Whisky Squad #36 – Tequila Squad!

It’s taken a while but unfortunately Whisky Squad has now run out of whisky to taste. Over 35 sessions (plus a few unnumbered ones) we’ve tasted our way through everything Scotland has to offer. Rather than curl up and die, like any self respecting society dedicated to the exploration of a specific spirit, the Squad has instead decided to switch allegiances and turn to another spirit – and thusly is it now renamed: Tequila Squad!

Or, you know, it could just be that Andy really wanted to learn about tequila and after attending a tasting session at Wahaca (which I also attended) got chatting with a chap who mainly hid in the darkness all night, making sure things ran right, and got an agreement that he’d run a session for The Squad. Jump forward a year and a bit and it finally came together, with the mysterious man in the shadows revealed to be Matthias Lataille of the Tahona Society, who brought along a friend of his – Stephen Myers from Ilegal Mezcal.

Continue reading “Whisky Squad #36 – Tequila Squad!”

Ocho Tequila Tasting with Tomas and Jesse Estes

While I’ve not started my new job yet I did spend my penultimate evening as a wage slave in the IT industry in the company of my new colleagues, as they’d managed to get in tequila industry legend Tomas Estes to come and do an evening of talking about tequila down at TWE Vinopolis. Tom has been given the title of ‘European tequila ambassador’ by the Mexican tequila chamber and spends his time roaming the world waxing lyrical about tequila and occasionally getting a glass or two down his neck. He started out working in bars in his native Los Angeles (before he changed his name from Thomas to better fit in with his chosen career) and has since spread his net a bit wider, opening about 20 bars and restaurants in the USA, UK, Germany, France, Italy and Australia, including Café Pacifico and La Perla in London. I heard first his name mentioned at TWE’s first tequila tasting last year, where we told to seek out his bars as places to look for good tequilas and bar tenders who knew what they were talking about.

IMG_6338The plan for the evening was simple – to taste through six tequilas, five of which were from Estes’s own brand Ocho. However, as it seems generally happens when Tom is involved, things didn’t go exactly to plan. He’s turned 65 sometime recently and has been drinking tequila for coming on 50 years which gives him rather a lot of knowledge in the world of knocking back agave based beverages and this showed, with him jumping around topics and bantering back and forth with Henry Besant (who I met at a Wahaca tasting earlier this year) and Simon Difford, who were both sitting in the assembled throng. To help keep him on the straight and narrow his son Jesse (now a bartender at Callooh Callay) came along to tell us about the tequila making process and occasionally wrestle things back on to track, as well as remind his dad that we hadn’t had a drink for a while from time to time. I’ve written a chunk in the past about how tequila is made so I’ll stick to talking about the drinks. So without further ado…

We started off, as we did last time, with a Tommy’s Margarita, named for Tommy Bemejo from Tommy’s Bar in San Francisco rather than Estes. Tom questioned whether it really could be described as a margarita due to its lack of an alcoholic sweetener – traditionally a margarita is tequila, citrus and a citrus based spirit/liqueur to sweeten, but in a Tommy’s the sweetener is replaced with agave syrup to focus more on the flavours in the tequila. It’s also served in the rocks, which gave me something to play with while Tomas talked his way through to the first tequila of the night.

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The main focus of the evening was Tom’s tequila brand – Ocho. Named due to the recipe being the 8th that he tasted from the makers (and more fully name La Muestra no. Ocho – Recipe no. 8), it’s produced by the Camerena family, who also make El Tesoro and Tapatio tequilas, and has a guiding philosophy: the same recipe but with each bottling using agave plants from different individual ranches. A different idea to single malt scotches, where the grain can come from anywhere but the distillation process and recipe varies, this is all about the raw ingredients as the Camerena family’s low proof distilling (generally bottling at still strength of ~40%abv) and the lack of aging in blanco tequila lets the underlying flavours come out much more than with wood aged spirits. The bottling strength does still vary but that is due to the local regulations in the markets where Ocho is sold – in Mexico tequila must be at least 35%, in the UK 37.5%, 40% in the USA and 43% in South Africa.

The first that we tasted was a blanco with agave from Los Mangoes in Los Altos, the highlands. While this is the other end of the tequila producing region to the eponymous town the soil here is similar to that around Tequila, producing plants that have flavour characteristics from both areas. On the nose there was sour green veg, light pepper, a hint of gluey solvent, cut grass and salt. To taste it started with the caraway-like flavour of new spirit to which was added some vegetal agave, sour fruit, unripe melon, lemon and a dry finish.

IMG_6345The second was another Ocho blanco, this time from El Carrizal, 400m higher than Los Mangoes and with soil a bit more traditionally ‘Highlandy’. On the nose there was more pepper than the first one, as well a earth, menthol, a dry minerality, sweet spice and light alcohols. To taste it was sweet with cinnamon, pepper and a lingering spicy finish.

