Mezcal de Pechuga: It’s a Meaty Mystery

Step aside beer-can chicken. Poultry is the special ingredient that lends a subtle touch to a traditional, distinctly flavorful, small-batch variety of mezcal—the problem is, nobody seems to know why.

Devon Trevathan Feb 1, 2024 - 11 min read

Mezcal de Pechuga: It’s a Meaty Mystery Primary Image

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American drinkers have become familiar with mezcal, at least in name—and in its relationship to tequila, another agave spirit distilled in Mexico that falls under mezcal’s umbrella. Yet they’re still largely unaware of one of its most interesting subcategories: mezcal de pechuga.

While articles discussing this unusual spirit have popped up sporadically over the past decade or so, most liquor stores typically don’t stock it. There’s no mystery as to why: Productions of mezcal de pechuga tend to be small, and bottles—when they make it to the United States—tend to be expensive, sitting on the shelf somewhere between $100 and $300.

The Meat of It

Why is mezcal de pechuga so beguiling? At least in part, it’s the sheer oddity. Pechuga translates to breast, referring most often to chicken breast. In this case, it’s not just an amusing figure of speech. To make mezcal de pechuga, distillers suspend the raw protein—usually chicken or turkey—inside the still, above the liquid, during a second or third distillation.

While the meat is suspended there, steam rises and breaks down the protein, cooking and stripping most of it off the bone during the process. Fatty acids and flavor molecules fall or drip down into the distillate, supposedly giving the spirit a fuller body and subtle savory notes. Mezcal makers also may include fruits, spices, herbs, and nuts in the pot still via maceration. Following batch distillations, the function of the final distillation is to extract flavor into the spirit, rather than rectify it. However, some distillers marry the two, including the protein, fruits, herbs, and other ingredients during the second run.


The Murky Origins of “Breast Wine”

There isn’t an abundance of recorded history about mezcal de pechuga’s origin. Many suspect the practice to only be as old as the 1940s—the same era that saw mezcal “worms” show up in certain bottles. However, that famous gimmick had obvious and intended results: A wave of bottles of mezcal with a worm at the base washed throughout the United States, fueled by stories circulated of its mythical qualities and mysterious history. The same cannot be said for mezcal de pechuga, which remains a rare and expensive spirit here and—unlike mezcal con gusano—has a tradition of consumption back in Mexico.

Deeper research reveals that pechuga is mentioned in printed documentation at least all the way back to 1863, which would make the practice more than 150 years old. That implies that its purposes were more than just marketing.

In the book Memoria Sobre El Maguey Mexicano Y Sus Diversos Productos, written by D. Manuel Payno and published that year, a passage refers to pechuga amid a wider conversation discussing maguey and its related products. In it, the author discusses wine (vino), and his use of the word could cause confusion. It could be referring to a fermented liquid, or it could refer to a concept such as “low wines”—the name that distillers use for the result of the first distillation, which is much lower in alcohol (4 to 20 percent ABV, on average) before rectification brings it to a higher proof.

After he discusses redistilling in colloquial detail, the author writes: “Hay un vino que—rectifican añadiéndole gallina y no recuerdo qué otras cosas bien poco volátiles, que llaman vino de pechuga, el cual lo preparan solamente para regalo.” We can translate that to: “There is a wine that they rectify by adding chicken—and I don’t remember which other much less volatile things—that they call ‘breast wine,’ which they prepare only as gifts.”

Pechuga is sometimes referred to as a “harvest mezcal” because many of its ingredients—plums, pineapples, apples, plantains, and other wild fruits—are ripe during the period from November to January. Its production is artisanal; this is not a distillation rapidly pumping its ferments into a continuous column still, with a chicken carcass shoved in the doubler—though that might not be a bad idea. When made in its home country, mezcal de pechuga is given, shared, or enjoyed as part of a celebration—a gift, as Payno wrote—particularly for important rites of passage such as marriages, birthdays, and baptisms.


Whole families come together to forage the ingredients they’ll add to the pot for their pechuga’s final run.

El Sabor de la Pechuga: Theories

Certain questions swirl around the story of pechuga.

One is whether the reason for including the chicken in the distillation is to mask an inferior product, as is sometimes claimed. It’s true that the rules for mezcal de pechuga are less strict—it doesn’t need to be made from specific varieties of agave. It’s also true that the more common and less expensive Espadin agave is typically used to make the base distillate; the distillers are going to add more flavors during redistillations, anyway. That by no means indicates that the base distillate is inferior.

