Condesa: Gin from Mexico City
Founded in 2015, Condesa produces its gin in small batches, handmade and distilled in Mexico City. We interviewed the three founders Ben Brooksby, Jordi Nieto and Hillhamn Salome, who is also the Maestra Destiladora, to find out a little more about their vision.
Can you tell us about how you got the idea of creating an entirely Mexican gin?
Condesa Gin was born to bring to the world a Mexico beyond agave and desert dust. There have been many beautiful stories told of agave artisans in Jalisco and Oaxaca, of red sand, dry air and rugged craftsmanship. In the world outside its borders, this has become the prevailing image of Mexico. Mexico City is a delightful surprise to those who've come to think this way. It is a beautifully green, outrageously creative, world class cultural capital that, for those in the know, stakes its rightful claim amongst the artistic and gastronomic capitals of the world. We started this project to show proudly a contemporary, elevated Mexico. Through gin, a storied spirit which many believe belongs to austere European capitals, we have the opportunity to bring Mexico into a cultural space where we believe it has every right to be, and every right to excel.
Mexico is home to two elements that make our gin truly world class. First of all, Mexico is one of the world's few super-diverse ecosystems. Its array of indigenous and introduced flora give our small workshop an incredibly diverse array of unique botanicals to study and work with.
Secondly, the botanicals we work with in each of our gins are inspired by rituales de curandera (shamanistic rituals) which have been used by Mesoamerican healers since antiquity for the cleansing of the body, mind and spirit. We focus on herbs to cleanse negative energy, flowers to attract love and resins to expand consciousness. By fusing ancient tradition with a modern, elevated attitude and aesthetic, Condesa Gin was born, as la ginebra de Mexico.
Our small workshop works each ingredient by hand, a process demanded by the seasonal variations of our ingredients. Mexican limes are carefully cut by hand to remove only the fresh, green peel, and not the white pith underneath. Prickly pear (the fruit of the Mexican desert cactus) is harvested in its limited season each year, and cut and dried in the sun. Palo santo, a deeply fragrant native wood is macerated separately to all other botanicals and added gradually to achieve a consistent balance as the woods characteristics chance through the seasons. Everything we do is in response to the seasons, and done with the same obsessive care as our very first bottle for friends and family.
Xoconostle (Cactus fruit)
Can you tell us about the first steps to realise this project and any difficulties you encountered?
Our project started with diving into Hillhamn’s vast knowledge of Mexican botanicals. We worked through countless combinations of them, pulling at times from Hillhamn’s own garden.
Working with a 20 litre post still in the kitchen of a residential house in Bosque de las Lomas, we experimented with various species, various levels and different maceration techniques. We knew we had some heroes as important and emblematic to Mexico such as palo santo, prickly pear and Mexican lime.
Firstly, the precise treatment of palo santo was a considerable challenge. The wood can vary significantly in its oil content and potency. Just days of it sitting in different heat and light conditions can change the flavour profile profoundly. Moreover, almost like the same grape varietals grown in different terroir, its potency and characteristics can change depending on where and when it is sourced. We found that in our Clasica Gin, palo santo needed to be treated like the star it is. We ended up macerating and distilling it entirely separately to the main maceration, and adding this distillate to the master distillation separately as the gin is stretched with filtered water and grain neutral spirit.
Secondly, some of our favourite ingredients lacked recognition in the United States and Europe for inclusion in beverage alcohol. Some of those left regrettably on the workshop table were raiz de oro, or “golden roots”, a fascinating analgesic botanical which leaves your lips tingling. We are working on having some of these botanicals, used for centuries locally, more widely recognized.
Our small workshop experimented with Juniperus deppeana, sometimes called alligator juniper for its distinctive scales. As a genus, juniper, despite being called a berry, is actually more accurately a seed pod, and on this particular species, the scales are very pronounced, showing individual outlines much like the skin of an alligator. The resulting distillates from this species were extremely bitter and hard to properly balance. Our battle with this species is not over, but for our two permanent expressions, we use high quality imported European juniper as a base on which to build our world class gins.
Lastly, came our challenge to meet local demand. We were picked up by Mexico City’s culinary royalty, featuring on the cocktail menu of Enrique Olvera’s iconic Pujol. With this attention, as you can imagine, a 20L pot still and a residential kitchen were quickly outgrown. As the boxes and orders came in, we expanded the distillery to what it is today, with two 400L pot stills, handmade by the same artisans in Mochoacan who made the original 20L still. Through the expansion, we meticulously kept the ingredients selection and treatment exactly the same, with Mexico City’s reliable sunshine allowing us to dry ingredients in the fresh air as we always did.
