I can be a really contrary bastard sometimes. Well, it’s not me exactly, just my taste buds. They just don’t seem to enjoy being dictated to by the calendar. If it’s St. Patrick’s Day, you can bet they’ll not be feeling the love for Irish whiskey. July 4th, they’ll be jonesing for Peruvian pisco, Italian amari, Japanese single malts... pretty much anything that’s not American. So since Cinco de Mayo is upon us, well, you can tell where this is going, right? I haven’t been in the mood for mezcal in weeks, even though I normally love the stuff. Tequila is probably the last thing I feel like drinking right now. What my taste buds are craving is whiskey, dammit.
And that’s where Douglas French comes in. French put high-end artisanal mezcal on the map a couple of decades ago with his Scorpion brand, at a time when Americans thought of mezcal as rotgut with a worm at the bottom of the bottle. A couple of years ago, he got another brilliant idea: why not make a Mexican whiskey? Corn is, after all, an indigenous Mexican grain, so why should the yanquis north of the border have all the fun distilling it? The result, Sierra Norte, was launched last year and has slowly been rolled out in markets across the U.S.
Sierra Norte is distilled from corn, as is bourbon. But it’s not a bourbon, for three reasons. It’s aged for less than two years; it’s not aged in new charred American oak; and of course it’s not distilled in the States, all of which are requirements for bourbon. It’s similar to American corn whiskey (what? You’ve never tried Mellow Corn? Get on that now!), but it uses native Mexican varietals, which have quite a different flavor profile. So what I’m saying is that Sierra Norte doesn’t really taste like any whiskey I’ve ever had. Which in this case is a great thing.
There are three Sierra Nortes, each one made from a different strain of Oaxacan corn — white, yellow, and black — and they each have a strikingly distinctive flavor. The yellow will be the most familiar to fans of ‘Murican corn likker, with luscious sweet buttered popcorn notes and a long, smooth finish. The white is more interesting, with a big nose of dry roasted corn, while on the palate you’ll find vanilla, almond, and a hint of apple. The finish is surprisingly dry and a tad spicy. The black is my favorite. On the surface it’s dry, almost ashy, but underlaid with sweet vanilla and a bit of banana. The finish leaves a lingering taste of oak and slightly burned popcorn, which tastes a lot better than it reads. All three whiskeys are bottled at 90 proof, but you don’t get any alcoholic burn, even though they’ve spent less than a year in oak. That’s called distilling know-how, friends. I’m sure you could make some pretty nifty cocktails with any of them, but they’re all such enjoyable sippers that I haven’t tried experimenting yet.
So if, like me, you’ve got contrarian taste buds — or you just want to stand out from the crowd this Cinco de Mayo — you finally have an alternative to the margaritas and tequila shots and mezcals that will be shoved in front of you all day. And Sierra Norte’s whiskeys taste pretty terrific the rest of the year, too.