We then moved on to a tequila that isn’t from the Ocho stable – Arette Blanco, from Tequila itself in The Lowlands. On the nose this one had cooked grape, stewed apple, citrus (oranges, lemons and lime juice), yeast and a general fruity sweetness with a balancing sourness – it smelled fantastic and while Tomas was talk I spent a lot of time going back to this one to have another sniff, pinching a glass from an unoccupied table setting next to mine when it was finished. To taste it didn’t quite live up to the nose, with oranges up front leading to a peppered sour orange peel finish with orange blossom. I suspect a bottle of this will appear on my ‘sip this slowly’ shelf sometime soon.

We then went back to Ocho with Ocho Reposado from Los Corales. The Ocho way is to mature tequila in much used casks to add some wood aging, and comply with legal requirements, at the same time as not overpowering the flavour of the underlying agave spirit. As such, and sticking with the Ocho name, this is aged for 8 weeks and 8 days to give a very lightly coloured reposado. On the nose it has lots of pepper, agave syrup, lime peel and a hint of vanilla. To taste there was a quick hit of sugar followed by red fruit and butter leading to a finish of red apple skin.

IMG_6349Next up was Ocho Añejo from El Vergel in Los Altos. Again matured in fatigued casks (and aged for a year and a day – the least time it can be matured and still called an añejo) this had a nose of butterscotch, sweet lemon, pineapple and soured cooked agave. To taste it was light and fruity with lots of peppery spice and a sweet middle. The finish was lingering and sweet with hints of lemony butter.

Last on the mat was Ocho Extra Añejo also from El Vergel. The recipe here is the same but the spirit stays in wood for longer – 3 years and a day, again the least it can and still be called an extra añejo. Also some of the tequila is aged in new French oak barrels (that go for 10 times the price of the second-hand bourbon barrels that are generally used) giving some heavily creamy vanilla that is blended back into the mix. On the nose it had peppery spice, butterscotch, menthol, pine and vanilla cream. To taste there were peppered apples, cream and olives, and a sour vegetal agave finish with lingering buttery wood. Very tasy and easy drinking, and luckily, for me, not available in the UK.

And that was that. There was a bottle of Tapatio Añejo making the rounds after the tasting, for those that didn’t need to run off due to the late finish, but I was too busy looking for spare glasses of Arette to really notice (although the quick taste I had of the Tapatio showed me that it still tastes like rose petals and rose water, a very strange combination of flavours). A slightly random tasting but one that has decided on my house tequila (Arette Blanco), which can’t be a bad thing.

Ocho Blanco
Blanco Tequila, 40%. ~£20

Ocho Reposado
Reposado Tequila, 40%. ~£20

Ocho Añejo
Añejo Tequila, 40%. ~£45

Ocho Extra Añejo
Extra añejo Tequila, not available in the UK.

Arette Blanco
Blanco Tequila, 38%. ~£25

Tasting Tequila at Wahaca

Despite my enthusiasm for tequila that started last year I’ve not had much of a chance to dig into tequilas and mezcals since, apart from on my occasional trips to Wahaca. As such I was rather pleased to be invited along to a tequila tasting session at the new Soho branch of Wahaca by Chris Osburn and Qype. The plan was quite simple – try out some new tequilas that Wahaca have found and give our opinions on them to help choose which ones will go on their menu.

One of the things at the heart of the idea of Wahaca is the moving of tequila from the current ‘stick it down your neck with lime and salt’ vibe that we inherited from the US thanks to the PR of the mass-market tequilas (Cuervo bottle holster wearing tequila girls, I’m looking at you) to a more considered ‘sip it like any other nice drink’ approach. This comes through from their current tequila choice (with El Tesoro de Don Felipe, the export version of the Tapatio I tasted at The Whisky Exchange last year, as their house tequila brand) to their choice of glasses, chunkier and less suited to necking spirit than traditional shooter glasses (although their ‘rustic’ unevenness and recycled glass make-up cause some mild twitches in me), as well as their having some mezcal on the menu as well as tequila.

IMG_0207IMG_0217Joining Wahaca co-founder Mark Selby we had tequila expert and co-founder of the Tahona Society Henry Besant to walk us through the drinks. While Wahaca’s tequila menu changes quite regularly they recently decided to try and get in some more obscure tequilas that aren’t usually available in the UK. To this end they contacted the Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) asking to work with them to bring in some interesting tequilas. In return a selection of 30+ tequilas turned up, not all of which were particularly good. After some tasting work they whittled this down to 10-12 that they felt might work on the menu and have had a number of focus group tasting sessions, of which ours was one, to decide which ones to add to their new “Tequila of the month” rotation.

IMG_0208IMG_0212Before we got started on the drinks Henry handed around a few things to have a poke at while talking about the tequila making process (which I’ve written about in the past). Firstly was a couple of glasses of soil, one from the lowlands at the western end of the tequila making region and one from the highlands (Los Altos) in the east (although lowlands is a rather deceptive term, as the area is still about 1400-1500m high). The lowland soil was grey and volcanic while the highland soil was bright red and rich with iron, both creating quite different growing conditions for the agave plants. We were also handed plates of cooked agave heart, cut into strips and ready to chew on. It’s a fibrous but juicy fruit, syrupy sweet with flavours similar to prunes, figs, treacle and apricots, and it’s quite difficult to see how much of that flavour makes it into the tequila in the same way that going from beer to whisky is a bit of a leap.

