You Should Be Drinking Miske, Ecuador’s Take on the Agave Spirit

You can see the equator from the garden outside the Agave Spirit Ecuador Distillery on the outskirts of Quito. Or at least you could if it was visible – and there weren’t giant blue agaves blocking the view.

Under a high equatorial sun, Myra Espinoza leads visitors on a plant tour, removing a precise section from the center, and uncovering a sweet well at its core. “We take what we find, then we use it to scratch the agave,” she says, holding a tiny tool called an espina, which resembles the head of a spoon. “Each plant needs to be 10 years old before we start,” she continues. “They can generate up to 300 liters each, but after that they die.”

For centuries, the women of the indigenous Quechua people in Ecuador have harvested wild agave for dozens of uses, including medicine, soap, and weaving. About 50 years ago, residents of the countryside found another application: distilling it into an intoxicating spirit called miske. Over the years, distillers have brought the spirit to the city, pushed it into bars, and launched an educational campaign, led by Espinoza, to demonstrate to locals and foreigners the typical Ecuadorian way of drinking agave. To teach about – working with Quechua women all while trying to transition from wild agave farming to establishing sustainable agricultural practices.

Drinkers can now find it at bars and liquor stores throughout Quito, as well as in Florida, New York, and Texas. Or they can visit the source at the Agave Gardens where Espinoza works, part of a tour of the Museum of Agave Spirit Ecuador, a growing tourist attraction and one of two modern distilleries leading the charge on Misque in the capital. Misc’s similarity with other agave spirits is obvious: it’s clear, smells and tastes like a rounder, softer version of tequila, and goes down easily in one shot. Agave Spirit Ecuador also produces a sippy oak-aged version, which is almost the color of brandy and has rich aromas of caramel and citrus.

“More restaurants are starting to use it in place of tequila, some more Ecuadorian,” says Tadeo Agama of Somos, a cocktail bar in Quito’s La Carolina neighborhood. “It’s still a little hard to sell as shots because people don’t really know what it is yet, but in margaritas they love it. We’re starting to experiment with it in other beverages. Tried making a version of a Bloody Mary and it was very interesting. We’ll try and make a new drink with cocoa nibs too, to make it extra Ecuadorian.”

Like tequila, misk is made from blue agave. While distillers pluck a harvested plant and roast the pia to produce tequila, the Ecuadorian drink uses nectar from the center of a live plant, which lasts for about three months after drainage begins. Distillers emphasize that the distinctive flavor of misc comes from this particularly sweet sap, and particularly from growing conditions at the equator, where the plants receive more direct, upward sunlight than in Mexico (each The bottle of agave spirit is labeled with a satisfactory latitudinal coordinate of 0°0.’0″). Without global demand for tequila, there has never been more pressure to introduce harmful harvesting practices for misc. Until time immemorial, almost all agave used for misc was wild and organic. Agave Spirit Ecuadorian guests can also pot and bless their baby agave, which is then planted a little further out of town in the Pomaski Valley .

Diego Mora, founder of Agave Spirit Ecuador, sees his mission as something bigger than just making quality wine. Ecuador does not have an official national drink, a symbolic designation that can promote real-world economic investment in a region, attract tourists, and expand cultural awareness both at home and abroad. The absence is especially evident when you realize that most of Ecuador’s neighbors lay claim to one big drink or another. Brazil has cachaça, while Chile and Peru dispute over who invented pisco. Argentina produces enough malbec to claim the wine as its national drink, while Colombia does the same with aguardiente, a fennel-flavored fire water produced in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. Ecuador, meanwhile, is comparatively powerless, and Mora wants Miske to fill the void.

“We are working towards changing that. What we are making is the most cultural drink in Ecuador,” Mora says. “Most South American wine comes from sugarcane, and it is not native. Sugar came with the Spanish and has only been on the continent for 500 years. Agave has always been here.”

