All the country’s neighbors lay claim to a national beverage. Now it’s Ecuador’s turn.
You can see the equator from the garden outside the Agave Spirit Ecuador distillery on the outskirts of Quito. Or at least you could if it was visible — and there weren’t enormous blue agaves blocking the view.
Under a high equatorial sun, Mayra Espinoza leads a tour of visitors to one of the plants, removes a precut section from the center, and exposes a sweet well in its core. “We take what we find, then we use this to scratch the agave,” she says, holding a small tool called an aspina, which looks like the head of a spoon. “Each plant has to be 10 years old before we can start,” she continues. “They can each generate up to 300 liters, but after that they die.”
For centuries, women of the Indigenous Quechua people in Ecuador have harvested wild agave for dozens of uses, including medicines, soap, and weaving. About 50 years ago, residents in the countryside found another application: distilling it into an alcoholic spirit called miske. In the last few years, distillers have brought the spirit into the city, pushed it into bars, and launched an educational campaign, including the demonstration led by Espinoza, to teach locals and foreigners about the uniquely Ecuadorian way to drink agave — all while trying to work with Quechua women to transition from foraging wild agave to establishing sustainable farming practices.
Drinkers can now find it throughout Quito, as well as at bars and liquor stores in Florida, New York, and Texas. Or they can go to the source at the agave garden where Espinoza works, part of the museum tour at Agave Spirit Ecuador, a burgeoning tourist attraction and one of two modern distilleries leading the charge on miske in the capital. Miske’s resemblance to other agave spirits is obvious: It’s clear, smells and tastes like a rounder, softer version of tequila, and goes down easy in a shot. Agave Spirit Ecuador also produces a sippable oak-aged version, which is approximately the color of brandy and has rich aromas of caramel and citrus.
“More restaurants are starting to use it in place of tequila, to have something more Ecuadorian,” says Tadeo Agama of Somos, a cocktail bar in Quito’s La Carolina neighborhood. “It’s still a little hard to sell as shots because people don’t really know what it is yet, but in the margarita they love it. We’re starting to experiment with it in other drinks. We tried to make a version of a bloody mary with it and it was super interesting. We’re going to try and make a new drink with cacao nibs too, to make it extra Ecuadorian.”
Like tequila, miske is made from blue agave. Whereas distillers break down a harvested plant and roast the piña to produce tequila, the Ecuadorian drink utilizes the nectar from the center of a living plant, which lives for about three months after draining begins. Distillers insist miske’s distinct flavor comes from this especially sweet sap, and from the particular growing conditions on the equator, where plants receive more direct, overhead sunlight than those in Mexico (each Agave Spirit bottle is labeled with the satisfying latitudinal coordinates of 0°0’0”). Without tequila’s global demand, there has never been much pressure to introduce harmful harvesting practices for miske. Until recently, virtually all of the agave used for miske was wild and organic. Guests at Agave Spirit Ecuador can even pot and bless their own baby agave, which the facility later plants a little further out of town in the Pomasqui Valley.
Diego Mora, founder of Agave Spirit Ecuador, sees his mission as something grander than simply making quality alcohol. Ecuador doesn’t have an official national drink, a symbolic designation that can drive real-world economic investment in a region, draw tourists, and expand cultural awareness both at home and abroad. The absence seems especially glaring when you realize most of Ecuador’s neighbors lay claim to one big beverage or another. Brazil has cachaça, while Chile and Peru squabble about who invented pisco. Argentina produces enough malbec to claim the wine as its national drink, while Colombia does the same with aguardiente, an anise-flavored firewater that’s produced across Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. Ecuador, meanwhile, is comparatively bereft, and Mora wants miske to fill the void.
“We’re working toward changing that. What we’re making is the most cultural drink in Ecuador,” says Mora. “Most South American liquors come from sugar cane, and it is not native. Sugar came with the Spanish and has only been on the continent for 500 years. Agave has always been here.”
