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On Tasting Agave Spirits Directly from the Still: What You're Really Sampling

Suggested pairing with this article: Agave Spirits Puntas

I have read several articles lately and seen many social media posts mentioning tasting agave spirits directly from the still.

Seeing these articles and posts lead me to believe that many people do not really know exactly what they are tasting when a sample from the still is presented to them. Authorities and entities providing certification also often taste and judge a spirit by tasting it at the point of distillation and then after it is bottled. Oftentimes, they wonder why a spirit could taste so different between the two which sometimes puts the quality of the producer in question. I think it is important to give some clarity on the matter.

Distillation Background

People in the spirits industry typically know that there are three (or four) parts to a distillation.

  1. Foreshots

  2. Heads / Cabeza

  3. Hearts / Corazón o Cuerpo

  4. Tails / Colas

Foreshots are something to only give to your worst enemy. They are the first four shots of a distillation that automatically get thrown away. It cannot be used for anything due to its toxicity, horrible appearance, and foul smell. Most people don’t even mention this when talking about parts of a distillation. After foreshots, we enter the heads section of the distillation.

Depending on factors like the temperature at the head of the still, taste of the spirit, and ABV will determine whether you are in the heads, hearts, or tails part of a run.

Heads, hearts, and tails are not a black and white thing either. Like liquid, they are fluid.

Parts of the heads bleed into the hearts section, hearts into the tails section, tails into the hearts section of a run.

ABV will start at its highest during the heads section and taper down as time and temperature increases.

A distiller's job is to separate the parts of a run as best as possible to achieve a specific flavor profile or outcome. If a distiller does this enough times for a specific recipe, the process can almost be formulaic.

What You Are Tasting At The Point Of Distillation

When a producer hands you a sample directly from the still, what you are actually tasting is only one very specific part of the run. Likely the hearts section.

The flavor of the hearts section changes drastically during the course of a distillation run. It changes from moment to moment.

Any given spirits run can have incredibly desirable flavors during any given part of the run and sometimes not. It would be a distiller's dream to be able to capture and bottle only one specific section of a run. However the quantities are incredibly small to turn it into a workable product.

The closest you can possibly get to this is when you see a puntas spirit released. Puntas are collected during the heads to hearts section over several batches. Sometimes a distiller may collect puntas for nearly a year before they have enough to bottle. They are then all mixed together and bottled typically at an extremely high proof. Puntas are a very rare bottling, can be expensive, and in my eyes, is liquid gold.

Why A Bottled Spirit Will Always Taste Different From The Still

Now that we have established that if you pull a sample from the still, you are only tasting one part of the run, it should make sense now that typically all parts of a heart's run are mixed together to create a final product. Sometimes in mezcal a final product may be balanced out with parts of the heads and hearts section too.

To take it a few steps further, the flavors are going to develop and marry the longer they sit together.

The plastic, metal, or glass storage tanks that hold the final product before bottling also may have an influence on flavor. Lastly if water is added, that is going to change the flavor as well.

In my eyes, It would be extremely abnormal and maybe even raise some questions to have a bottled spirit taste the exact same as a sample directly pulled from the still.

Sincerely, Greg Rutkowski

Greg is a certified Master of Agave Spirits and a distiller at Finca 18. With a Polish-Mexican background, he moved to Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco from Chicago. Today he dedicates most of his time tending his agaves and giving tours of the distillery.

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