When you think of agave based spirits, you probably think of places with hotter climates — like Mexico, or even Texas. But the one place you probably didn’t think of is Raleigh, North Carolina. And that’s something that the folks at Young Hearts Distilling are trying to fix with their Agave Spirit, distilled on-site in downtown Raleigh.
Woody Lockwood and Chris Powers met as bartenders in Raleigh, NC in 2000 and became fast friends. Together they dreamed of opening their own place, a dream they eventually realized once they partnered with David Meeker in 2008. The doors to their new bar opened in 2009, with the Busy Bee Cafe being their everyday establishment and an upstairs nightclub called The Hive showcasing the best beer from around the world.
The trio didn’t just want to open yet another bar, though, they wanted to showcase the best of what Raleigh, North Carolina could produce. To that end, they wanted to start their own local craft brewery — which they did in 2013 when they opened the Trophy Brewing Company. Business took off, jumping from 600 barrels per year in sales to over 2,700 in about three years. The tiny brewery quickly ran out of space and moved to larger environments, opening a restaurant in addition to the typical taproom.
During the pandemic, the business took the opportunity to renovate their original brewery location on Wilmington Street and convert it into a distillery. The business re-opened its doors on August 14, 2021, utilizing a copper hybrid still located in the entryway of the building to produce a range of unaged spirits.
Technically, only agave based spirits produced in certain parts of Mexico can be labeled as “mezcal” or “tequila”. So while this is pretty much a tequila, there’s no way that label would fly; instead, this is simply called an “agave spirit”.
As with Mexican tequila, this spirit starts out as a crop of 100% Weber blue agave. Of course, blue agave is not native to North Carolina, so the plants themselves are likely grown and harvested in traditional locations in Mexico.
Where this becomes a local product is in the fermentation process: the sugary liquid from the agave plants is added to water, and yeast is allowed to ferment that mixture into alcohol. The specific strain of yeast being used, the length of time for fermentation, and a bunch of other factors are all up to the distiller to choose here.
Once the yeast has had its fill, the alcoholic liquid is distilled through their hybrid still on-site, proofed down, and bottled for sale.
The shape of the bottle here is familiar, but there are some notable distinctions.
The body is shaped like some of the medicinal-inspired designs that we’ve been seeing increasingly used by craft distilleries — specifically, a bulbous body, sharply rounded shoulder, and short neck construction. Where this differs from the rest of the pack is that the base seems to have a significant indentation in the bottom, almost like what you’d expect on the base of a champagne bottle. It’s an interesting choice — it does add some depth to the bottle… but it misses out on the opportunity for better lighting and presentation. Popular bottle designs these days use a thick glass base, which makes the bottle light up beautifully on an under-lit bar shelf.
I do like the label. It’s a bit large, but there’s not really much need to see the contents of the bottle when you have a clear spirit. There’s a floral theme going on in the branding; a light and refreshing motif that almost feels like a 1960’s flower child throwback. I’m not sure if that necessarily conveys Raleigh’s vibe as a city or if it’s somehow related to the brand history, but it looks good.
There’s a pretty clear “fingerprint” for what you expect out of a tequila. Expand that to the world of mezcal (which is the less restrictive, broader category for Mexican agave-based spirits) and the pattern is less well defined. But in this case, given that it’s labeled as an “agave spirit”, we’re in the Wild West. This could be almost literally anything, as long as it came from an agave plant.
On first sniff, you’ll be sure that this isn’t consistent with a typical tequila (in which case, you’d be expecting some herbal agave notes, lemon citrus, and black pepper). What I’m getting here is a deeper, earthier, and smokier aroma profile that is much more aligned with a smoky mezcal. Front and center, there’s an earthy root flavor almost like a black licorice note, supported by some black pepper spice, and just a hint of lemon citrus. There’s also this waft of smoke that’s running through the whole thing that really makes this smell like a darker and more serious spirit.
While the aroma might not be that consistent with an agave spirit, the flavor absolutely is. Those same components from the aroma are front and center, with the smoky char and black pepper being big contributors to the profile, but give it a second and you can absolutely see that herbal agave and lemon citrus coming in. And that’s what lingers the longest — the herbal, grassy agave flavor sticks around long into the finish.
The addition of some ice often has a major impact on the flavor of a spirit, diluting the components and knocking some lighter flavors out of the running. This spirit isn’t immune to that effect but, in this case, I think enough of the flavors are still in tact — which is a good sign for cocktails to come.
I’m still getting that smoky, earthy root flavor up front, the lighter version of black licorice that has been the dominant component so far. But there’s much less surrounding it at this point. I’m not getting the same herbal agave flavor that I saw before, and even the citrus seems to have disappeared. It’s more of a one-note composition here. Still pretty good to sip, not overpowering or terribly unbalanced, just less exciting than before.
I’m going to preface this by saying that I generally like darker, richer, smokier cocktails. And it’s for that reason that I think that this is legitimately great.
What’s missing from most of the margaritas (based on my personal preference) is a richer and darker balance to the other components. Usually the hallmark of a margarita is the fact that it is, by nature, unbalanced: more citrus forward and with brighter flavors, intended to perfectly compliment a good plate to Tex-Mex. But in this case, the agave spirit provides that richness and balance with the darker root flavors and smoky components, which really balances out the cocktail.
Distilleries come out with unaged spirits first mainly out of necessity. Opening a distillery is an expensive endeavor and producing things like gin and agave spirit allows them to generate some revenue immediately to offset their other expenses and allow them enough runway to really get cranking with the aged stuff such as whiskey and bourbon. Usually, those early unaged spirits are fairly mediocre, thanks to both the inexperience of the distillery staff and needing to break in the equipment. But Young Hearts is starting off strong, putting out an impressive agave spirit here.
This is definitely much closer to a mezcal in terms of the flavor profile, adding some smoke and earthy elements into the mix that you wouldn’t expect from a tequila. It allows for some interesting cocktail recipes, and I’m looking forward to experimenting with some bitters in a little bit when I’m done writing this review.
The only thing keeping me from giving this a full five stars on the rating is the simplicity of the flavor profile and the question mark around how they process the agave plants prior to distillation. The flavors are good, but there are only a handful of them and many of them disappear after the ice is added.
All in all, though, an excellent first attempt from a brand new distillery.
|Young Hearts Distilling Agave Spirit|
Produced By: Young Hearts DistillingProduction Location: North Carolina, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $36 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Darker, smokier, and richer than a tequila, this is a perfect mixer for cocktails.