PORFIDIO|2G SINGLE MALT
single cask #5 (2019)
MASH BILL – 100% malted blue barley
PROOF – 86.8 (cask strength)
AGE – 3 years
DISTILLERY – Porfidio
PRICE – $98
BUY AGAIN? – No, because $$$ not taste
Porfidio specializes in high-end tequila and mezcal products. The company was a significant influence in pushing agave-based spirits into the high-end international liquor market, and not without controversy. A company founded by an Austrian, Martin Grassl, who moved from Switzerland to Mexico in 1991 to start a luxury brand making tequila and mezcal—both traditionally Mexican products—and selling it for $100+ a bottle? The colonial connotations are obvious.
And Grassl was indeed successful. Articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times credited Grassl as a key player in popularizing agave spirits worldwide. Milenio, a major Mexican newspaper, called him an “Enfant Terrible of the tequila industry.” Central and South American producers increased production and international promotion of their own higher end brands, and now agave spirits are widely approached with the same level of connoisseurship as fine wine and whiskey.
Those first two paragraphs make a long and complex story far too short. Apparently Grassl found himself in many very public conflicts with people in the Mexican agave industry who object to what he does. Issues of racism and nationalism arise in arguments for and against the highly successful European and his company.
Agave spirits are not at all my area of expertise, so I cannot speak to the controversies surrounding Grassl and Porfidio with any erudition. But it’s a familiar pattern, and always culturally revealing. Fine wine expanded internationally from Europe outward, with Euro purists fervently denouncing as ridiculous the very idea of a California Chardonnay. Beer, arguably the most “common” liquor, is now made everywhere and studied with the enthusiasm and attention to detail once given only to fine European wine. Whiskey went from a farmer’s practicality—making the most of grain crops that would otherwise go to waste—to “unicorn” products for which people twist themselves in knots to get a bottle and then never drink it, displaying it instead like a trophy.
Around the world, local alcoholic beverages are infused with cultural and national significance. The rivalry between Kentuckians and Tennesseeans over whether or not Tennessee whiskey is bourbon. Eyebrows raised over the lack of rules governing Japanese whisky as compared to the more strict Scottish, Irish, and American rules. Class distinctions between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. The fury that greeted a New York Times decision to make “whiskey” their official spelling rather than “whisky.”
Porfidio’s innovations include their packaging designs and marketing strategies, their international aims—which now include further collaborations with Indian and Australian partners—as well as their commitments to ethical land and water preservation, participation in biofuel studies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, and sourcing their agave from micro-farmers rather than agro-corporations.
So the Porfidio phenomenon is a mixed bag of issues, which I look forward to studying further.
But the subject of this blogsite is whisk(e)y. And on the very last page of Porfidio’s slick online catalogue, a single whisky appears. It is the only whisky Porfidio makes.
When I caught sight of the bottle at a local shop, I thought someone had mistakenly placed a tequila or mezcal in the whiskey section. At a glance, the bottle design and labeling looked distinctly agave. Even the color of the whisky seemed Añejo-like, just a bit of aging in the barrel to give it some color. I picked the bottle up and was immediately struck by its level of detail and transparency:
I’d not seen a whisky label with that level of information before. In fact, in all my own Google rabbit-holing, thus far only the Virginia Distillery Company website has exhibited a similar level of transparency. That Porfidio was providing so much info upfront made an impression. I was sold!
It was only after I brought the bottle home and began to look into its enigmatic maker that I understood how unusual the whisky was. But was it good?
I uncorked it right away. Indeed, the nose was almost agave-like, slightly smokey with strong barley grain, hay and straw notes, as well as honey, melted butter and a toasted citric zing. The taste had a buttery texture and flavor, with fruity barley notes and that toasty citric zing. The finish carried a glowing warmth, like the color, with apricot notes, some tropical fruit notes I couldn’t quite place (maybe papaya or mango), toasted butter, and a citric bitter edge of lemon and orange peel. It was quite definitely a young whisky. But surprisingly refreshing, with savory and sweet notes complimenting each other in a crisp, autumnal way. A bright warming comfort drink for a chilly day.
That was two weeks ago and I’ve not touched it since. I wanted to let it sit and to do some more digging into its origins. Now I’m ready for a second go of it. Here first are some brief notes of the second pour, taken two weeks on from uncorking and tasted in a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – pale straw, hay and lemon yellows, the clarity of the whisky taking up surrounding colors beautifully
NOSE – that light agave-like smokiness, crystal clear barley malt, hints of honey, lemon, freshly sanded wood
TASTE – sweet and savory barley malt, buttery texture and flavor, a lemony zing around the edges, toasted honey on fresh whole-grain bread, bright wood notes that are at once familiar and foreign to my sense memories
FINISH – the butter, honey, and barley malt notes lingering together, with a light and bright peppery tingle
OVERALL – youthful, refreshing, unusual
Maybe it’s the power of suggestion, or maybe it’s real. But this does taste to me like a whisky made by people who love their agave spirits. Again, my palate is notably uneducated when it comes to tequila and mezcal. I’d say I’m before the beginning of my agave journey, merely at the contemplation point. But I’ve had enough of it to recognize an influence here.
I’m so curious to apply this to cocktails that would traditionally use tequila or mezcal, and likewise to apply it toward a traditional Scotch-based cocktail like a Highball or a Blood & Sand. (So I did! Three ounces of San Pellegrino, two ounces of Porfidio, and half an ounce of fresh lime juice in a chilled glass made for a tasty drink.)
Porfidio|2G is at once familiar and unfamiliar. White oak barrels are the go-to in American whiskey, yet this whisky was aged in Australian white oak. So there is a terroir difference that I am unfamiliar with.
It makes me think of cultural foods that travel with immigrants to new lands and must be made there with local ingredients, thus reflecting the lived experience of their makers and the multiple geographic influences that shape their lives and identities. One can make Mexican food in the United States. But unlike the recipe and making-methods, the ingredients will be North American. This means it’s not Mexican food but Mexican-American food, and an opportunity for many discussions and cultural exchanges.
Similarly, in the taste profile of Porfidio|2G I can discern Mexican and Scottish influences. The other apparent influences—Australian, Austrian, Swiss—I only know exist from reading about them. I don’t yet have the sensorial education to pick them out.
The oak barrels, for example. I can taste oak influences here. But they are adjacent to the more familiar American oak influences my palate is accustomed to. This is akin to how my familiarity with Mexican food is largely shaped by San Francisco Bay Area Mexican food, which I can guess, even when made by Mexican immigrants, does not taste quite like the same dishes made in Mexico, a place I’ve yet to visit.
Porfidio|2G 100% Blue Barley Single Malt is thus an international affair. Despite its exacting process, it is the opposite of “purist.” It is multi-national and multi-cultural by design, a very different goal than a local spirit. (It is also multi-generational, as this whisky was conceived and produced by Grassl’s son, Emiliano Grassl.) As noted already, therein lies an opportunity for many interesting and important conversations. The story of Porfidio is the story of international exchange, which includes stories of generosity and innovation alongside stories of colonialism, oppression, and cultural appropriation.
If a whisky can help a group of people seated together at a table have those discussions productively, I’m for it. Purely as a tasting experience, I don’t find Porfidio|2G Whisky to be a revelation or something I’d for any reason continue to seek out. But as an overall experience, I find it uniquely intriguing and a tasty opportunity for sharing, for learning, and for meaningful conversation.