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

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I was having a great time at Eli’s Mezcal Room, a cozy and secret spot in a New York apartment where you can taste amazing mezcals. The host, Eli (not his real name), surprised me with one last bottle that he brought from Mexico. It was just a plain plastic water bottle, but when he opened it, I could smell a strong and complex aroma of herbs and medicine. It tasted even more powerful and fiery — it was almost 70 percent alcohol!

You see, when you distill alcohol, you get three parts: the heads, the heart, and the tails. The heads and the tails have some nasty stuff, like methanol, that can be harmful. That’s why most distillers only use the heart, which is safer and smoother.

But this mezcal was different. It was made from all heads, which also have some amazing flavors and smells, like propanol, ethyl lactate, acetic acid, and furfural.

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He told me this kind of mezcal was called puntas.

Puntas are very rare and traditional. They are not usually sold or exported. They are becoming more popular lately, and even some tequila makers are making them.

Puntas on the Palenque

Most people who have tried puntas probably did it like I did. There are not many commercial brands of it, and it might not even be legal to sell it here.

Noah Arenstein, who runs the mezcal program at The Cabinet in New York’s East Village, says that puntas are more common at the palenque (the place where they make mezcal). “They either use it to blend with the final mezcal and adjust the alcohol and flavor … or they keep it for themselves to drink.”

The Cabinet has one of the world’s largest mezcal collections, but only a few puntas. Mezcal Reviews, an online database, has only listed 11 puntas over the years.

La Venenosa Racilla Puntas was the first one Arenstein saw on shelves, around 2016. (It’s not exactly mezcal or tequila, but it’s also made from agave.) Cinco Sentidos brought its first batch of Puntas de Espadín to the U.S. market in 2021. Two years before, Mal Bien started offering Madrecuixe Puntas, which they called “the purest expression of agave, with nothing but its soul.”

“They always made puntas at the distillery, since they started in 2007.”

Arenstein says that all the puntas have a special taste. “It’s like hand sanitizer,” he says. “It evaporates on your hand like the ones without lotion. It’s light and bubbly.”

Some people might not like that. And some people might think that puntas are dangerous. We’ve heard that heads can make you sick or blind, right?

Arenstein says he warns people before he pours them puntas. But he says that if they are well-made, they are safe to drink in small amounts. He admits he has seen some mezcaleros (the people who make mezcal) with a cloudy look in their eyes that made him wonder.

A possible friendly rewrite is:

Arenstein loves drinking puntas, even though they are rare and risky. And he’s not the only one. More and more puntas are coming to the market, not just from mezcal and raicilla makers, but also from tequila makers.

Jesse Estes, who works for Tequila Ocho, says they have been making puntas at their distillery since 2007. “When people came to visit us, we would share some with them, just like they do in Oaxaca or other places where they make mezcal. They always have a special bottle or can of puntas hidden somewhere.”

He says it’s a good thing that they are borrowing this idea from the mezcal world.

Tequila Ocho doesn’t use the whole heads cut, because it has some bad stuff in it. They only use a small part of it, right at the end of the heads and the beginning of the hearts.

“It’s a very small cut,” Estes says.

In 2021, they decided to sell their puntas to the public. They called it Plata Puntas, which means “silver points”. They also called it a “distiller’s cut”, to make it easier for people to understand what it is.

“Distillation can be very hard and nerdy for some people,” Estes says, “so we wanted to help them see what makes this tequila different and special.”

The first batch of Plata Puntas was made from agave from La Ladera, and distilled at La Alteña, which has been the family distillery since 1937. It was very strong, 64 percent alcohol, but they added some water to make it 101 proof. (They had to do that, because the law says tequila can’t be more than 110 proof in America. Mezcal puntas are never watered down.)

People loved it. It got great reviews on websites like Tequila Matchmaker, where it has a score of 90. It was also the first time many tequila drinkers heard about puntas. (In Jalisco, where they make tequila, they call the heads cut “cabezas”, which means “heads”.)

Arenstein says it’s a good thing that they are using the word puntas, like the mezcal makers do. (Estes says that the family has been making “vino de mezcal” before tequila was even a thing.)

The second batch of Plata Puntas came out last fall. It was made from agave from Mesa Colorada, and distilled at their new distillery, Tequilera Los Alambiques. It was a mix of two different heads cuts, one at 64.8 percent and one at 71 percent alcohol. They added some well water to make it 106 proof. It was a big hit online, and it was one of VinePair’s 50 Best Spirits of 2023.

It was hard to find, though. They only made 1,100 cases, and they sold out fast. Some people are selling them online for a lot of money, like $300 a bottle. The original price was $74.99.

Plata Puntas is different from other tequilas, even the ones that are very strong. Tequila Ocho’s regular Blanco has a fresh and green taste, like mint and eucalyptus. But Plata Puntas has a sweet and spicy taste, like caramelized agave, candy apple, cinnamon, marzipan, and vanilla. And it’s not aged in barrels at all.

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

I think it’s awesome. It’s one of the best tequilas I tried last year. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Source: Vinepair