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Puntas — a High-ABV, Hyper-Traditional Style of Mezcal — Is Going Commercial

It was at the end of a tasting at Eli’s Mezcal Room, an underground mezcal tasting experience located in a local man’s New York apartment, when host “Eli” (not his real name) pulled out one final bottle he thought might interest me: an unlabeled plastic water bottle he had suitcased back from Mexico. It was extraordinarily aromatic and I could smell its vegetal, medicinal notes the second the Poland Spring’s lid was unscrewed. It likewise had a rich, intense, burning flavor — no surprise as it was nearly 70 percent ABV.

When alcohol comes off a still, the distiller cuts it into three parts, each descending in alcohol content, and generally referred to as the heads, the heart, and the tails. The most toxic elements, like methanol, are concentrated in the heads and tails, meaning many distillers across all spirits categories only bottle the hearts to be safe.

But this special mezcal Eli had served me was actually composed of all heads, which, besides methanol, also possess some incredibly aromatic, flavorful compounds like propanol, ethyl lactate, acetic acid, and furfural.

I was told this style of mezcal was called puntas.

Though formerly the (strictly non-exported) handiwork of hyper-traditional mezcal, of late, puntas offerings are becoming increasingly commercialized and the category has even infiltrated the tequila world.

Puntas on the Palenque

Until recently, most Americans who would have tried puntas (the Spanish word for points, a synonym for heads) probably did so in a similar way to what I did. There aren’t really any commercial examples of it and, quite frankly, bottlings like the one I tasted might not even be legally allowed to be sold in this country for a variety of reasons.

“It’s definitely much more common to find it at the palenque (mezcal distillery),” says Noah Arenstein, who runs the mezcal program at The Cabinet in New York’s East Village. “Because either it’s being used to blend back into the final mezcal and adjust the ABV and flavor … or they’re saving it to drink for themselves.”

If The Cabinet has one of the world’s largest mezcal collections, the bar only has a few commercial examples of puntas. Indeed, Mezcal Reviews, an online database with over 1,800 mezcals listed, has only cataloged 11 puntas bottlings over the years.

La Venenosa Racilla Puntas is the first example Arenstein recalls seeing on shelves, circa 2016. (While also agave-based, raicilla is not the same as mezcal or tequila.) Cinco Sentidos shipped its first batch of Puntas de Espadín to the U.S. market in 2021. Two years earlier, Mal Bien had started offering Madrecuixe Puntas, which the producer called “the platonic ideal that we imagine spirits to be. Agave, boiled down to its very essence, the plant stripped of everything but its soul.”

“This was always something we would produce at the distillery, ever since we started producing in 2007.”

Arenstein finds all the puntas releases have a unique, specific taste. “You get almost a hand sanitizer note,” he says. “You put it on your hand and it evaporates like, you know, a hand sanitizer without lotion would. It has a lightness and kind of effervescence to it.”

If that doesn’t sound too appealing, there’s the somewhat taboo aspect of drinking puntas to consider. Haven’t we long been told that heads are solvent-y in taste and dangerous to drink — not only high in ABV but high in methanol content. And can’t that make you go blind?!

“If I’m pouring puntas for someone I will sometimes preface it with that,” Arenstein says. While a well-cut puntas is certainly safe to drink in small portions, Arenstein admits he has definitely encountered mezcaleros (distillers) with a cloudy-eyed look that has made him wonder, if not concerned.

The Distiller’s Cut

Admittedly, any concerns Arenstein has are not enough to stop him from drinking delicious examples of the style as more and more expressions hit the market. And it’s not just mezcal (and raicilla) producers now sending puntas expressions stateside.

“This was always something we would produce at the distillery, ever since we started producing Ocho in 2007” says Jesse Estes, global brand ambassador for Tequila Ocho. “If someone came to visit the distillery, we could serve [them] some, much like when you visit a palenque in Oaxaca or wherever and they break out this very special unmarked bottle or jerry can of puntas.”

“There’s bad borrowing that’s happening from the mezcal world and there’s some good borrowing. And in a way this feels like a good borrowing.”

Tequila Ocho doesn’t simply bottle the entire heads cut, which would contain too many unwanted compounds. Instead, legendary master distiller Carlos Camarena makes a cut right at the end of the heads through the very beginning of the hearts.

“It’s a very narrow cut,” Estes says.

By 2021, Tequila Ocho was ready for a commercial release. Then, as is the case now, puntas was hardly a household term, nor was it one like, say, pechuga that became trendy enough during the 2010s to help sell bottles to enthusiasts. So to better explain the concept of Plata Puntas, the bottle labels it a “distiller’s cut.”

“I think distillation can get really complicated and geeky to the average person,” Estes says, “so we wanted to help people understand what makes this different and unique and special.”

The first release, produced from agave from the La Ladera estate, and distilled at La Alteña, which has been the Camarena family’s distillery since 1937, was cut at 64 percent ABV, though diluted with water to 101 proof. (While a traditional mezcal puntas would never be diluted, tequila can’t legally be bottled in America at higher than 110 proof or 55 percent ABV.)

It quickly became a cult hit, well reviewed on sites like Tequila Matchmaker where it currently scores a crowd-sourced average of 90 among the site’s community. It was also most mainstream tequila drinkers’ first introduction to the old mezcal term puntas. (In Jalisco, distillers use the more literal translation for heads: cabezas.)

“There’s bad borrowing that’s happening from the mezcal world and there’s some good borrowing. And in a way this feels like a good borrowing,” Arenstein says, referring to Ocho’s use of the term. (Estes is quick to note that Camarena’s great-grandfather was making what was known as “vino de mezcal” well before tequila was even a term or category.)

A second release, Tequila Ocho Plata Puntas 2023 Mesa Colorada, arrived last fall, this one distilled at the brand’s new highlands home, Tequilera Los Alambiques. Composed of a blend of two different heads cuts at 64.8 percent and 71 percent ABV, it was diluted with well water down to 106 proof. The release immediately elicited a fervor among the online tequila community, and featured in VinePair’s 50 Best Spirits of 2023.

Like many modern limited-release tequilas — only 1,100 cases produced — and especially those of a higher proof, Plata Puntas 2023 has quickly become sought out by collectors, with most retail shops sold out and secondary market prices for the $74.99 MSRP bottle now hovering around $300.

While Plata Puntas is high-proof like many of the still-strength tequila releases that have become de rigueur in recent years, its aroma, flavor profile, and texture differ. Tequila Ocho’s standard Blanco has more fresh green herbaceous notes like spearmint and eucalyptus, while Plata Puntas has an almost caramelized agave note leaning toward candy apple with hints of cinnamon and spice, marzipan, and vanilla (despite the lack of any barrel influence).

“It’s like a turbo-charged blanco,” Estes says.

It’s terrific stuff and one of the better tequila releases I tried last year. Which makes me wonder if other brands will soon latch onto the trend, much like they did with pechuga and still strength, and begin releasing their own takes on puntas.

“It would be gratifying to see other people follow suit,” Estes says. “But I guess time will tell.”

The article Puntas — a High-ABV, Hyper-Traditional Style of Mezcal — Is Going Commercial appeared first on VinePair.

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