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Kindred Spirits: Hill Country-Distilled Totem Is Texas’ Wildest Spirit
Distiller and outdoorsman Davin Topel blends traditions of Texas and Mexico to create a unique beverage
By Laurel Miller
Photographs by Jody Horton
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Davin Topel begins foraging ingredients for his signature spirit, Totem, months before its annual November release. In May, when the dewberries ripen, he harvests the delicate, deep purple fruit from wild canes near his Austin home. When summer peaks, Topel collects bottlebrush leaves and sources organic Hill Country lavender, rosemary and peaches. Come fall, he collects local pecans and procures lemons and red grapefruit from the Rio Grande Valley to complete Totem’s Texas-grown botanical profile.
“It’s a yearlong process,” he says. “It’s also the first domestic spirit that I’m aware of that’s made with meat.” You read that correctly.
Topel, a fishing and hunting guide for Wimberley’s Spoke Hollow Outfitters and the head distiller at Blanco’s Real Spirits Distilling Company, infuses Totem with a bone-in feral hog ham that he cold-smokes over pecan, mesquite and oak. His inspiration for Totem was pechuga (Spanish for “breast”), a traditional mezcal infused with animal protein that’s been added to the final distillation, often with the addition of local fruit, grains and/or botanicals.
In Oaxaca, birthplace of mezcal, pechuga remains a very small-batch product. It’s often made according to old family recipes and used exclusively for celebrations and holy days. Most pechugas are made with raw chicken or turkey breast, which is suspended above the still’s chamber (often nothing more elaborate than a clay pot). The alcohol vapors from the still “cook” the meat, while allowing its fat and juice to drip back into the distillate. The resulting mezcal has a distinct, savory flavor and a slightly viscous quality not unlike grappa.
The commercial mezcal industry has capitalized – amid much controversy – on the tradition of pechuga, and today, the spirit is made with everything from iguana and Ibérico ham to quail. Topel’s use of feral hog, however, was motivated by his passion for land and wildlife conservation.
“I really love mezcal. So, I was intrigued by pechuga, and the mezcaleros use of local ingredients,” he says. “But Totem isn’t a mezcal because it’s not made from agave and mezcal production is strictly regulated by the Mexican government. It can only be made in Oaxaca and a few accessory regions, using specific production methods.”
In a Category of Its Own
Categorically, Totem is more akin to whiskey and eau de vie (a type of brandy made from distilled fruit other than grapes) because it’s base is made from malted barley and passion fruit. “I initially wanted to forage every single ingredient, but it was just too labor-intensive for one person,” says Topel. Instead, he used ingredients already employed at his distillery’s sister brewery, Real Ale Brewing Co., for his mash. “The passion fruit was from a fruited wheat beer, and while I’d have preferred to use Texas product, I loved the flavor.”
Topel’s choice of animal protein was twofold. “Feral hogs are so abundant, but it was also a way of drawing attention to the devastating impact they have on habitat,” he says. “They’re opportunistic omnivores and destroy the root systems of natural grasses and eat native quail and turkey eggs. Because they don’t have any significant natural predators in Texas and reproduce rapidly, their population is in critical need of management.”
Dai Due owner and chef Jesse Griffiths, a friend of Topel’s, is an outspoken advocate for feral hog control and offers ethical hunting workshops and butchery classes through his New School of Traditional Cookery, in addition to utilizing the meat and byproducts at his restaurant (see the end of this column for information on his forthcoming collaboration with photographer Jody Horton, The Hog Book). He accompanied Topel on his first Totem hog harvest in late 2019 (detailed here, on Topel’s blog) and is a fan of the spirit. “Totem is so profound,” says Griffiths, “because it drinks like an herbal mezcal, but it’s made in an American style with distinctly local, mostly wild ingredients.”
In Europe and North America, farm-raised hogs are historically slaughtered in the fall, when the weather is cooler. Topel wanted to honor that agrarian tradition. “The cooler weather means less stress for the animal, and it also helps preserve the meat,” he explains. “We typically trap the hogs in large enclosures at Spoke Hollow Ranch, then dispatch the larger pigs first, using a rifle from a distance, to avoid stressing the sounder. After they’re butchered, we package and freeze the meat on the property. We use every part of these animals. Nothing goes to waste.”
The hogs also forage on pecans and acorns, which flavors the meat, says Topel. He adds the uncooked ham during the final distillation (Totem is distilled three times to refine the flavor and because the botanicals must be added in stages). The resulting unaged spirit is bottled at 110 proof and has the silky mouthfeel characteristic of a pechuga, with a complex aromatic and flavor profile.
Topel consulted with Houston research chemist Dr. Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen on local plants for the gin made by Real Spirits Distilling, as well as Totem. Vorderbruggen leads foraging workshops statewide, including at Spoke Hollow Ranch. Together the two men “narrowed it down to bottlebrush leaves, which have a fruity, menthol aroma,” Topel says. “They’ve become our house botanical.” He also wanted a smokey element, so he cold-smokes chipotle chilies and adds them on the final distillation. Sipped neat, Totem has notes of citrus, passion fruit and pink peppercorn, along with what Topel calls “an almost undefinable savory quality due to the hog’s diet.”
Only one batch – 300 bottles – of Totem is made each year, most of which are sold on-site at the distillery. But it’s also available regionally and in major cities throughout Texas. “Even though this is only our second release, Totem has become something of a cult classic,” says Topel. “I really wanted to create a spirit for the outdoor community that had a ritual attached to it, not unlike pechuga.”
Griffiths, also an avid outdoorsman, agrees: “The ritual makes Totem even more alluring,” he says.
In order to evoke prosperity or good luck before a hunt, fishing trip or other outing, Topel pours a half-ounce of Totem into local honey-rimmed copitas (shallow clay mezcal cups). Then to “ignite the spirit of adventure” and tame the bite, the drinks are set alight for a toast.
“Totem was ultimately created as a celebration of Texas,” says Topel, “as well as life, death and everything in between.”
Note on Griffiths’ book: Acclaimed chef Jesse Griffiths and photographer Horton have established a Kickstarter to fund their sophomore release, The Hog Book: A Chef’s Guide to Hunting, Preparing and Cooking Wild Pigs. The decision to self publish, says Griffiths, was born of a desire to “do justice to the subject matter in an honest and unfiltered manner – this is not a book for the squeamish. This control allows us to accurately and frankly portray the process of getting wild pigs from the woods to the table, and self-publishing also transforms the book into a community project. Connection to community and promotion of food sustainability have always been central to the mission of the restaurant and hunting school.”
To enjoy Totem in a cocktail, Topel created a soothing toddy for brisk fall and winter nights:
The Golden Fleece
3 ounces hot water
1/2 tablespoon local honey
1 1/2 ounces Totem
3 ounces whole milk (oat milk is a good substitute)
Garnish: cinnamon stick and freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon Golden Milk (available at Whole Foods, Central Market or on Amazon; Topel says to use whatever brand you like best)
Gently warm milk in a small saucepan, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
In a mug, add hot water, chamomile tea and Golden Milk. Using the cinnamon stick, gently stir in honey. Steep for 5 minutes, remove teabag, add Totem, and top with warmed milk. Garnish with nutmeg.