Today the team is growing strongly, and boasts people from all over the world, a testament to modern, cosmopolitan Mexico City. Its founding team Jordi Nieto Riera, Ben Brooksby and Hillhamn Salome hailing from Barcelona, Australia, and Mexico City itself and is now supplemented by a distillation team of seven, and the small army of die-hard fans is growing. Today we are unbelievably proud to join the Velier team to bring our creation to Italy.
What does Condesa mean?
The name "Condesa Gin", which means "countess" in English, comes from the leafy barrio of La Condesa, a thriving and artistic neighborhood of Mexico City (CDMX), full of the sounds of live music, and littered with world class dining, bars, art galleries, and coffee shops.
Traditionally, this is a men’s world, even though things are gradually changing: can you tell us whether you had any difficulties in this respect?
I did face a lot of difficulties as I was growing up within the industry, especially when I was younger. I encountered people who would diminish my work for the simple fact that I was a woman. While this is changing, the process, particularly in the distilling world, is a slow one. As the world catches up, I continue to take pride in the creation of a safe space for women, who work alongside men in the distillery and in the wider brand. I am proud that they come to work and see a woman in a position of leadership. Overall, though, what my experience taught me was to create equal opportunities wherever I could.
What about the alcohol that you use for your gin?
We use a super premium grain neutral spirit as the base alcohol. This spirit is derived from grains sourced right here in Mexico, including rye, corn, barley, and wheat.
The grain neutral spirit provides an ideal canvas for our carefully chosen botanicals to express their full range of flavors. It's essentially a high-proof alcohol that has been distilled to a point where it's virtually flavorless. This allows the distinct flavors of our botanicals to shine through without competing with any underlying taste from the spirit itself.
Furthermore, using this grain neutral spirit assures a smooth, clean taste to the final product, enhancing the overall drinking experience, whether the gin is enjoyed neat or in a cocktail.
Can you tell us about the botanicals you chose and the type of distillation you are using?
Let's start with our Condesa Gin Clasica. The blend of botanicals is thoughtfully selected to bring out a refreshing and complex flavor profile. We use juniper berries, coriander seeds, elderflower, lavender, rosemary, lemon peel, and orange peel for the primary maceration. These botanicals infuse the gin with earthy, citrus, and herbaceous flavors that form the base notes of our gin.
What really sets the Condesa Gin Clasica apart are the separate macerations we do with palo santo, myrrh, and jasmine. Palo santo, in particular, gives the gin a uniquely resinous, earthy, and meditative quality. The inclusion of myrrh and jasmine brings forward a wonderful interplay of exotic high tones. The length of this maceration process depends on the season and potency of these delicate ingredients, ensuring that each batch captures their peak flavor profiles.
Turning to our Condesa Gin Prickly Pear & Orange Blossom, we also use juniper berries and coriander seeds but blend in the vivid flavors of prickly pear, lime peel, and fresh raspberries. We do a separate maceration with orange blossoms, which lends a lively, summer freshness to the gin.
Can you tell us something about the small copper pot stills that you use?
The distillation process for our gins takes place on copper pot stills with reflux chambers. These stills are handmade in Michoacan, a state in Mexico known for its strong tradition in copper craftsmanship. This custom, artisanal manufacturing process guarantees the highest quality and precision for our distillation equipment.
We use two different sizes of pot stills. The main botanicals are distilled in 400L pot stills with reflux chambers. Reflux chambers help us increase the purity of the spirit by allowing a portion of the evaporating alcohol to condense and return to the pot. This increases the number of distillations and makes the final spirit smoother and more refined.
In particular, we would like to know something more about Palo Santo, that we know is very important in many rituals. As far as we know, you are the only one to use Palo Santo for gin production: how did you choose it, and what are its main characteristics?
Palo Santo, literally "holy wood / holy stick” is synonymous with the spirit of Condesa Gin. This fragrant wood, native to several parts of South and Central America, including Mexico, has been used for centuries in traditional healing and spiritual rituals. In its flavor profile, it is completely unique, blending notes of pine, mint, and fresh lemon, but with a resinous, meditative depth of flavour.