Considering this style of mezcal is distilled on only special dates throughout the year and that its consumption in Mexico is reserved for those symbolic times, the assertion that it’s a process used to mask poorly made distillate doesn’t seem accurate. It may be true that mezcaleros at some point introduced fruits, herbs, nuts, and other ingredients to temper sharp flavors in crude mezcals. But the same could be said about juniper’s inclusion in medicinal distillates in Flanders centuries ago—part of the story of how gin came to be. Anyway, distilling with chicken to mask sharp flavors hardly makes sense, considering that any amount of flavor that could come from the chicken would be modest at most.

That begs another question: What does distilled poultry taste like? Does a mezcal de pechuga—like the serpents sampled by Christopher Columbus and described in his log in 1492—actually taste like chicken?


In biologist Joe Staton’s 1998 article, “Tastes Like Chicken?”—published in the Annals of Improbable Research—he compares the cooked flavors of a variety of tetrapods, including chicken, against an outgroup of non-tetrapods, and he found that the taste of chicken was shared by various other four-limbed vertebrae. Snapping turtle, iguana, alligator, goose, and pigeon were all reported to have a chicken-like flavor, versus beef-like or pork-like. The flavor itself is said to be mild, and its texture is uniform, creating a comforting protein that took over the kitchens of households around the globe.

There is also the matter of the Maillard reaction. “Maillard reaction is usually what we think of as all that meaty, chickeny flavor,” says Brad Berron, associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Kentucky. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars in the presence of heat. It results in the browning of food and other ingredients, which produces certain aromas and flavors. So, much of what we believe is the taste of chicken involves the Maillard reaction; after all, we don’t typically eat chicken raw or undercooked.

However, in the case of mezcal de pechuga, because the chicken is suspended over the distillation, it avoids the Maillard reaction. Any browning is minimal, so we wouldn’t necessarily get whatever flavor elements remind us of a grilled chicken breast. We have to consider, as Dr. Berron says, “what compound would come out with high heat but not Maillard reactions.”

One potential answer is that certain proteins are known to grab onto and bind other elements within a mixture; it could be that proteins are grabbing flavors within the already distilled spirit in its liquid phase and passing them over into the final distillate.

Avenues for Pechuga Research

Unfortunately, there isn’t a readily accessible study to tell us what the chemical composition of mezcal de pechuga is—and one that compares it to the same mezcal base as a control would be ideal.


However, the academic journal Food Chemistry did publish a paper that compares the active aroma compounds in two kinds of chicken broth—one made with native Chinese chickens, the other with swiftly produced broiler chickens. Essentially, the study found that native chickens had a richer, more complex aroma profile, but it got there by using a few different scientific methods to measure specific aroma compounds.

According to the study, research has identified more than 621 volatile components in chicken meats and products since in the 1950s. (These include aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, acids, esters, furanones, pyrazines, sulfur-containing compounds, and hydrocarbons.) In this study, aroma-active compounds that show up in chicken products include acetaldehyde, methylpropanal, hexanal, heptanal, and benzaldehyde—some of which may be familiar to distillers from their own productions.

At the University of Kentucky, Dr. Berron says that there are some compounds coming from the chicken that could alter flavor, “but traditionally, these are paired with some pretty strong aromatics. So, I feel like compared to what you’re going to get from adding these different fruits and other herbs, these [chicken compounds] are going to be pretty subtle.”

Lest we forget: While chicken breast might be the most talked-about ingredient added to the pot during a mezcal de pechuga distillation, it’s hardly the only one—fruits, herbs, nuts, and spices are all typical.

Until someone conducts a more formal analysis of its resulting distillate, the truth of a protein’s flavor impact during distillation may remain a mystery. Mezcal de pechuga, however, will continue to be a special pour for anyone fortunate enough to try it.

Devon Trevathan is a freelance trade writer as well as the cofounder and co-owner of Liba Spirits, a nomadic distilling company. She has held a variety of positions related to beverage alcohol: bartender, server, writer, brand ambassador, marketing consultant, tour guide, wine manager. Follow her on Instagram @devlovesbev for updates on the journey of owning a distilling company but mostly pictures of her dog Gilberto.