It is a big fallacy that non-processed foods are always better than processed foods.
At least, the ancient Aztecs who lived in Mesoamerica around 1500 BCE would attest to this. Because the human body cannot fully digest corn (a visit to the toilet after eating buttered corn would confirm this), the Aztecs devised a process to make corn as digestible and nutritious as possible: nixtamalization. The corn kernels are boiled in an alkaline solution until they are softened, and then hulled.
Nixtamalized foods (such as corn tortillas) became extremely important to the early Mesoamerican diet. Not only does this method kill off toxic fungus, but the process increases the nutritional content of corn drastically. The humble tortilla helped tribes avert the risks of malnourishment and vitamin deficiency diseases, which were much more common amongst tribes that relied on the non-processed corn.
The process also improves flavour, and gives tortillas that distinctive intense taste of fresh, sweet, buttery steamed corn that is also slightly malty, roasty, and chewy with a slightly fermented vegetal character.
Early this year, the new Abasolo Distillery from Mexico released a whisky made purely from corn. (note: Abasolo was more recently partially acquired by Pernod Ricard in an apparent shopping spree). While American bourbon makers use at least 51% corn and a percentage of barley, the nixtamalization process allows Abasolo to use 100% corn to make whisky. Nixtamalization also has a direct impact on flavour, causing the spirit to open up with more floral sweetness and warmth of the grain. The distillery itself proudly proclaims that the 4,000 year old cooking technique uncovers “the deepest notes of [Mexican] ancestral ingredients”, and that “There is no whisky in the world with a process or taste profile like this.”
Abasolo’s primary ingredient also speaks directly to the terroir of the region. The distillery exclusively uses the heirloom cacahuazintle corn (pronounced “kaka-wha-sint-lay”), instead of GMO corn hybrids that are more readily available commercially. This is a species native to Mexico that has been cultivated and handed down for over 200 generations by long-forgotten peoples of ancient Mesoamerica. In Mexican cooking, cacahuazintle corn is particularly prized for its distinctive notes and rich flavours not seen in other varieties of corn.
The spirit is matured for 2 years in both virgin and used oak casks in an airy warehouse, where constant temperature fluctuations and changing climate conditions would age the whisky faster than usual.
Today, we grab ourselves a bottle and find out just how unusual this Mexican whisky is.
First things first: just look at the bottle! The design already makes this worth collecting. It is heavy, rectangular, and of dark tinted glass with an irregular slate-like texture. The eggshell-coloured label adds a wild-west saloon vibe to the design. Regardless of how it tastes, I would be displaying this bottle somewhere at home as an ornamental conversation-starter.
Abasolo El Whisky De Mexico – Review
43% ABV. Procured from The Whisky Exchange for around US $55.
Colour: The whisky is a pale gold colour with very thin legs.
On the nose: The aromas open with a rather clean but substantial solvent-y banana note. Notes of fresh bananas. This develops to light and estery floral notes. I’m getting a faint chrysanthemum and hibiscus aroma here. There is also a light honey sheen over the floral notes. The light floral notes are evocative of very mildly sweetened Hong Kong-nese snow fungus dessert soup (tong sui).
While most American corn whiskeys (including bourbon) have rather rich, woody, earthy and caramel-forward notes, the Abasolo falls on the opposite end of the spectrum, with its clean texture and near-complete lack of any oak influence.
In the mouth: The spirit is clean, light-bodied but complex, with some rather unexpected flavours that did not show up on the nose. The moment this touches my tongue, I get immediate notes of sweet bananas and whipped cream as detected earlier by the nose. Very quickly, the palate turns slightly savoury, with a note of sweet and juicy buttered corn-on-the-cob and freshly popped pop corn at the movies.
The second sip reveals a mild dryness, accompanied by notes of leather and a distinctive scent of the brown paper takeaway bag from McDonald’s. Very similar to the scent one gets from dry un-toasted tortillas.
A moderate degree of heat is then felt on the sides of the tongue, although with so much going on this comes somewhat as an afterthought. The finish is relatively short, characterised by a fading note of honey and a growing damp vegetal note that smells very much like cooked asparagus. It is also somewhat akin to the aftertaste of tequila.
The fragrance and complexity of the Abasolo is quite memorable. It’s also amazing how much of the nixtamalization process can actually be tasted in a dram. A whisky that actually tastes like tortilla chips? Who would have known!
These flavours are truly unlike any American corn whiskey I’ve tried. With its the light floral notes, fragrant corn and damp vegetal note, the Abasolo feels like a baby grown from the DNA of a Maker’s Mark bourbon, a Laphroaig, and a Nikka.
I won’t guarantee every drinker would love the Abasolo because it is so incredibly unusual. But precisely because it is unusual, I would recommend every whisky drinker to try the Abasolo for themselves at least once. After all, this is the first of an entirely new whisky region of Mexico. Memorable fragrance and complexity, with an intriguing process to boot. At its price range, everyone ought to at least try a dram. Though, you might initially wonder, is this even whisky?