Mora and his team have plans to establish a Denomination of Origin (DO), which could provide legal guidelines for how miske should be made, give the spirit prestige on the world stage, and attract drinkers at home and abroad. But not everyone agrees that’s the right move, including Eliot Logan-Hines, owner of Quito’s other primary miske distillery, Chawar. “I kind of think it’s stupid. I mean, to me [the DO classification] is just a bunch of Europeans thinking their cheese is so cool,” he says, laughing. “At the moment, no one knows what miske is, so how is [the DO] helpful?”
Even as Mora and Logan-Hines seek to educate consumers about miske, the community debates exactly how the spirit should be made, marketed, and even named. In transliteration from the Quechua, it could be “chawarmisqui” or “chawarmiski,” translated as “raw-sweet” or “agave-sweet.”
Logan-Hines prefers “Andean agave.” Like Mora, he spends a lot of time on education. When he launched his business in 2019, he had problems convincing potential investors at crowdfunding events to give miske a shot. “If it’s so great,” they asked him, “then why doesn’t it exist already?”
One of his main challenges has been differentiating miske from tequila, the defining reference point on agave spirits for most consumers. But Logan-Hines, who has Mexican heritage, has found that tequila’s history actually helps explain what he hopes will happen with miske. He says that tequila didn’t become popular among Mexican elites until it was widespread in America, and he’s hoping the same will prove true for miske. “Tequila not only became the national drink of Mexico, but a core part of Mexican identity,” he adds.
Tequila may also provide a roadmap for the budding miske industry, helping distillers navigate challenges of sustainability and cultural ownership.
As an outsider in Ecuador, Logan-Hines is particularly cognizant of how he might fit into miske’s national identity. The native Texan originally came to Ecuador a decade ago to work in the Amazon on a conservation project, when he noticed the extraordinary number of blue agaves in the valleys around Quito. He also noticed who was harvesting the nectar.
“In the mountains it’s really the women who maintain the traditions of agave harvesting,” he says. Logan-Hines spent three years learning about agave from a community of women in Cayambe, who sold raw agave juice on the side of the highway. Today, in keeping with the pre-distilling traditions, all of Chawar’s nectar is harvested exclusively by indigenous women as part of Mishkita, the country’s first all-female harvesting co-op. Once the agave arrives at Chawar, it’s spontaneously fermented with no added yeast, then double-distilled, to provide an unmediated taste of the Ecuadorian plant.
“I am a strong believer in the cooperative model of agricultural production in Latin America,” Logan-Hines explains. “Similar to labor unions, co-ops serve as a way to organize producers and give them stronger negotiating power in supply chains.” A background in agriculture and forestry has helped Logan-Hines plot a sustainable path for his miske, both for the agave plants in the ground and the people harvesting them.
“One of the biggest issues we face as we grow is how to ensure that these women continue to benefit from the supply chain,” he continues. “As smallholder farmers, there is a natural limit to how much agave each farm can produce and therefore how much income each farming family can make. By working together to create sustainable, polyculture farms, the women will be able to plant agave for the future and harvest annual crops in the meantime for supplemental income or for family consumption.”
Despite the uphill battle of marketing a new product during the pandemic, the values and goals behind miske are already clicking with customers in America. “We’re really geekily into mezcal, and this isn’t the same, but it comes from the agave culture, too,” says Josh Bloom, owner of Duke’s Liquor Box in Brooklyn, one of the outlets already importing miske to the U.S. Duke’s customers tend to be relatively knowledgeable and curious, and miske offers something new. “The microculture around the agave juice is great and I love that it’s groups of women in co-ops doing so much of the work. That really excited us,” Bloom adds. “Plus, the product is good so when it came time to import it to the States, it was a no-brainer.”
And, just as Logan-Hines hoped, exporting to America may help miske find a place in its home country too. “It’s been interesting how much it resonates with Ecuadorian expats,” he says. “When we launched in Miami, some Ecuadorians just happened to be walking past and came in. They ended up partying with us all night.”
Jamie Lafferty is a travel writer and photographer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He is the Consumer Travel Writer of the Year for 2020. You can find more of his work at jamielafferty.com and instagram/travel_journo. Elena Boils is a freelance illustrator based in London.