Need a new spirit to pair with chicken? Pechuga mezcal, a traditional spirit of Mexico’s Oaxaca region, could be worth your attention. After all, it’s made with meat.
Pechuga (“breast” in Spanish) is a style of mezcal that involves hanging a piece of raw chicken breast inside the still during distillation. The heat and steam from the process cook the chicken as the spirit distills, killing any harmful bacteria present (no need to worry about salmonella here), allowing the meat’s fat and juices to drip into the mezcal. The finished spirit doesn’t taste like chicken soup, though it can have a savory quality that might remind you of a warming broth.
But what’s notable about pechuga mezcal isn’t the meat, it’s the complex flavor and tradition behind the spirit.
Why would anyone use chicken in mezcal?
Why make a meaty mezcal? According to Danny Mena, a partner in Mezcales de Leyenda, an advocacy organization for Mexico’s mezcal producers, it’s about texture.
Collagen released from the protein during distillation creates a rich, robust mouthfeel not found in most mezcals. The meat also provides a subtle savory note that balances the sweetness of fruit, grains and other ingredients often steamed alongside the chicken when creating the spirit.
Pechuga has traditionally been a seasonal mezcal, distilled in the fall (and sometimes spring) when local fruit is ripe and ready for harvest.
“What’s the first receptacle available to you? That’s what you drink out of.” —Danny Mena, Mezcales de Leyenda
Like all mezcals, the process starts with agave piñas (hearts), which are roasted in an earthen pit to create the spirit’s distinctive smoky or earthy notes. Usually, the mezcal is distilled twice, Mena explains.
At that point, after the second distillation, the raw meat is hung on a string from the top of the still. Other ingredients like wild fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices and rice are also added. The mezcal is then distilled a third time.
“The predominant flavor you taste is the vegetables, the spices, the fruits,” says Mena.
These pechugas can vary widely, depending on the individual distiller and their recipe. The protein used is usually raw chicken or turkey breast, but it also might be deer, lamb or conejo (wild rabbit), like this offering from Mezcal Pierde Almas.
Oaxacan distillery Del Maguey teamed up with celebrity chef José Andrés in 2012 to make a limited-edition pechuga-style Ibérico ham mezcal, though many distillers find leaner cuts of meat are required.
“Even chicken with skin on leaves a residue,” says Mena, “It’s no good.” Vegetarian versions of pechuga do exist, and there are even rumors of iguana pechuga (though we’ve yet to try it).
Not surprisingly, each producer has their own unique pechuga recipe. In addition to its collaboration with Andrés, Del Maguey makes a regular pechuga that incorporates raw chicken breast, wild mountain apples and plums, red plantains, pineapples, almonds, star anise, canela and a few pounds of uncooked rice. On the premium end of the mezcal spectrum, it retails in the U.S. for $150.
By comparison, Fidencio Mezcal’s pechuga is made with chicken, criolla (indigenous quince), apples, pineapples, bananas and guava. Also available stateside, it currently sells for $95.
When distillation is complete, Fidencio has a tradition of placing their spent chicken is placed on an altar “as an offering for a good harvest in the next year,” says founder Arik Torren.
Mena reminisces about a few favorite pechuga mezcals he’s tried. One was a citrus-forward version made with tangerine, orange, cinnamon and clove, while another he likens to a hot toddy, distilled with plenty of local fruit and spice.
A unique variation Mena sampled in Puebla was made with a chicken breast covered with mole spices before distillation.
“It was one of the most spectacular ones I’ve ever had,” he says. “It tasted like a mole. It had all the subtleties you would want without being an infusion.”
Yet, Mena’s quick to note that the fruit, grains, spices and protein balance each other out. He’s sampled a pechuga made with chicken breast alone, and describes the end result as “quite gamy” and “kind of like unsalted meat.”
The best pechugas have a sweet-savory balance, he says. There tends to be “oily richness without being fatty,” while sweetness from fruit, grains and agave tend to be the dominant flavors.
How do you drink pechuga mezcal?
Neat, and skip the fancy glassware, please. Although pechuga is catching on in the U.S., where it’s often sold at a premium (average prices for stateside releases range from $50–$150), Mena says that it’s a rustic style, often made in small, marginalized farming communities.
In Oaxaca, it’s not unusual to sip mezcal from a candleholder with a cross on the bottom, procured from the church. “What’s the first receptacle available to you?” says Mena. “That’s what you drink out of.”
As for when locals drink pechuga? It’s brought out for all of the big events, Mena says, like quinceañeras, birthdays and weddings.
“[It’s] not your day-to-day mezcal,” he says.
Some pechugas are made for specific occasions. Last year, El Jolgorio released a limited-edition Pechuga Navideña (“Christmas Pechuga”) in the U.S., retailing for $160. It’s meant to evoke Christmas flavors, made with acidic mandarinas and tejocote, the fruit of the hawthorn tree.
Interestingly, even as Mexican pechuga bottlings sold in America are increasingly sought-out (and sold at premium prices), a handful of American distillers have also found inspiration in pechuga production. In Ipswich, Massachusetts, Privateer Rum hangs a pineapple within the gin still hangs a pineapple inside its gin still to make its seasonal, limited-release Tiki Gin (#PineapplePechuga), currently only available within the state.
Baltimore Whiskey Company distills a pechuga-style apple brandy with regional fruit like fresh pawpaw, persimmons and black walnuts. It also hangs a Maryland Country Ham in the still for “oily mouthfeel and savory salinity.” Though currently, only available in Maryland and Washington, the distillery has plans to increase their distribution later this year.
It’s fun to contemplate these pechuga-styled projects, which pay homage to the proud and longstanding traditions that surround Oaxaca’s harvest mezcal. Native producers continue to push boundaries as well, but it’s the complexity of the spirit that holds our attention and keeps us sipping this storied spirit long after the novelty fades.