Distiller Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal transforms Mexico’s native grain.
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Bottles
Credit: Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Emily Nabors Hall / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

If you want a whiskey that really speaks to where it's from, distiller Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal feels you should consider Abasolo. It's a corn whiskey, made in Mexico, which is essentially the birthplace of corn: Zea mays, to give the ubiquitous ears their scientific name, was first domesticated more than 8,000 years ago in what is now southern Mexico. Originally a wild grass with small, lentil-like kernels, today it's one of the most planted crops on earth, feeding livestock, turned into sweetener, distilled into ethanol to blend into gasoline, and yes, eaten by us.

But Saldaña Oyarzábal, creator of Montelobos Mezcal and Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, had another idea. His whole career has been devoted to plants and what to do with them. He decided to study molecular biology at 18 and earned a PhD in plant biology and biochemistry at 24. "I fell in love," he says. "Although plants are 'boring,' apparently, and don't move, what occurs inside them is crazy. Plants have to find biological solutions to avoid or confront adversity, for instance, while being trapped in a specific place."

That fascination led to a career distilling agave, and later ancho chiles—unusual, but as it turns out, delicious. But a question kept nagging at him: Why, in a country with such an abundance and diversity of corn—dozens of varieties—did Mexico have such a limited number of spirits derived from it?

That put Saldaña Oyarzábal's mind to work, and after testing dozens of corn subspecies, he picked an ancient, non-GMO variety, cacahuazintle (also known as choclo); its plump, conical kernels are often used in posole and other stews. (American whiskies typically use yellow dent corn, a common livestock feed.) But an ancestral grain wasn't enough: Traditional methods also seemed necessary, so for Abasolo, Saldaña Oyarzábal landed on nixtamalization, a process where kernels are soaked in an alkaline lime bath before being ground to make masa for tortillas or tamales. It makes the corn more nutritious and increases its flavor and aroma.

The result is a truly Mexican whiskey. It doesn't pretend to be a bourbon. Lighter and more delicate, pale gold in hue, it suggests warm toasted corn, with a touch of vanilla from the oak barrels it's aged in. It's an ideal summer sipping whiskey; save rich, long-aged bourbons for cooler weather. (Saldaña Oyarzábal also makes a delicious corn liqueur, Nixta Licor de Elote)

"Historically, whiskey classification has been defined by the traditional Scotch, Irish, and American versions," Saldaña Oyarzábal says. "Instead, we're highlighting the culture of Mexico and our native ingredients." And next up? Two gins that highlight the botanical ingredients of Alta and Baja California—modern-day California and coastal Mexico—another step toward breaking down borders by way of a bottle.

Recipes

Bottles
Credit: Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Emily Nabors Hall / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Jilo Old-Fashioned

Total 5 min; Serves 1

Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal says: "My favorite stirred cocktail with Abasolo is our Jilo Old- Fashioned, named after our distillery in Jilotepec, Mexico. This cocktail uses two products from our distillery: Abasolo and its sister brand Nixta Licor de Elote. Nixta adds sweetness, instead of a traditional sugar cube, and also adds a silky texture, giving even more depth to this old-fashioned."

1/4 cup (2 ounces) Abasolo El Whisky de Mexico

1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) Nixta Licor de Elote

3 dashes Angostura bitters

Large, clear ice cubes

1 (4- x 1-inch) orange peel strip, ends cut on an angle

1 (4- x 1-inch) lemon peel strip, ends cut on an angle

Pour Abasolo, Nixta Licor de Elote, and bitters into a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir 10 seconds, and strain into a rocks glass filled with large, clear ice cubes. Garnish with orange and lemon peel strips. — Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal

Abasolo y Topo Chico

Total 5 min; Serves 1

"Because Abasolo is not a heavily oaked whiskey," says Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal, "it works well in refreshing drinks like this highball. I love mixing it with Topo Chico, another amazing Mexican product. It brings out the sweet, floral notes of corn in our whiskey."

1/4 cup (2 ounces) Abasolo El Whisky de Mexico

Large, clear ice cubes

1/2 cup Topo Chico Mineral Water

1 (6- x 1-inch) orange peel strip, ends cut on an angle

Pour Abasolo into a highball glass filled with large, clear ice cubes. Top with Topo Chico, and garnish with orange peel strip. — Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal