You can see the equator from the garden in front of the Agave Spirit Ecuador distillery on the outskirts of Quito. Or at least if it was visible – and there weren’t any huge blue agaves blocking the view.
Under a high equatorial sun, Mayra Espinoza guides visitors to one of the works, removes a pre-cut section from the center, and reveals a sweet fountain at its core. “We take what we find and use it to scrape the agave,” she says, holding a small tool called aspina that looks like a spoon head. “Every plant has to be 10 years old before we can start,” she continues. “They can make up to 300 liters at a time, but then they die.”
For centuries, Ecuadorian indigenous Quechua women have harvested wild agaves for dozens of uses, including medicine and weaving. About 50 years ago, people in the countryside found another use: distillation into an alcoholic spirit called miske. In recent years, distilleries have brought the spirit into town, pushed it into bars, and launched an awareness campaign, including the Espinoza-led demonstration, to teach locals and foreigners the unique Ecuadorian way of drinking agave – all while trying while with you Quechua women working together to move from foraging wild agaves to sustainable farming practices.
Drinkers can now find it across Quito, as well as in bars and liquor stores in Florida, New York, and Texas. Or they go to the source in the agave garden where Espinoza works, as part of the museum tour at Agave Spirit Ecuador, an up-and-coming tourist attraction and one of two modern distilleries responsible for Miske in the Cital. Miske’s similarity to other agave spirits is obvious: it’s clear, smells and tastes like a rounder, softer version of tequila, and goes down easily with one shot. Agave Spirit Ecuador also produces a drinkable oak-aged version that is roughly the color of brandy and has rich flavors of caramel and citrus.
“More and more restaurants are using it instead of tequila to get a little 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 they love it in the margarita. We’re starting to experiment with it in other drinks. We tried to make a version of a Bloody Mary with it and it was super interesting. We will also try to prepare a new drink with cocoa nibs to make it still Ecuadorian. ”
Like tequila, Miske is made from blue agave. While distillers disassemble a harvested plant and roast the piña to make tequila, the Ecuadorian drink uses the nectar from the center of a living plant that lives about three months after draining begins. Distillers insist that the unmistakable taste of miske comes from this particularly sweet s and from the special growing conditions at the equator, where plants receive more direct sunlight from above than in Mexico (every Agave Spirit bottle is with the satisfying latitude coordinates of 0 ° 0 . labeled). ‘0 “). Without the global demand for tequila, there was never much pressure to introduce harmful manure harvesting practices. Until recently, virtually all agaves used for mucking were wild and organic. Guests at Agave Spirit Ecuador can even make their own Pot and bless baby agave, which the plant will later plant a little further out of town in the Pomasqui Valley.
Diego Mora, founder of Agave Spirit Ecuador, sees his mission as something bigger than just producing high quality alcohol. Ecuador lacks an official national drink, a symbolic designation that can drive real economic investment in a region, attract tourists, and expand cultural awareness both domestically and abroad. The absence seems especially blatant when you consider that most of Ecuador’s neighbors lay claim to one or the other great drink. Brazil has cachaça, while Chile and Peru argue over who invented pisco. Argentina produces enough Malbec to claim the wine as its national drink, while Colombia does the same with aguardiente, an anise-flavored fire water produced across Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. Ecuador, on the other hand, is comparatively poor and Mora wants Miske to fill the gap.
“We’re working to change that. What we make is the most cultural drink in Ecuador, ”says Mora. “Most South American liquors are made from sugar cane, and it’s 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 plan to establish a Denomination of Origin (DO), which would provide legal guidelines for the manufacture of defects that could prestige liquor on the world stage and attract drinkers both domestically and abroad. But not everyone agrees this is the right move, including Eliot Logan-Hines, owner of Quito’s other main miske distillery, Chawar. “I think it’s kind of stupid. I mean for me [the DO classification] only a few Europeans think their cheese is so cool, ”he says with a laugh. “Right now nobody knows what miske is, so how is it? [the DO] helpful?”
As Mora and Logan-Hines try to educate consumers about miske, the community debates exactly how the liquor should be made, marketed, and even named. In the transliteration from Quechua it could be “chawarmisqui” or “chawarmiski”, translated as “raw-sweet” or “agave-sweet”.
Logan-Hines prefers “Andean Agave”. Like Mora, he spends a lot of time educating. When he started his company in 2019, he struggled to convince potential investors to make a mistake at crowdfunding events. “If it’s so great,” they asked him, “why doesn’t it already exist?”
One of his biggest challenges was to distinguish miske from tequila, which for most consumers is the primary reference point for agave spirit. But Logan-Hines, who has Mexican roots, figured out that the history of tequila actually helps explain what he hopes will happen to mistakes. He says tequila didn’t become popular with Mexican elites until it was widespread in America, and he hopes the same will apply to miske. “Tequila not only became Mexico’s national drink, it became a core part of Mexican identity,” he adds.
Tequila can also be a roadm for the emerging miskeeping industry, helping distillers overcome the challenges of sustainability and cultural property.
As an outsider in Ecuador, Logan-Hines is particularly aware of how he might fit into Miske’s national identity. The native Texan originally came to Ecuador a decade ago to work on a conservation project in the Amazon when he noticed the extraordinary number of blue agaves in the valleys around Quito. He also noticed who is harvesting the nectar.
“In the mountains, it is really the women who maintain the traditions of the agave harvest,” he says. Logan-Hines spent three years learning agave from a community of women in Cayambe who sold raw agave juice on the side of the road. Today, in accordance with pre-distillation traditions, all of Chawar’s nectar is harvested exclusively by indigenous women as part of Mishkita, the country’s first all-female harvest cooperative. As soon as the agave arrives in Chawar, it is fermented spontaneously without the addition of yeast and then double-distilled to achieve an unadulterated taste of the Ecuadorian plant.
“I firmly believe in the cooperative model of agricultural production in Latin America,” explains Logan-Hines. “Much like trade unions, cooperatives are used to organize producers and give them greater bargaining power in supply chains.” A background in agriculture and forestry has helped Logan-Hines find a sustainable way for his mistakes, both for the agave plants in the Soil as well as for the people who harvest it.
“One of the biggest problems we face as we grow is making sure these women continue to benefit from the supply chain,” he continues. “As smallholders, there is a natural limit to how much agave each farm can produce and thus how much income each farming family can generate. By creating sustainable polyculture farms together, the women will be able to plant agaves for the future and, in the meantime, harvest annual crops for additional income or for family consumption. ”
Despite the tough struggle to market a new product during the pandemic, the values and goals behind miske are already right among customers in America. “We’re really into mezcal, and it’s not the same thing, but it also comes from the agave culture,” says Josh Bloom, owner of Duke’s Liquor Box in Brooklyn, one of the outlets that are already importing Miske to Duke’s customers are usually relatively knowledgeable and curious, and miske offers something new. “The microculture surrounding agave juice is great and I think it’s great that women’s groups in cooperatives do so much work. We were really excited about that, ”adds Bloom. “The product is also good. When it came to importing it into the States, it was a breeze. “
And just as Logan-Hines hoped, exporting to America could help Miske find a place in his home country. “It was interesting how much that resonates with Ecuadorian expats,” he says. “When we started in Miami, a couple of Ecuadorians came by and came in. In the end, they celebrated with us all night. “
Jamie Lafferty is a travel writer and photographer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He is Consumer Travel Writer of the Year 2020. You can find more of his work at jamielafferty.com and instagram / travel_journo. Elena is cooking is a freelance illustrator based in London.