Mora and his team have a plan to establish a Denomination of Origin (DO), which can provide legal guidelines for making wrongdoing, reputation globally, and drinkers at home and abroad. can attract. But not everyone agrees it’s the right move, including Eliot Logan-Hines, owner of Quito’s other primary misc distillery, Chavar. “I think it’s stupid. I mean, to me [the DO classification] A group of Europeans are thinking their cheese is too good,” he says with a laugh. “At the moment no one knows what Misak is, so how is it?” [the DO] Helpful?”

Even as Mora and Logan-Hines seek to educate consumers about misc, the community debates how spirit should be made, marketed, and even That name should also be given. In transliteration from Quechua, it can be “chavarmiski” or “chavarmiski”, which can be translated as “raw-sweet” or “agave-sweet”.

Logan-Hines prefers “Andean Agave.” Like Mora, he also spends a lot of time on studies. When he started his business in 2019, he had trouble convincing potential investors to prove him wrong at a crowdfunding event. “If it’s great,” he asked her, “then why doesn’t it already exist?”

One of their main challenges is separating misc from tequila, which is the defining reference point on agave spirits for most consumers. But Logan-Hines, who has Mexican heritage, has found that tequila’s history really helps explain what will happen to misc. He says that tequila didn’t become popular among the Mexican elite until it became widespread in America, and he hopes the same will hold true for Misque. “Tequila became not only the national drink of Mexico, but a staple of Mexican identity,” he says.

Tequila could also provide a roadmap for the budding misc industry, helping distillers meet the challenges of sustainability and cultural ownership.

As an outsider in Ecuador, Logan-Hines is particularly attuned to how he can fit into Miske’s national identity. The native Texan originally came to Ecuador to work in the Amazon on a conservation project a decade ago, when he saw extraordinary numbers of blue agaves in the valleys around Quito. He also saw who was harvesting the nectar.

“It’s really the women in the mountains that maintain the agave harvesting traditions,” he says. Logan-Hines spent three years learning about agave from a community of women in Caymbe who sold raw agave juice along the highway. Today, in keeping with pre-distillation traditions, all of Chavar’s nectar is harvested exclusively by indigenous women as part of Mishkita, the country’s first women’s harvesting cooperative. Once the agave is in the chive, it is spontaneously fermented without any added yeast, then double distilled, providing an unsweetened flavor of the Ecuadorian plant.

“I am a strong believer in the cooperative model of agricultural production in Latin America,” explains Logan-Hines. “Similar to trade unions, cooperatives serve as a way to organize producers and give them strong negotiating power in the supply chain.” His background in agriculture and forestry has helped Logan-Hines to plot a sustainable route for his misk for both the agave plants in the ground and the people who harvest them.

“One of the biggest problems we face is how to ensure that these women continue to benefit from the supply chain,” he adds. “As smallholder farmers, there is a natural limit to how much each farm can produce and therefore how much income each farming family can earn. By working together to build a sustainable, polyculture farm, women will be able to plant agave for the future and in the meantime harvest annual crops for supplemental income or family consumption. ”

Despite the uphill battle of marketing a new product during the pandemic, the values ​​and goals behind Miske are already clicking with customers in the US. “We’re really into mezcal, and it’s not just the same, but it also comes from the agave culture,” says Josh Bloom, owner of Duke’s Liquor Box in Brooklyn, which is already one of the outlets importing mezcal to the US. is.” Duke’s customers are relatively knowledgeable and curious, and Miske has something new to offer. “The microculture surrounding agave juice is great and I love that this group of women in co-ops are doing so much. It really excites us,” says Bloom. “Plus, the product is good So when it came time to import it to the states, it was a no brainer.”

And, as Logan-Hines hoped, exporting to the U.S. could help Miske find a place in his home country as well. “It has been interesting how much it resonates with Ecuadorian expatriates,” he says. “When we launched in Miami, some Ecuadorians were just walking past and came in. They partyed with us all night.”

Jamie Lafferty is a travel writer and photographer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He is the Consumer Travel Writer of the Year for 2020. You can find more of his work here and instagram/travel_journo. Elena Boiles is a freelance illustrator based in London.

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