Distillers in this state are finding that Texas often puts an indelible stamp on their products. Bourbon and other whiskeys tend to age faster here. Gins with locally sourced botanicals have flavors far beyond juniper. And there's even Texas sotol, which isn't as similar to tequila and mezcal as you might think.
The newest spirit with plenty of Texas influence is a little like gin, a little like brandy, and takes inspiration from a little-known type of mezcal called pechuga. It's so novel, in fact, that there isn't an official term for it, and Real Spirits head distiller Davin Topel can only, legally, call it a spirit.
That's as generic as it gets. But there's nothing ordinary about the extremely limited liquor that Topel has named Totem. Releasing Oct. 19 at Real Ale Brewing, where the small on-site distillery producing Real Spirits items is located, Totem is a nod to Topel's love of mezcal. He decided to replicate how pechuga is made — which requires the use of raw chicken or turkey breast.
"I wanted to adapt the distillation style of pechuga, which is where you take a spirit and add botanicals to it that are indigenous to your area, such as nuts, herbs, spices and vegetables, and put them in a still along with a piece of meat," he said. "The meat doesn't necessarily add flavor so much as adding body and character. I'd say you do get a slight umami characteristic from it."
Wild, huh? Let's clarify a couple of things, though. The meat is not distilled with the rest of the ingredients — instead, it hangs above the still. And, in this case, it's not chicken or turkey. Topel went hunting with chef Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in May and harvested a hog from the Lockhart area.
Vegetarians may still want to steer clear of Totem: Topel said traces of the hog do end up in the final product.
"The distillation in the pot, as it's heating up, it's cooking the ham hanging above, and as the ham cooks, the drippings will drop into the still," Topel said. "That's what creates the body and character. The oils of the protein and the fat go into the pot, and as (the distillate) starts to evaporate, the oils carry over. Those oils are very important in the final texture and flavor of the spirit itself."
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He was quick to emphasize the meat is just one flavor element, however. Totem starts out with Real Ale's passion fruit wheat beer as the base that gets distilled, sans hops. (Having fruit in there means the spirit can qualify as a brandy, he said.)
On the third distillation, the botanicals get thrown in — including Fredericksburg peaches, Rio Grande Valley grapefruit, Blanco lavender, and dewberries and bottlebrush leaves sourced from Real Ale's property. Pecans, rosemary, lemon and roasted and smoked chiles are also used. Beforehand, the hog was cold-smoked with oak, pecan and mesquite.
Only 250 bottles will be available starting at the Oct. 19 Totem release party, and once they're gone, this version of Totem disappears, too. Topel plans to make future batches using different native meats and botanicals, such as rabbits, snakes, agarita berries and prickly pear. Because of Totem's rarity, he hopes people will enjoy it the same way that pechuga is enjoyed in Mexico.
"Pechuga is usually drank during special occasions like weddings and quinceañeras, and I wanted to create a spirit held in the same regard: drank for prosperity and good luck," he said. "Being an outdoorsman, I also wanted to create a spirit particularly for hunters and fishermen to drink before their adventures. To drink for a prosperous harvest."
He's even come up with a ritual for consuming Totem. Dip the rim of a copita, or other small sipping glass, into a local honey. Add an ounce of Totem to the glass. Then, light a flame over the spirit, blow it out, lick the honey and take a sip. Totem is so clean and clear that when you light it on fire, Topel said, you might not be able to see the flame.
The base addition of wheat and barley could make Totem a whiskey, but the passion fruit mixed in with the grain would make it more of a brandy. Botanicals are a key feature of gin. There's no clear-cut beverage category that fits Totem; for now, Topel doesn't mind the lack of a good word for it. Maybe, one day, he'll come up with the proper terminology. An American-style pechuga, perhaps?
In the meantime, he's just happy he could dive into such an out-there, undefinable spirit.
"Real Ale gives me a lot of creative freedom. I don't know that many distilleries would give the OK to making a spirit with meat," he said.
The Totem release party runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 19 at Real Ale, 231 San Saba Court, Blanco. For more information, visit realalebrewing.com.