Tequila can only be made in designated areas of Mexico from one single plant species, named Agave tequilana; more commonly called Blue Agave. So, what do you call the very first spirit made from Australian grown Blue Agave?
"Unless you know what you're doing, the plant is just so horrible to harvest. We were just in pain the whole time, we kept saying 'f---ing agave!'," recalls winemaker and now part-time Aussie jimador y destilador, James Becker. "Later, I thought, why don't we call it Pinché?"
Definition: Mexican slang or curse word, used as an amplifier word to lay emphasis on a good or bad situation; for example, 'pinche carbon', meaning 'f---ing arsehole'. It's vulgarity encapsulating all of the following: wretched, damnable, dastardly, despicable.
"It was brutal. Harvesting the agave was, honestly, the worst experience. I don't mind hard work, but this was on a whole other level," Becker says.
A few years ago, while watching Landline on ABC TV, Becker saw a story about a trial planting of Blue Agave in the sugar cane country of Queensland. Agave is a canna plant, a succulent, which requires very little water, can withstand high temperatures and poor growing conditions, and flourishes in dry and arid conditions.
Several hectares of the exotic Agave were planted in Ayr, Queensland, in 2009 by Don Chambers from AusAgave. The trial planting was designed to test the quality and viability of Blue Agave to be used on a commercial basis as a biofuel, a natural sugar alternative, and a source of manufacturing fibre. It was not planted to be made into a distillate.
"I told my mate about it and he said we should try to make something like tequila," Becker says. "I called the company responsible for growing the crop and asked if I could buy some agave to try and make a tequila-like spirit out of it. They said no way, no chance.
"I was saying name your price, we want to do it, but they wouldn't budge. I was told it was strictly for research only."
Becker kept contacting Chambers every six months, to see if he'd changed his mind. A couple years after that initial phone call, Chambers relented and gave permission for Becker and his best mate, Mark McShaddock, to harvest some Blue Agave from his trial farm in Queensland.
"I remember thinking 'imagine if it turned out Australia could grow and make just as good, if not better Tequila spirit as they can in Mexico'," Becker says. "The French said the same thing about wine for centuries... You at least have to try."
Becker and McShaddock flew to Queensland armed with a couple of homemade versions of, what's known as a coa de jima; a specialised tool for harvesting agave, like a machete at the end of a long wooden handle. If they succeeded, they would be the first to harvest Australian grown Blue Agave to make a distillate from it.
"I used to work in landscaping, now I work in wine cellars, and pick fruit during vintage, but this was unlike any physical labour I've ever done before," Becker says. "It was so hot. Each plant is so heavy to work with."
A harvestable Agave tequliana plant weighs upwards of 90kg. You want the pia or stem of the plant, because that's where the aguamiel or "honey-water" is, with all its fermentable sugars. To get to it, you need to shear off all the leaves using the coa and then lift it out of the ground. The leaves have this toxic sap that contains needle sharp crystals of calcium oxalate. The sap is a severe irritant to your skin. It can cause a painful burning sensation and may develop into blisters and dermatitis.
"We read about all the hazards, but clearly underestimated the extent of the protective equipment we'd need [to safely harvest the plants]," Becker says. "We took gloves and long sleeve shirts, but the sap just absorbed straight through. You'd be sweating and wiping your face and just end up spreading it all over yourself . . . It was like getting shards of fibreglass in your skin. It was everywhere, a total disaster, but we couldn't stop laughing at ourselves either. The whole thing was just comical."
The pair harvested around three tonnes of pia from this Queensland Blue Agave plant, before transporting it to Pokolbin, in the Hunter Valley, where they cooked the plant to extract the honey-water. Fire bans prevented the pair from cooking the pia in a fire pit below the ground, like they do in Mexico to make mezcal. Instead, they built an autoclave (pressure chamber) to cook the stems to extract the fermentable sugars, which is more akin to how tequila is made.
"We did a few trial runs with a few small batches, to get a feel for what we were doing. Then, one weekend we did the whole batch, transforming it into liquid form by pressing it and then fermenting it," Becker says.
Once the sugars were fermented dry, the next step was distillation.
"We teamed up with Shane Casey from Brix Distillers in Surry Hills to do the distillation," Becker says. "He was keen to share his knowledge, and also learn about the process of how to make it. We double distilled the fermented juice using the stills at Brix, and the finished product is what we call Pinché."
Fifty bottles of Pinché have been pre-released, with a limited release in October.
Hencho en Australia; Made in Australia. This is the first time ever that an Australian grown agave distillate has been produced in Australia. Nothing delicious comes easy, and nothing easy can ever equate to deliciousness, right? And, Pinché is very delicious.
PINCHÉ, Spirit of Agave Tequiliana; Opaque pale straw in colour; scents of honey and citrus, limey lemons with faint hints of feijoa. Delicate spice and subtle notions of fresh pineapple, honey and pear in the mouth. Super lovely texture; supple and smooth. Arduous to make, yet effortless to taste. Highly delicious. Drink with reverence.
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