Blair Athol 2006 Mezcal Finish
Posted 16 March 2022 by Matt / In Blair Athol
Bottle Name: Blair Athol 2006 Mezcal Finish
Distillery: Blair Athol
Bottler: North Star Spirits
My primary concern about the use of mezcal within the whisky industry isn’t its obviously non-tradition usage as a cask type (though that does somewhat irk me) – it’s the potential additional threat to the species and biodiversity of Mexico. Unlike barley or corn, agave is not seasonal – plants take years to grow – some up to 30. And it is only through the growth and maturation of the plants that the appropriate volume of convertible sugars can be formed. With the growing interest in mezcal, unscrupulous producers have been strip-mining agaves – harvesting plants younger to fulfil demand – and in doing so, they are forced to harvest increasing numbers to make up for the shortfall of sugars. Whilst some are re-planting, agave is increasingly under threat.
Whilst re-planting agave is one method for dealing with over-harvesting, it alone will not replicate the biodiversity that once existed within Mexico. Many species of agave grow wild. And wild agave, often found on rocky outcroppings and with some altitude cannot be fully imitated through cultivation. The development of the agave within its wild environment shapes its development and its flavour profile – field-based versions might offer a solution to over harvesting – but they do not replace like for like.
Wild agave are amongst the most prized – and up until relatively recently their usage – like much of the category was confined to villages. Harvesting would take place locally and would in turn support and entertain the community from which those plants were also resident. Whilst this still certainly takes place, the influx of large producers seeking ever greater volumes of wild agave for international consumption threatens not only this fine balance, but also the ecology and economy of many traditional peoples. Mezcal is in many cases hyper-local and its explosion worldwide risks diluting what mezcal is. Production is elementary, slow to produce and highly traditionally focussed – it cannot nor should not scale to the levels required by producers and distributors seeking the volumes to introduce the spirit into every household outside of Mexico.
There are moves to avert what might in years to come see mezcal dally with extinction of certain species – ratings and status on bottles which denote sustainability and good stewardship of both wild and cultivated agaves – and also fair-trade practices to ensure that mezcaleros (distillers) are paid a fair price. However, these all rely on consumers increasingly their understanding, education and compassion for the spirit – and not just jumping on the latest fads.
Mezcal cannot remain in-step with whisky – whilst whisky’s global expansion continues at a pace – mezcal’s historical underpinning and long agave growth periods cannot keep up. And so, whilst I would advocate for all of you to explore the wonders of mezcal, I would at the same time champion being mindful of sustainability and likewise of the spirits inherent uniqueness and completely different scalability to that of whisky.
North Star Spirits first mezcal release takes a different approach to many – the pairing is not with an already peated spirit. This Blair Athol was originally matured in a refill hogshead, before being finished in a mezcal cask for 14 months. Only 72 bottles were produced (some I’m guessing the mezcal cask was pretty diminutive) at a price of £51.95.
Nose: Crunchy golden barley joins nougat and royal icing, whilst shortbread and cashew nuts are livened by lime syrupy. Running throughout – cask vanilla and gravelly wet earth. Reduction reveals gentle lemon, simple syrup and tart cases.
Taste: Fresh and zingy with both lemon and limes set against sunflower oil. The development heads towards earthiness with reeds and flax alongside granite and cream patisserie filled apricot buns. Water adds salted toffee, crushed pecans and a palpable leafy herbalness.
Finish: Medium in length with earthy salinity and faint hot coal smoke.
Whilst the mezcal influence here is all but ethereal (until the finish), the overall result is nevertheless rather affable. Spirit-led sweetness is punctuated by charismatic salinity and mineral cues – which retain their shape and balance throughout and notably add another dimension of enjoyment. Low-fi agave - hi-fi whisky.
With thanks to Dave Ogden for the sample
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