Choosing to incorporate Palo Santo into our gin was a decision inspired by a desire to showcase the richness of Mexico's cultural heritage and botanical diversity. It reflects our vision to literally infuse Condesa Gin with elements drawn from the rituales de curandera, or traditional healing practices. Palo Santo has been used in these rituals to cleanse spaces, ward off negative energy, and promote healing and tranquility, making it a perfect match for our ethos. It forms part of our guiding ethos: Hierbas de limpia de energía negativa. Flores para atraer el amor. Resinas que amplían la consciencia. | Herbs to cleanse negative energy. Flowers to attract love. Resins to expand consciousness.
In terms of its contributions to our gin, Palo Santo provides a uniquely resinous, earthy, and meditative quality. It gives Condesa Gin a distinct character that sets it apart from other gins. While it shares certain aromatic compounds with citrus - thus complementing the Mexican lime in our recipe - its complex profile adds a level of depth and richness to the spirit. It is immediately noticeable on the nose as you open the bottle, and we believe is our signature and differentiating factor.
The use of Palo Santo in gin production indeed seems to be unique to us at Condesa. It's a testament to our commitment to crafting a truly Mexican gin that embodies our country's cultural heritage, biodiversity, and the spirit of Mexico.
As for the Special Edition: what about orange flowers and prickly pear that you use?
We tend not to think of our Prickly Pear & Orange Blossom as a special addition – more like Clasica’s fun sister.
The two hero ingredients of this gin are:
Xoconostle: often referred to as prickly pear, is a type of cactus fruit that is native to Mexico. It's characterized by its tangy, slightly sour taste and its distinct red color, both of which contribute to the unique profile of our gin. We harvest the fruit in its limited growing season which typically peaks around September, and cut it into thin slices by hand. These pieces are then dried, weather permitting, in the Mexican sunshine. This ingredient is not just about flavor, though. Xoconostle holds a symbolic value, as it has been an essential part of Mexican culture and cuisine for centuries, and is even present on the Mexican flag. Using it in our gin is another way of honoring Condesa’s Mexican roots and showcasing the country's rich biodiversity.
Flor de azahar: These little white star-shaped flowers burst with a captivating scent, most potent during sunny spring afternoons. We source our flowers from citrus in Veracruz, Yucatan, and parts of Oaxaca. Macerated and distilled entirely separately, they bring a subtle floral note of springtime freshness to the gin.
Your distillery is located in an ancient area of Mexico City: can you tell us something about it?
Mexico City is a location steeped in history, culture, and innovation. Our newly expanded distillery, located in Huixquilucan, exists on lands that have a history dating back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. This region was home to numerous indigenous cultures, including the Mexica, who established the great city of Tenochtitlan, which would eventually become the modern Mexico City.
The legacy of these ancient cultures permeates everything around us. From the deep reverence for nature, symbolized by the omnipresent nopal cactus (prickly pear) and agave plants, to the vibrant and richly nuanced culinary scene, the ancestral wisdom lives on, informing our modern, cosmopolitan existence. This connection to the past profoundly influences our distillation process, as we honor traditional practices while innovating to create unique and world-class expressions of gin.
As for the modern incarnation of Mexico City, neighborhoods like the namesake La Condesa barrio perfectly encapsulate our ethos at Condesa Gin. These areas are characterized by their distinctive fusion of the traditional and the contemporary. Much like our gin, they offer a blend of old and new, showcasing stately colonial architecture alongside modern boutiques, art galleries, and an internationally renowned food and drink scene. La Condesa, our namesake, is particularly symbolic of this. The neighborhood is known for its creative energy, cosmopolitan flair, and sun-dappled, green open spaces – a thriving symbol of modern Mexico. Just as these neighborhoods represent a fresh and vibrant face of Mexico City, Condesa Gin seeks to present a new and sophisticated expression of Mexican spirits to the world.
In essence, our distillery's location in the heart of this ancient yet ever-evolving city is more than just a physical placement; it's a testament to our commitment to honor the past while passionately crafting the future of Mexican distilling.
Can you tell us about your vision for the future of Condesa?
Our mission is to bring a modern vision of Mexico to the world beyond its borders. When we started, we fought some pre-conceived notions. Two reactions which we bristled at most were: “Mexico can’t make gin can it?” and “If it is Mexican, why is it the same price as some European gins?”.
We aim to see these questions disappear. Firstly, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Those artisans who for so long have educated the world in the quality if Mexican craftsmanship in agave spirits have paved the way for Mexico’s outstanding talent to shine in other categories. Secondly, our Mexico City Extra Dry Gins, seek to carve out a cultural space in world-leading gins that we believe we have the right to be, and the talent to astonish.
We are not only a Mexican gin, we are a world class gin.