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We went through the tequilas in the traditional fashion, from blanco (aged less then 60 days in steel tanks) through reposado (aged in wood for at least 2 months) and then on to añejo (in wood for at least 1 year in barrels no larger than 600 litres). First up was Cascahuin Blanco bottled at 38% and made in the town of El Arenal. It’s has some old school elements to its making, with the agave hearts being cooked in traditional earth covered, stone-lined pits rather than more modern ovens. On the nose it had a strong classic peppery agave smell, which masked some underlying fruitiness and citrus. To taste the pepper came through again, although there was a lot of green veg with that, leading to a short dry finish. Mark had a price list, in US dollars, with prices for the various tequilas in various places, with this one coming in at $7 a bottle in Mexico. Before it gets to the UK you’d need to at least double that due to taxes, but that’s still very reasonably priced.

Next on the blanco list was Tequila Tromba, made in the highlands from agave cooked in autoclaves and bottled at 36%. This one had a nose of butterscotch, with artificial vanilla essence, sweet cooked agave and grass. To taste it was very green, with lots of raw unaged spirit flavours, but only a very light pepperiness. It reminded me more of an aquavit than a tequila and it slipped down very easily. This one shocked the room by coming in at about $70 in the UK, ~£40 – the first of the more expensive tequilas of the night.

The third blanco was meant to be Real Hacienda Unico but after pouring it was obvious something wasn’t right – it was very corked. We binned it and moved on to the reposados.

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First was Don Cosme from Amatitán, capital of the Jalisco region, another potential birthplace of tequila and centre of the tequila tourist industry. Amongst the distilleries in the town is Herradura, whose añejo I have sitting in my cupboard waiting for foolish visitors to tell me that tequila is nasty stuff that can’t be sipped. The Don Cosme was lightly coloured and had a nose of pepper, caramel, pineapple and nuts with a hint of stony minerals. The taste had bitter orange at the back and sweet orange at the sides, with orange pith and pepper, and an oily mouthfeel. Amatitán has a good supply of new oak and Henry reckoned this could be a mix of both new oak and refill casks maturation.

Next was Pueblo Viejo from the highlands, a very popular brand in Mexico. This was an old fashioned fashioned tequila that has been around for a while, but in the last 10 years they’ve moved location and changed production a number of times leading to the traditional mumblings of quality dropping. On the nose it was heavy with fake butter (which I assume is the diacetyl that I have been looking for in beer so I can work out if I like it or not – I don’t like it in tequila it seems) and caramel – a bit like the popcorn counter in a US cinema. To taste it was very smoothly flavoured with little of the sickliness of the nose – orange and lemon peel, lightly sour with a hint of metallicness and a spicy peppery sweet finish. This would have been my favourite of the evening if it wasn’t for the cloying and off-putting nose. I wasn’t sure whether to expect this to be cheap or expensive, with its local popularity, but was shocked to find it was the cheapest of the night, coming in at $6 a bottle in Mexico.

Third of the reposados was Carmessí, made by the same manufacturer as Pueblo Viejo. On the nose it was heavy and sweet with a hint of smoke, sweet veggie agave and a good peppery spice. To taste it was very smooth with gently peppery agave and a lightly woody citrus finish. My favourite of the three reposados so far and a bargain at $12 in Mexico.

We also had a fourth bonus reposado in the shape of the house El Tesoro Reposado, bottled at still strength of 38%. The nose has a fresh and spicy green plant smell, with sweet olive oil and pepper. The taste has menthol and pepper as well as an oily mouth feel. My favourite of the reposados by a good margin, balancing sweetness, savouriness and the traditional pepperiness.

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We then moved on to the añejos, starting with Tres Mujeres, complete with Rémy Martin influenced bottle. On the nose it had mustard, spicy smoke and cooked broccoli. To taste it had big sour wood flavours, liquorice and butter, all balanced with a delicate sweetness.

Next was Don Valente, also made from agave cooked in the traditional underground method. On the nose it had, as all of the #2 tequilas had so far, butterscotch and fake butter – rather like liquefied Werther’s Originals, but more so. To taste it was astringent with a sickly sweetness and not much else – my least favourite of the night and almost undrinkable in my opinon, although it went down fairly well with others at the table.

Last was Fortaleza, known as Los Abuelos in Mexico, a traditionally made small batch tequila from the town of Tequila itself. The agave is cooked in the distilery’s single oven before being crushed using a tahona (traditional grinding stone), although they have at least upgraded from having a mule drag the stone around to using a tractor. It’s distilled in two tiny copper pot stills with capacities of 250 and 450 litres, before being aged and bottled without additives (as producers may add caramel colouring, smoke extract, sugar, glycerine for mouth feel and fruit essences to tequila) by hand in handmade bottles. Despite all that it still ‘only’ comes in at $60 a bottle locally. On the nose it my notes say ‘cheesy death’ – along with some sweet butter it had a strong cheesy smell. To taste it was very sweet, with white chocolate, butterscotch, salt and a hint of warm Mini Babybel. Not my favourite.

