Recently, tequila has been sharing shelf space with more interesting agave-based alcohols. At bars around the city, artisanal mezcal, bacanora, and pulque are catching the eye of those serious drinkers on the lookout for a novel taste. But pechuga, a style of mezcal from Oaxaca, is by far the most idiosyncratic of the bunch.
Pechuga de pollo starts as small-batch mezcal. The hearts of the agave plant, the piñas, are pit-roasted, crushed to pulp by mule-drawn stone mills, open-fermented, then distilled multiple times. Here the path diverges. During the final distillation a raw chicken or turkey breast — a “pechuga”– is suspended above the rising distillation vapors, slowly cooking and infusing the atmosphere. And the poultry is just one addition. Local fruits like quince and plum are added to the pot, along with nuts and grains, a melange of flavors that some pechuga drinkers swear they can detect when sipping.
Because it is crafted in such small quantities and distribution lines are still trickling north, pechuga is extremely difficult to find in the United States, even at well-curated mezcal meccas. It’s the bottle that barkeeps bring out in close company. And even if a bar advertises one, it’s usually gone before you get there.
Cariño, a Mexican cantina in Williamsburg with an unusually large tequila and mezcal lineup, proffers three: El Jolgorio Mezcal Pechuga, Fidencio Mezcal Pechuga, and the tawny El Maguey Espadin “Legitimo” — which is so obscure it’s probably easier to just hop on a plane and acquire at the source than try to find a bottle to buy in the U.S.
Served with a slice of salted, chile-speckled orange, the pechugas (all $11) drink hot and clean, smooth but with a sharp, smoky edge. “As far as I can tell, I think mezcaleros just wanted to cook a chicken, so they hung the meat in the steam,” says Sergio Garcia, the co-owner of Cariño, laughing. “And then maybe made tacos out of it. But it certainly doesn’t taste at all like chicken.” Nevertheless, it’s a delicious argument to have over a bottle of pechuga — if you can find one.
Cariño, 82 S 4th Street, Brooklyn; 718-384-8282
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.