- Price: $75
- ABV: 52.7 percent
Sola de Vega, Oaxaca