Having worked our way through those 9, with 1 tainted bottle missed out, we retired to the restaurant for dinner accompanied by some El Tesoro Silver for those who weren’t sick of Tequila yet – I was not. On the nose it had a strongly vegetal agave note, without the sweetness of the cooked agave we tried earlier, as well as the strongly chlorophyllic (if that’s a word) grassy pepper that you get from cold pressed olive oil. To taste it was oily and sweet with candied green vegetable – I reckoned sugar coated asparagus, which got a few looks of disbelief.

IMG_0239While eating I asked Mark about his mezcal selection, having enjoyed the Forever Oax on previous visits. It seems that mezcal also now has Denominación de Origen status, based around Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wahaca’…), and its own governing body, The National Chamber of Industry of Mezcal. The regulations are similar to tequila’s, although with nine different types of agave that can be used in manufacture rather than tequila’s one. During one of Mark’s trips to Mexico he saw a rare mezcal I’ve been looking for being made – Pechuga. Named for the fact that during the third distillation (done in small clay stills) they hang a raw unboned chicken breast (pechuga in spanish) in the still along with a basket of fruit – after the distilling there is only chicken bone left. It has very small production, being made in what looks like the maker’s back garden shed. I have no idea about the taste, but at about £150 a bottle it’s not one that I particularly want to chance without a sample first. Anyway, Mark didn’t have any of that in but he did have Del Maguey Mezcal Vida to try – on the nose it had salty smoke, mulchy agave, BBQ’d meat and burning cigarette packet plastic wrap (a very specific smell if you’ve ever been a smoker). To taste there was a hint of sweetness overpowered by salty green vegetables, with burning hay behind. It was quite young tasting, with hints of caraway – a bit like a smoky green capsicum infused gin. Maybe…

Anyways, thanks to Chris, Qype, Henry, Mark and Wahaca for a great evening. There are a few of the tasted tequilas that I’ll be keeping an eye out for on the Wahaca menu and a bunch that I will be avoiding, but it’s still impressive as to the range of flavour in a drink that’s so often lumped into one category of ‘nasty stuff to get pissed on’.

I was a guest of Wahaca for the evening as part of a group of people from Qype. Hopefully there should be some more reviews appearing on Qype soon for more details of the food side of the evening. Also thanks to Eric Brass at Tequila Tromba for clearing up some confusion about the prices.

El Tesoro de Don Felipe Silver
Blanco tequila, 40%. ~£30 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange, £3.35 a measure at Wahaca

El Tesoro de Don Felipe Reposado
Reposado tequila, 40%. ~£40 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange, £3.50 a measure at Wahaca

Del Maguey Mezcal Vida
Single village mezcal, 42%. ~£40 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange, £4.60 a measure at Wahaca

Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga
Single village mezcal, 49%. ~£150 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Grenadine and some uses

One of the things that seems to be happening a lot recently in the world of drinks is the revitalisation of things often considered to be passé or bad. For me there’s been reexamination of blended whisky (some of it’s nice, some of it isn’t), american beer (see previous parentheses), vodka (etc) and various other revisitings of brands that has confirmed and confounded my expectations. However, one drink that I’ve never really had a lot time for is grenadine – a pomegranate cordial named for the french word for its fruity base, grenade.

My first encounter with it was in France on a school trip where a barman with a small amount of English sold me and some friends a glass of grenadine and water, which he assured us was alcoholic, for a couple of francs. We assumed this was the bargain of a lifetime before we realised we had basically just bought some red flavoured cordial, with any booze watered down along with any flavour in the glass. It wasn’t until my days working in a student bar that I noticed it again, as one of my early duties was to run a satellite cocktail bar on busy Friday nights. We sold 4 or 5 cocktails including Sex on the Beach and The Slow Comfortable Screw, both chosen for their name and thus appeal to students as well as the simplicity of their construction and ingredients. However, we also did Tequila Sunrises, delighting drunken rugby teams as we rosied up jugs of tequila and orange with slugs of bright red grenadine.

Earlier this year an article popped up on American Drink, one of the finest drinks blogs on the web, talking about grenadine and including a variety of methods of making it. Being a fan of constructing drink ingredients in my kitchen I bookmarked it, bought some pomegranate juice and promptly forgot about it until this weekend. On the site they give three methods of making grenadine and due to forgetting to buy fresh pomegranates I decided to go for the ‘hot method’:

IMGP6250For 500ml of Grenadine:

  • 500ml of pomegranate juice
  • 250ml sugar

Bring the juice to the boil, reduce the heat and reduce by half. Remove from the heat, add the sugar, stir until dissolved and leave to cool.

