Even in the realm of spirits, “Mexican whiskey” isn’t a phrase you see very often.
And why not, anyway? Mexico has grown corn for uncounted generations, and the majority of any American bourbon (50-plus percent by definition) is distilled from corn as well. Okay, so perhaps rye isn’t in common supply that far south, but wonderful whiskeys have been made with far less. It seems like there would be quite a market for whiskey south of the border, offering an obvious alternative to tequila and mezcal.
And lo, here’s Sierra Norte, a Mexican company making three different single barrel whiskeys from three distinct varieties of corn. Each is a young spirit, aged for “at least 8 months” in French oak, and each has its differences: Yellow Corn Whiskey, White Corn Whiskey and Black Corn Whiskey, although the mash bill on each is 85 percent corn, 15 percent malted barley. Ultimately, we found two of them more palatable than the other. It seems they tend to range from the $40-50 range, in terms of 750 ml bottle prices.
So, let’s get to tasting.
Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey Yellow Corn
Of the three, I found the yellow corn whiskey to be the most reassuringly familiar, and the most similar to 100 percent corn whiskeys I’ve sampled from other craft distillers. The nose is grainy, corny and buttery sweet, recalling fairground popcorn balls, while also being just slightly smoky/roasty.
On the palate, this one actually surprises a bit with a certain fresh, grassy character, before it settles into the corny sweetness that would be more expected. It’s a little bit on the hot side (they’re all 90 proof), with flavors of wildflower honey, caramel and a bit of smoke. There’s a slightly musty quality to the nose that impedes what is otherwise a nice, rich, sweet impression, although I enjoy the exotic touches of spice on the back end, which reminded me of fennel seed/anise. A little bit of mesquite smoke rounds everything out.
All in all, not bad. It’s a bit like a young, corn-heavy bourbon, with with an exotic edge.
Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey White Corn
The white corn is perhaps the most easygoing of the bunch to my palate, which is neither a compliment nor a detractor. On the nose, it’s smooth and sweet, with butterscotch and banana notes.
On the palate, this one seems a bit less wild and a bit less hot in terms of alcohol burn, while packing a good amount of vanilla and some toasted nuttiness. It’s more approachable but less assertive than the yellow corn, although there are some nice spice notes in the closing, which reminded me a bit of a molasses cookie—or maybe a sweet cardamom cookie?
Overall, sweet and easygoing, but perhaps less interesting than the yellow corn bottle.
Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey Black Corn
This one, I’ve got some issues with. I frankly have no idea what distinguishes “black corn” from any other variety, but this whiskey comes across significantly differently from the other two.
On the nose this one is on the nutty side, with grassy notes and a fleeting character that is almost “roasty,” or perhaps I’m simply being transfixed by the idea of “black corn.” Suffice to say, I don’t think this is the case.
On the palate, this one is quite earthy, while also having some not-bad impressions of green apple fruitiness. However, I keep getting hung up on an aspect of the earthiness that seems almost on the “dirty” side, evoking the earthy/funky notes of mushrooms. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem quite right. The final product isn’t offensive, but I wouldn’t be reaching for this again when there are perfectly serviceable yellow and white corn spirits available.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more alcohol writing.