Native corn key to Mexican whisky

23 February, 2023

There’s a new kid on the block in Mexico. Corn whisky is seeing a fair bit of growth as its potential is becoming recognised.

Tequila, mezcal – these are what typically comes to mind regarding spirits produced in Mexico. However, in recent years, the country has been seeing a rise in production of whiskies, particularly those that use corn as a key ingredient, as the category begins to expand. The IWSR Drinks Market Analysis reported that Mexican whisky grew 13% between 2020 and 2021, and is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 22% between 2021 and 2026, off a low base.

Research conducted by Distill Ventures, the Diageo-backed drinks accelerator, found that there are around 20 distilleries in Mexico producing whisky, with most in the southern half, as almost all of them produce another spirit such as tequila.

Scott Rosenbaum, search manager North America at Distill Ventures, says: “Abasolo is undoubtedly the current market leader, it’s part of what we’re witnessing in a dramatic growth within the space.

“The majority of Mexican whisky brands were founded in the past four years and this is reflective of the broader trend we’re seeing in the interest in growth of New World whisky.”

Whisky history

Based in Oaxaca, one of these recently founded brands trying to pave the way for the Mexican whisky category is Maíz Nation. The brand was founded in 2014, under a different name, to become Maíz Nation in 2020, by distiller Jonathan Barbieri and his wife Yira Vallejo,who now sits on the board of la Feria de la Agrobiodiversidad, one of the most important native seed exchanges in the country.

Created using the milpa, a Mesoamerican cultivation system, the brand’s whisky is produced in different communities and is made from four types of native corn, or maíz: Bolita from Valles Centrales, Tepecintle from the Chinantla region, Chalqueño or Cajete from La Mixteca region and Olotillo from the coast region. These native corn varieties all reflect the culture and climate of the regions in which they grow, as they play a vital role in the lives of the families and communities that grow them.

A key part of the history of corn in Oaxaca especially, is the cave of Guila Naquitz, part of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, catalogued as a World Cultural Heritage Center by UNESCO. In this cave, the earliest vestiges of corn were found, dating from 6,500 years ago, together with cultivated squash seeds dating from 10,000 years ago. Guila Naquitz lies in the community of Ejido Unión Zapata, where the most prominent native seed exchange in Oaxaca takes place every year after the harvest.

In the early 2000s, Mexico saw the incursion of GMO corns into the ecosystem, particularly in Oaxaca. Barbieri says: “There was already genetic contamination about 10,000ft high in the Sierra Norte, and we were all kind of grasping at that time about the significance of this corn, which has been cultivated and shepherded into the 21st century through 350 human generations since the dawn of agriculture. Fortunately, in the 20 years or so that have transpired, the government has begun to legislate certain protections for native corn.”

Barbieri began to go to these seed exchanges, which he describes as “a living almanac”, where farmers meet and exchange seeds, information and experience. “By exchanging seeds they’re exchanging genetic material, bringing this package of genetic material in corn to different ecosystems and climates,” Barbieri adds.

Corn can grow from sea level to 3,000m above sea level, adapting to different ecosystems over time, as “it evolves in a co-evolutionary conspiracy with the human beings who are nurturing it”. Barbieri says: “So you’ve got 350 generations of people, each one, every year in their lifetime, selecting corn to meet the challenges of climate change or whatever was going on at the time.”

The liquid

A small producer, Maíz Nation is currently using 250-litre copper pot alembics, with a slow distillation process conducted at low temperatures, producing micro-batches for flavour control. Its mash bills vary according to the harvest in each region, as Barbieri adds: “We’ve got all these corns coming in at different times of the year and often getting blended together, so we end up with a snapshot of the harvest of that particular year across the state. It will always taste within our framework, but from batch to batch it might vary slightly, like wine. Each batch is idiosyncratic, I think that’s what makes it exciting.”

Through its work with local farmers and communities, Maíz Nation has created what it calls “the experimental distillery for ancient grains” as it distils whisky using native corn to do so. Barbieri adds: “I’m now extrapolating and going into rye, as we’re about to bring out the first ever rye whisky made in Mexico.” The brand also has plans to open a new distillery in April, which will run on 100% solar power.

“For us, it’s been really important to go to the communities, buy the corn at a price that is their price, respect what they’re doing and, where possible, create co-investments and work with the native communities.” Barbieri adds that Maíz Nation is “trying to curate this new category” and “set an example” for Mexican whisky. “If you take the native out of native corn – meaning if you take the corn and plant it somewhere else and pay people minimum wage to come and do the work – then you’re cutting out of the picture the native people whose intellectual property it has been for 6500 years. So you can’t really call it native corn anymore,” he continues.

Oaxaca itself plays a role in keeping this tradition and culture alive as its rugged, mountainous terrain has made it difficult for large machinery to be bought in, therefore people still plough with a wooden plough and oxen. “The fortunate thing is because of the landscape and topography, Oaxaca has been saved to a great extent from being ravaged like so many other places in the Americas have been,” Barbieri adds. Maíz Nation’s non-aged white whisky, Maíz Nation Blanco, demonstrates the terroir, which as Barbieri notes, is “much more than the biological and geographical intersection, it’s about culture and the way people do things.

“In a general way we’re part of this terroir movement, but in a specific way we’re really about giving credit where credit is due to the native art and whose intellectual property it really is. It’s much more than just a package of genetics, it’s a package of culture,” he continues.

Regulation and exports

Mexican whisky, unlike many other spirits categories, has less stringent rules placed on it, which leaves room for brands like Maíz Nation to experiment. Ara Carvallo, portfolio and I&D director at Distill Ventures, said: “The spirit’s infancy is also highlighted on the legislative side as few rules exist in the country that govern its production and classifi cation, unlike tequila, which is regulated by the CRT and the CRM that regulates mezcal.” Mexican whisky also has “no generally accepted standard for alcohol levels”, as Carvallo adds – the country’s whiskies range from 40-47% abv.

Rosenbaum notes that “in Mexico you have all of the conditions necessary for innovation in the whisky space.” Mexico also has a “culture rich with expertise in spirits, excess distilling capacity in the form of tequila and mezcal distilleries that aren’t being used round the clock and access to used barrels”, he continues.

When it comes to exports for Mexican whisky, the US is, according to Rosenbaum, “likely the major export market, given its proximity”. With the category being in the beginning stages in terms of size, many brands are in the process of starting to export. “Half a dozen are transported to the US, a few years ago it was one or two, so we’re going to see more producers emerge and make their way in front of consumers. We aren’t even at the stage where mezcal was 20 years ago, we’re even before that,” Rosenbaum continues.

“Given the early stage there has tended to be an emphasis on the region of Oaxaca, and that is certainly the dominant centre for production. But there are producers in a number of states from Guanajuato to Michoacán to Baja California. Much like American whiskey is dominated by production in, say Kentucky, but we see production in all 50 states, there’s a similar phenomenon beginning to occur in Mexico, with regards to a diversity in geographic expressions,” Rosenbaum adds. With more brands beginning to emerge from the country, Rosenbaum notes “we are now moving from the point where there is a dominant market leader, to a period of time where we are going to see consumer awareness slowly begin to catch up” as these brands use a combination of corn and other grains. “I have seen everything, from a whisky made from 100% amaranth to whiskies that are not just aged in barrels but finished in everything from wine barrels coming from Baja California to single malt whisky barrels,” Rosenbaum continues. The category continues to grow as awareness increases. Barbieri concludes: “Something similar to the mezcal boom is likely going to happen with corn. That’s why for us it’s so important to try to curate this fledgling category, so that there’s a consciousness, it’s not just people coming in from the outside and trying to make money.”

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