Kalkofen emphasizes that much of the experiment was figuring out how to make a cask-finished mezcal that still tasted like mezcal. “It was really important to us to never have the barrel overtake the mezcal,” she says. “The characteristics of the mezcal are still at the front and center, even if it’s coming out of the barrel.” To that end, the group only ages the mezcal two to four months in the bourbon casks, pulling from the barrels and refilling them with fresh unaged mezcal as necessary to maintain the desired balance. “We let the mezcal tell us how long it should be aged,” Kalkofen adds.
The restrained use of the barrel yields an incredibly subtle, nuanced finish. On first look, the special mezcal is barely indistinguishable from a standard Single Village release—both in terms of the color of the mezcal, which barely takes on any tint from its short stay within the wood, and in terms of the packaging, which is identical to the standard release except for either a small gold band around the top of the label.
In terms of flavor, the aged San Luis del Rio, for example, presents thicker notes of caramel sweetness, as well as fruits like cherry and apple alongside savory vegetal notes, white pepper, cinnamon and vanilla, finishing with smoke and citrus. Rich and round as it is, though, there’s never a doubt that your copita is filled with mezcal.
Del Maguey producers are proud of the product they produce, so putting the flavors of pure mezcal in the spotlight seems like an obvious decision. “We have so much respect for what the palenqueros do and that long history, so we’re very conscientious about never making the mezcal about the barrel,” Kalkofen says. “The barrel is in the background adding accents to the really beautiful mezcal.”
While experienced mezcal drinkers like the Del Maguey crew may consider the cask finish series a nice diversion from the traditional agave spirit, Kalkofen points out that the hybrid spirit could also act as an introduction to mezcal for whiskey drinkers. Some drinkers may be resistant to mezcal based on past experiences—usually involving a bottle containing a certain worm-like creature. “Especially for people like that, when you can offer them a mezcal that comes from a barrel from a really reputable bourbon producer, something the drinker has history with and knows, they might be willing to take that chance again, no matter their previous experiences,” she says.
If you are hoping to convert a bourbon drinker to the cult of agave—or if you’re thinking about testing the mezcal waters yourself—you’d better snap up any cask-finished Del Maguey you find because the runs are extremely limited. “There’s not a lot of it,” Kalkofen says, laughing. “Honestly, I don’t know when the next barrels are going to be ready. We just keep tasting it and allow it to do its thing. I have to say ‘no’ or ‘I’m not sure’ to a lot of people. It’s not like we have a big rickhouse someplace filled with barrels.”
For those who can’t get their hands on one of the Stitzel-Weller bottles, Del Maguey has some other exciting projects in the works. Another run is aging in a des Anges cask from Pierre Ferrand, which Kalkofen says arrived with five liters of Cognac still inside. She’s also interested in playing around with various rum barrels in the future, and is thrilled about their ongoing work with sherry casks. “As a bartender, I always enjoyed using sherry and mezcal together, so I think there’s a lot of opportunities there to play around in that partnership. We filled the Bodega Hidalgo barrel with Santo Domingo Albarradas, and tasting it has been absolutely beautiful. Santo Domingo has these floral notes, chocolate in the background, nice bright citrus, and then getting that saline from the manzanilla cask makes a lovely marriage. And that’s special for me because it’s a charity project—profits go to our nonprofit fund for the palenqueros [the Foundation for the Sustainable Development of the Producing Communities of Maguey and Cultural Rescue of Mezcal].”
Even with plenty of new aged batches on the horizon, Del Maguey has no plans to expand into the tequila model of añejo and reposado. And with no set schedule, the team will continue to release the cask-finished mezcals on the spirit’s own time. So keep your eyes peeled for that Pappy finish and pour yourself another copita of the good stuff while you wait.