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The Problem With Pechuga

Many of Mexico’s mezcal producers are recognizing the marketability of pechuga. But is this a good thing?

Among the cacti and rust-colored, guaje bean–dotted hills of Santa María Zoyatla, just over two hours’ drive west of Puebla City, Marcelo Luna produces one of the most unique spirits in the world: a mezcal distilled with chicken parts and mole poblano. Coming off of the still, the mezcal emits a powerful aroma of cinnamon, chiles and schmaltz, with chocolate flavors and a final, lingering note of poultry stock. It’s one of the rarer recipes of so-called pechuga in existence, a rapidly growing subcategory within the booming world of mezcal.

At his shared palenque, an open-air, hillside distillery protected from the elements by only a corrugated metal roof, Luna and his family have been producing their own mezcal for at least three generations. They roast espadilla agaves, known for their high sugar content, in a deep, volcanic rock-lined pit. After cooling, the agaves are broken down; Luna ferments the resulting mash in specially cured cow hides called cueros or pieles for around two weeks, depending on the season.

Before distilling his pechuga, Luna sautés fatty chicken parts in a home cook’s stock pot along with a few kilos of mole poblano powder, purchased from a trusted supplier in the nearby town of Atlixco. Rather than suspending this mixture over the boiling chamber, as is typical of the style, the aromatic slurry and the fermented agave mash (tepache) are poured directly into the clay boiling chamber. Once properly heated, the tepache evaporates through his rudimentary still, made from a clay pot and a hollowed-out tree trunk, rather than the more common copper cylinders, condensing in a large plastic vat the size of an oil drum.

While Luna has no intention of increasing his production—an impossible feat given the nature of his methods—the same cannot be said of other producers across the region. As mezcal continues to grow in popularity, pechuga is increasingly exposed to the same forces of commercialization that have built everything from pink gin to coconut rum, leaving some time-honored distilling techniques abandoned in the name of scalability. The ingredients of these pechugas, too, are broadening well beyond the bounds of tradition, as brands begin to see the marketability of what is essentially flavored mezcal.

A term used to describe agave spirits produced with flavoring elements introduced into the final distillation, pechuga traditionally calls on chicken or turkey breast. (The literal translation of pechuga is “breast.”) While the strict definition mandates the inclusion of animal protein, the catchall term has expanded to include many non-animal derived examples, with everything from locally available fruits such as pineapple, bananas or mango, to almonds, peanuts and raw rice. Hanging in a basket or netting suspended above the boiling chamber of the still, these additions are “cooked” by the vapors from the distillation, and incorporate their flavor by way of the dripping condensation.

Historically, pechugas were “made-to-order” mezcals meant to celebrate births, weddings, holidays and other holy (or unholy) occasions. A mezcalero would take an existing batch of mezcal and re-distill it according to their own recipe—often one handed down across generations. Some of the best are deeply personal expressions of a particular producer or village. The clay pot-distilled pechugas in Santa Catarina Minas, like those available from Real Minero and Lalocura, burst with deep flavors of fermented pineapple and banana, derived from recipes passed down through a single family.

Today, a menagerie of pechugas has hit the market, made with meat from deer, lizard, lamb, iguana, rabbit and snake, along with ingredients like avocado skin, plantain, criollo pineapple, ginger, mango, raisin, cinnamon and just about every spice and herb found in Mexico. There is even an alarmingly onion-forward pechuga made al pastor style. While some of these formulas are traditional, stemming from regional or family recipes, others have been foisted onto producers by brands seeking easy marketability. The result is a vastly altered landscape for what was once a traditional and sacred spirit, now on the road to becoming Mexico’s homegrown “flavored” spirit.

“Pechuga has a novelty status that draws people in,” says Jason Cox, owner of El Destilado in Oaxaca, as well as the Cinco Sentidos brand that bottles Luna’s pechuga. “People appreciate that it has roots in celebration and festivities and want to replicate that when they try the spirit.”

The motivation to meet this demand with increasingly unusual expressions is easy to understand. A signature pechuga, after all, can be a significant driver of sales based on novelty factor alone. According to Francisco Terrazas, Mezcal Vago’s national brand manager, Elote, a pechuga distilled with only roasted corn, makes up almost 40 percent of Vago’s total sales.

Del Maguey, the original artisanal mezcal brand available in the United States, made a splash when they released an Ibérico ham pechuga in 2013. One of the most popular—and expensive—mezcals on the market, with some bars charging $40 or more per ounce, it inadvertently sparked an arms race to create the most outlandish pechuga possible, including versions made with rattlesnake venom, marijuana and peyote.

Gracias a Dios, based in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, recently worked with a mezcaleria to produce an exclusive batch of pechuga made with Texas brisket. It joined their traditional pechuga made with turkey, as well as three other novelty expressions: prickly pear, fig and mango. The branding of these bottles is kicked up, too, with a more vibrant color palette that separates them from the rest of their line, as if pechuga were a spirit unto itself, untethered to classic mezcal.

Recognizable by their opaque clay bottles, mezcal producer Bozal has also joined the fray, marketing an Ibérico ham pechuga from Guerrero, alongside a Borrego pechuga made with leg of lamb and, according to their website, a more traditional cooked chicken version that marinates in locally sourced fruit, chiles, citrus, raisin, cinnamon and clove. Each of these bottles is emblazoned with the word “sacrificio,” capitalizing on the sacramental qualities that have long accompanied the production of pechuga.

In Mexico, there’s a clear-eyed recognition of the easy marketability of pechuga. It is, in essence, a flavored spirit. But marketing it based on the appeal of its flavoring poses a threat to some of the most ancient and sacred distilling traditions that drew drinkers to the category in the first place.

Back in Puebla, Marcelo Luna remains largely insulated from these developments. While his pechuga is a blend of traditions passed down through his family and his own innovations, it is a wholly personal spirit that is effectively impossible to scale—and he has no problem with that; after all, he measures success by a very different metric. “My mezcal might be weird or strange,” he says, “but all of the mezcaleros say that ours is the best.”

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Noah Arenstein is the former owner of El Atoradero Brooklyn and Madre Mezcaleria. He also ran the mezcal program for Claro, a Michelin-starred Oaxacan restaurant in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Serious Eats and Saveur.