As you can see from the picture, the results are a lot darker than the bright red scary grenadine you’ll often see on the back bar. Flavour-wise it’s just about as sweet but also has a nice fruitiness behind the scenes that I don’t remember from bought grenadine, which I suspect is made of sugar syrup, red food colouring and the concept of pomegranate.

I used Pom (aka Pom Wonderful) whose producing company is currently ‘working with’ the US Food and Drug administration to work out which of the various health claims on their website and bottles are allowed to appear. Reductions in prostate cancer, LDL cholesterol and erectile dysfunction are on the debated list but whatever the claims towards the wonderful super-food properties of pomegranates, the fruits themselves taste quite nice (even if they are a git to peel). However, the juice is often quite tart and not particularly tasty – while mine was cooking down it smelled, as warned by the LCS‘s Mark Gill, rather like turnips, and not in a necessarily good way. My grenadine is non-alcoholic and I suspect that the main reason for making alcoholic versions, as it’s way too sweet to drink on its own or in quantities high enough to spike up a drink, is to add shelf-life – if I don’t get through mine soon enough it’ll probably start fermenting, which will most probably not lead to tasty results and will mainly make the cork pop out of the bottle as CO2 builds up…

IMGP6237Along with grenadine recipes I also looked up some cocktails that use it – without some way of mixing it I would have to drink it mixed down as cordial, an experience that I don’t particularly want to revisit. The first and most obvious drink is the one I mentioned earlier – The Tequila Sunrise. Probably the second-most popular tequila cocktail after the margarita, it’s one that seems to appear on the ‘lesser’ cocktail menus, pubs and student bars that are all about pumping out fruit juice laced with a bit of booze in a high volume/low cost kind of way, and it’s easy to see why – white tequila, orange juice and a splash of grenadine: three fairly cheap ingredients that you can charge a chunk for simply by adding a swizzle stick and calling it a cocktail. It seems to have appeared in the 30s or 40s, invented by Gene Sulit at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel and along with the recipe I used there seems to be another less well known one (which I suspect is the original) – tequila, creme de cassis, lime juice and soda, which I think would give a more extreme dark to light sunrise, as well as some more interesting flavours. I decided to use slightly better ingredients than the usual nasty mixto tequila and Mr Juicy OJ, using 1 measure of Tequileño Blanco, 3 measures of not-from-concentrate juice and a splash of my homemade grenadine. If you pour the gloopy, heavy grenadine directly into the middle of the drink it sinks to the bottom and gradually mixes upwards, creating the signature sunrise effect. A couple of ice cubes in the top and my drink was done.

With my darker grenadine the red-through-yellow effect wasn’t quite as strong (being more a brown-through-yellow) and I was at first rather dismissive of the drink. However, after a couple of sips I had a bit of a reassessment – the pepperiness of the tequila works quite well with the orange juice, and the sweet fruitiness of the grenadine obscures the citrus sourness of the orange juice, bringing the whole lot together. Not something that I’d generally drink, eschewing fruit juice based cocktails as I do, but something I might have to try again when I finish writing this.

IMGP6243Unfortunately after the Tequila Sunrise I was fresh out of cocktail ideas for grenadine, but luckily the internet was there to aid me. A bit of searching through uninspiringly named, boring cocktails of the form ‘lots of juice, 2 shots of booze, splash of grenadine, enough garnish to impress a customer’ I came across one that intrigued me a little bit more – The Monkey Gland. Also known as the McCormick at the time, it was created in the 1920s by Harry MacElhone of Harry’s Bar in Paris and named for the experiments of Serge Voronoff, a man much interested in the use of monkey testicle transplantation to reinvigorate the sex drive and retard or reverse the aging process. The version I made was 2 measures gin (I used Sipsmith) to 1 measure orange juice and 1/4 measure grenadine, shaken hard with ice, strained into an absinthe washed glass and garnished with an orange twist. Or to be more exact a rubbishly cut strip of clementine skin. This is on the edge of what I consider to be too fruity a cocktail for me, with the original recipe calling for equal parts of orange and gin, but the single measure of juice creates a cloudy but translucent cocktail that allows the the flavours of the gin to come out. The orange and grenadine mix yet again work their magic leaving a sweet and sour base behind the gin that accentuates the botanicals, and the absinthe washing imparts a slug of anis to the nose and a little bit to the flavour. A nice one for the summer, but probably not one for an evening where I’m wearing two t-shirts and a jumper while sitting at my desk waiting for the first snow of the year. There are, as ever, many variations on the theme with a dash of absinthe being added to the drink (which was in the original recipe) as well as being substituted for Pernod or other anise, but my love of the absinthe washed glass forces me to champion the recipe I used.

