Culture: Turkey-Infused Booze? Pechuga Mezcal Is Coming to Thanksgiving
Traditionally, we’ve thought of things like hard cider and Beaujolais as Thanksgiving-appropriate beverages. Now, pechuga mezcal—that is, mezcal made with turkey—may be joining the mix.
While most people are familiar with mezcal, Mexico’s most traditional agave spirit, not everyone knows the pechuga style of mezcal, which typically involves hanging a chicken breast (“pechuga”) in the still, often with alongside fruits, grains and other seasonal ingredients to celebrate Day of the Dead (November 2) and the harvest and holiday seasons. But pechuga mezcal doesn’t have to be made with chicken. Variations include a wide range of proteins, from Iberico ham and rabbit to even iguana and armadillo. Some are made with no protein at all.
Now, a growing number of producers are bringing turkey pechugas to U.S. consumers. In 2022, both Montelobos and El Jolgorio released pechugas that explicitly use turkey. This year Yola Mezcal unveiled its version, made festive with plenty of citrus and tropical fruit: orange, tangerine, lime, guayaba (guava), pineapple and tejocote, a fruit similar to an orange.
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“Turkey is considered a more luxurious expression than chicken and that is why it is traditionally used during the holidays,” explains Yola Jimenez, co-founder of Yola Mezcal. In addition, “the skin is a bit thicker… and that gives it a smoother final distillation.”
Of note, most turkeys used to make pechuga are called guajolote, producers say. It’s smaller breed than what Americans are accustomed to seeing on holiday tables—closer to the size of a chicken—and typically consumed year-round.
While the expression isn’t new to Mexico, notes Noah Arenstein, general manager of The Cabinet Mezcal Bar in New York City, it’s likely not a coincidence that more turkey pechugas are arriving stateside just as Thanksgiving looms.
“Pechugas in Oaxaca are traditionally made around harvest time, so there is naturally a lot of overlap between Thanksgiving flavors and the flavors of many Oaxacan pechugas, particularly with warming spices like clove, cinnamon and allspice,” he says. “The coincidence of seasonality and the flavor overlap makes sense to market at this time of year,” he says.
And All the Fixings
Some, of course, deliberately swing toward Turkey Day. For example, Erstwhile Mezcal has launched a 2023 limited-edition Turkey Mole Negro Pechuga, made with a whole holiday table’s worth of ingredients: turkey, sweet potato and cranberry, plus Thanksgiving-ready herbs and spices. It’s made by Epifania Gómez and Silverio García of Rancho Blanco Güilá.
“It goes to the power of storytelling,” explains Erstwhile founder Yuan Ji. She draws parallels between family gatherings for North America’s Thanksgiving holiday and those associated with Mexico’s pechuga-making process, for which friends and family gather to make the harvest spirit. “Everyone, not just the immediate family, shows up to make it,” she says. “It’s beautiful and overlaps with the psychological themes of Thanksgiving.” Erstwhile’s variation, which calls for marinating the turkey overnight in black mole, is an experimental bottling, she adds. If feedback is positive, it may return next year.
Another fascinating new spin on the spirit: Mezcasiarca, a “Turkey Rose Pechuga” made with turkey, roses and honey, was first distilled in 2020 for a wedding that never happened due to the pandemic. It’s part of In Situ Spirits, which debuted in August from co-founder Sandra Ortiz Brena in Oaxaca City.
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Giving Thanks to the Land
Matt Morrison, director of client services and business development for Casa Cortes, the distillery in Matatlán that makes the El Jolgorio pechuga (which uses turkey as well as pineapple, plaintain, crabapple, pear, prune and other fruit), points to the symbolism that goes into making the spirit.
Regarding the the turkey or chicken, “the mezcalero uses the breast because it’s closest to the heart,” he says. “They use fruit because it’s giving thanks to the land that allowed us to make the mezcal. It’s about honoring and respecting Mother Earth.” In short, it’s an act of gratitude—which, again, does not require much of a leap to connect it to sentiment behind American Thanksgiving.
Justin Lane Briggs, who oversees Mexico spirits for importer and distributor Skurnik Wine & Spirits (which works with both El Jolgorio and In Situ), notes that the practice of making pechuga dates back at least a century. “The oldest record I could find of the practice was from a Mexican anthropologist around 100 years ago, who documented the use of chicken or lamb,” he says. “Turkey certainly seems to dominate now,” though he notes few of those pechugas are exported to the U.S.—at least for now.
Does It Taste Like Turkey?
While turkey pechuga mezcal can be a pleasant sipper alongside a Thanksgiving meal—and certainly a conversation-starter—don’t expect it to taste like an oven-roasted bird.
“Pechugas almost never taste like the protein [used to make it],” Ji says. The oil and fat in the meat might change the texture of the spirit, possibly making it slightly more velvety and unctuous, or add a nuanced umami quality. “But it’s not, ‘this mezcal is like a turkey bomb,’” she says. “That’s almost never my experience with the pechugas.”
Turkey Pechuga Mezcals to Try
Published: November 17, 2023
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