I can see why grenadine isn’t all that popular these days – not many drinks use it and those that do aren’t generally considered ‘refined’ by the new wave of cocktails bars, featuring way too much fruit juice as they often do to fit in with the old fashioned ‘all must be booze’ approach that is becoming popular again these days (and has always been popular chez moi). Cocktail snob that I am it’s not something that I suspect I will be seeking out, but for those evenings when I think I haven’t quite got my five-a-day, adding a slug of home-made concentrated red goop into a glass of tequila and orange must make the drink count for at least two portions.

Tequila, cocktails and tacos at Benito’s Hat

Tequila is much on my mind in recent times. I went to a tasting down at The Whisky Exchange and since then have started noticing it more and more in bars. Bartenders love it, extolling the virtues of their favourites at the drop of an interested hat, friends of mine have recommended me places that they discovered an appreciation for tequila in and I’ve even managed to try a few new ones (as well as some interesting mezcal). So when an invite came through asking if I wanted to take part in a cocktail competition to both celebrate the opening of the new branch of Benito’s Hat and choose a cocktail to go up as their first monthly special it would have been rude to say no.

Benito’s Hat is part of the new wave of Mexican restaurants that have been slowly building up in London for the last few years, pushing more towards authentic Mexican food rather than the Tex-Mex through a twisted British lens that has been the mainstay over here, pulling in insults from American and Mexican visitors alike. Benito’s stick very much to the taco/burrito ‘flat bread with stuff in’ side of things, and having now had some soft tacos pushed towards me (actually, forced on me by my tablemates who were worried that I was paying too much attention to the tequila) they’re not bad.

The original Benito’s hat, opened by Ben and Felipe, is down the road from Goodge Street station and much loved by food bloggers. It has a cocktail menu but is very much more focused on the food. They’ve now decided to expand and their new branch is on New Row near Covent Garden. The intention with this one is to combine the food from the first restaurant with a focus on the bar, which in a mexican restaurant is going to involve tequila. They’re working with Alex of Barrio Brands to provide good drinks, add to their cocktail menu and provide a changing tequila and cocktail of the month. The plan for our visit, attended by some bloggers and regulars from Qype, was to learn some more about Tequileño tequila, Benito’s Hat’s ‘standard’, eat some tacos and then mix up some cocktails for judging by Ben and Alex.

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Some tequila with a plate of cucumbers sprinkled with lime salt and chilli – a tasty accompaniment

El Tequileño was founded in 1959 by Jose Salles Cuervo, part of The Cuervo Family, who moved, as many tequila producers have, from being an agave grower to also using his plants to make his own spirit. He set up two distilleries in Tequila, La Guarreña and La Regional, and started producing tequilas from field to bottle. I managed to get a taste of the blanco, rested for a matter of days in steel tanks before bottling, and was rather impressed – slightly smoky and lightly peppery on the nose it had a big caramel sweetness to taste with a core of vegetal sourness. It had a very fresh ‘green’ taste to it which was not overwhelmed by the pepper of the agave – a remarkably smooth and sippable blanco.

To give us some inspiration, and to make sure that we got enough booze inside us, Alex did a run through the current cocktail menu, letting out the secrets of the recipes. First was the mainstay of tequila cocktails – the Margarita. Taking some inspiration from the Tommy’s Margarita, this one has a touch of agave syrup in with the tequila, triple sec and fresh lime to sweeten it up a little.

Next was the drink we were served on our way in, the Paloma. Put together by Don Javier Delgado Corona at La Caprilla in Tequila in the 1950s (he even has a Facebook appreciation page) this was designed to be a long cocktail involving tequila to take on the fashion of short drinks and shooters – half/half tequila/lime, a sprinkle of salt, all topped up with grapefruit soda. Alex used Ting, a Caribbean brand, but in Mexico they use one called Squirt. Cue laughter.

Next up was the Watermelon Margarita. I was expecting to find this a little boring – watermelon, lime, sugar, grenadine and tequila. However, the various ingredients drew out the cucumberiness of the melon, hiding its sweetness behind their own more directly syrupy nature. Really refreshing and very nice indeed.

The next one was quite disappointing – the Pomegranite Margarita. Grenadine, lime, tequila, fresh pomegranate, shaken with ice. The pomegranate flavour really didn’t come through, although the grenadine did stain everything pink, and it tasted like a slightly more watered version of the regular margarita.

Second to last was one that hooks in with something I’ve seen in a few bars recently – replicating Pimm’s without using Pimm’s. Pimm’s No 1 Cup, the base for a traditional ‘Pimm’s’, is an infusion based on gin (with peel, fruit, spices and whatever other voodoo the sekrit recipe requires) and many bartenders have been putting together their own versions , often combined with something other than lemonade, to give their unique alternatives. Benito’s Hat have jumped in with the Juarez Summer Cup, named for Benito Juarez, the stove-pipe hat wearing Mexican president from the mid 1800s who also gives his name to the restaurant. It’s a quick and dirty cup (a dash of Campari, dry vermouth, tequila, lime and lemonade, garnished with mint and cucumber) but tastes surprisingly complex with lots of vegetableness and a hint of coconut…

Mexican EspressoLast, but not least, is the obligatory ‘pick me up’ cocktail, the Mexican Espresso – tequila, kahlua (which is also Mexican), espresso and agave syrup, garnished with some coffee beans. The coffee blots out most of the other flavour (as you’d expect with kahlua and espresso involved) but it seemed to go down well in the room.

Also on the bar Alex had brought along some other tequilas from brands that he works with. First up was 7 Leguas, 7 leagues, named after the distance that a horse could run without getting tired which was used as the distance between towns in the early days of new world colonisation. The bottle features a picture of Pancho Villa‘s horse, celebrating the Mexican revolution as many tequila companies do. They were founded in 1952 by the Gonzales family, the original producers of Patrón (and generally considered to have produced the best version, from the tequila boards I’ve been reading today) in the highlands to the east of Guadalajara. The soil is quite different to that around Tequila, with a much more heavy mineral element which leads to much larger agave plants, which in turn changes the flavour of the tequila. While I’d heard about this at the last tequila tasting I’d been to I was very interested to try it first hand.

I managed to taste my way through most of their range, starting with the 7 Leguas Blanco. On the nose it had a much deeper vegetal smell than the Tequileño with a light pepperiness and underlying sweetness. To taste it was spicy and sweet with a burst of ashy smoke and lots of fruit – almost strawberries and bananas. To finish it went slightly citrusy and soapy – a touch of yellow fairy liquid. Really interesting, up until the finish, I think this is the first Benito’s Hat tequila of the month and it’s definitely worth a try to compare to the lowland Tequileño.

I went through them in reverse order and next had some 7 Leguas D’Antaño, their extra anejo, aged for 5 years. On the nose it has dry oak and a light agave-ness with only a hint of pepperiness. To taste it’s sweet with sweet wood, a touch of menthol and a similar soapy/citrus finish to the blanco. I think this is further evidence that I’m not that big a fan of old tequila, with the woodiness generally changing the fresh agave a bit much for my liking.

I then shifted down the line to the 7 Leguas Añejo, aged for two years. The nose had pepper but also a burst of sweet woody vanilla and the taste had thick caramelly wood leading to a vegetably agave finish. A nice thickly sweet tequila that was on the right side of my taste for the combination of wood and agave.

This led me naturally to the last in the range – the 7 Leguas Reposado, aged 6-8 months. This was again rather sweet on the nose but with more of the fleshy agave and pepperiness than the older tequilas. To taste it had an icing sugar fizzy sweetness, a honey/agave syrup stickiness and light smoke leading to a bitter wood finish. If it wasn’t for the fizzy sweetness this would have been my favourite of the range, but definitely one if you like sweet spirits.

By this time the bar had started to pack down and there was one bottle left for me to try, one that I’d been keeping my eye on – Mezcal Vida from Del Maguey. This was a, as the name suggests, mezcal rather than a tequila and it’s made by a modern-day shaman near Wahaca, or so said the tale that Alex spun. I’ve recently tasted Forever Oax (at Wahaca, the restaurant named for the town where Mezcal Vida originates) and this was the next step along. The Forever Oax is a smoky mezcal but this stuff was a punch to the face – peppery and smoky on the nose, but with tobacco, rubber and dark chocolate to taste. My notes say ‘like chewing on a chocolate coated tractor tire in a badly kept humidor’, but the tequila was very much getting to me by that time. Really interesting and something that I think I need in my cupboard.

Anyways, before I moved onto that slow slide beneath the table that tasting a bar of tequilas naturally inspires, we made cocktails. The group split up into groups of four or five and armed with a table of ingredients (as well as anything else we could beg from the kitchen) and our mission was to make something to head up the opening cocktail menu. I teamed up with TehBus, TikiChris and Annie Mole and the plotting began. I started by wanting to make something with gooseberries and squished some up with the Tequileño blanco that we had on the table only to find that even strongly flavoured gooseberries didn’t really stand up to the agave pepperiness, disappearing in a lightly fruity flash. While I started tinkering with tabasco, worcester sauce, and green and red salsas (making a few spicy and tasty but not particularly inspiring shooters) Chris started on the recipe that would become our entry – the TiKiLa. After some experimentation with various proportions, and the acquisition of some Horchata from the kitchen, we came up with our final recipe:

The TiKiLa:
2 parts tequila
1 part triple sec
1 part horchata
3 parts crushed watermelon
Agave syrup for extra sweetness (if needed)

Shake all the ingredients together with ice (adding agave syrup to sweeten if necessary) and strain into a tumbler over fresh ice. Edge and garnish the glass with a bruised mint leaf.

DSC_3861
Euwen, Chris and Me. Photo from Chris Osburn’s flickr stream, shot by Annie Mole

Somehow we managed to miss out on winning (we at first thought that we’d managed to put in too many ingredients to make it a do-able cocktail, but having seen both the ingredients list and Ben’s reaction to the winner, Jules’s Marvellous Margarita, it seems that it wasn’t something that had crossed his mind while judging) but our recipe did produce a good enough quantity of cocktail to pass around the assembled throng, although it did mainly end up back with us.

Anyways, a nice new choice for the Covent Garden area and, more interestingly for me, a new place to grab tequila. After 7 Legues the next tequila of the month is going to be Conde Azul, complete with ridiculously ornate bottle, so I may be visiting again soon.

El Tequileño Blanco
40%, 100% blue agave tequila. ~$30 per bottle

7 Leguas Blanco
40%, 100% blue agave tequila. ~£50 per bottle

7 Leguas Reposado
38%, 100% blue agave tequila. ~£50 per bottle

7 Leguas Añejo
38%, 100% blue agave tequila. ~£55 per bottle

7 Lequas D’Antaño
40%, 100% blue agave tequila. ~£150 per bottle

Mezcal Vida
42%, 100% organic agave mezcal. ~£45 per bottle

These aren’t easy to find to buy by the bottle, with TheDrinkShop having the 7 Leguas and Royal Mile Whiskies the Mezcal Vida, but El Tequileño seems to be only really being available to trade (unless you want to buy a case from Amathus or bring some back from the USA). If you’re interested in finding any of them in bars then ping Alex, as he probably knows a few who can help you out.

The new Benito’s Hat opens today (15th July 2010), so print out a flyer and head down for a freebie drink and a taco or two if you’re nearby.

Tapatio and Chinaco Tequila Tasting at The Whisky Exchange

Tequila is a much maligned drink. While the vast majority of tequila drinking experiences in the UK end in drunken debauchery, blood loss and the wearing of foolish hats, there is a whole world outside of girls with bottle holsters and shooter glass bandoliers. Dylan Moran’s words should normally be taken as gospel and his comment that ‘tequila is a way of getting the police to call without using the phone’ is worryingly true, but there is another side to it.

A few years back I was given a bottle of Herradura Anejo tequila by a friend of mine who was going back to the USA (hello Beth!) and discovered that tequila didn’t necessarily require lime and salt to be palatable. However, since then I’ve done little but take an inch out of the Herredura bottle and haven’t followed up on learning more about the drink. But Whisky Exchange to the rescue! When I was there for the Glenmorangie tasting at the beginning of the year there was an enthusiasm amongst the staff for non-whisky related booze to be showcased and when this popped up I grabbed a ticket (and learned not to leave booking too late – I think I got the last one).

declanThe tasting was led by Declan McGurk of Speciality Brands, the guys behind The Whisky Exchange, and led us up to the drinking end of the evening with a load of background to tequila. However, to make sure we didn’t we didn’t dry out in the meantime we were presented with Margaritas on arrival, specifically Tommy’s Margaritas, as made in Tommy’s Bar in San Francisco. Some Tapatio Blanco, shaken with ice, lime, agave syrup and agave sec (like triple sec, but with agave syrup in) and served over ice – it was much less sweet than your regular salt rimmed glass, slushy machine based alcohol delivery system and rather nice and refreshing, with the pepperiness of the tequila working well with the lime and the syrup sweetening it enough that there were no flickering eyelids or winces of sourness.

This history of tequila production goes back quite a way. Back in meso-american times one of the standard alcholic beverages in the area that would become Mexico was (and is, although with a much reduced popularity) Pulque, a drink made from the fermented sap of agave plants. It is generally thought that the Spanish brought the concept of distillation with them when they conquered central the region, although there are of course some tales of pre-conquest distilling, and it spread amongst the booze makers. In 1758 Jose Cuervo founded the first licensed distillery in the town of Tequila, giving rise to the industry and the name of the spirit. As with a number of other alcoholic beverages the success of tequila outside of its native land is in part due to Prohibition in the USA – Canadian whiskey came in from the north, rum from the Caribbean and tequila from south of the border. At the end of prohibition demand remained and tequila has become a mainstay of bars ever since.


A jimador poking his agave. Photo by wdlindmeier on flickr

Simply put, tequila is distilled agave beer (a similar substance to Pulque, but made with cooked agave plants), in the same way that brandy is ‘just’ distilled wine and whisky is distilled unhopped beer. However, as usual, it’s much more complicated than that. Agave is a cactus like plant, with large leaves above ground and the ‘heart’, or piña, of the plant hiding underground. The agave grown for tequila is a relatively fast growing cultivar of the plant, taking a mere (sarchasm intended) 6-12 years to grow, although they are normally harvested at around 8 years (when they reach a sugar concentration of about 24°Bx). From here the process is similar to regular beer and spirit production:

  • The agave hearts are cooked for 3-5 days in large steam powered brick and clay ovens (or more often these days in metal pressure cookers in a shorter time)
  • They are then crushed (either using mill stone called a tahona or more modern drum based crushers)
  • The juice then has yeast added and is fermented with some of the agave pulp in open vats for 7-12 days, producing a 5-7% alcohol “wash”
  • The liquid is then distilled in either pot or column stills (with the more premium producers, as with whisky, preferring the pot stills for the lower ABV and increased levels of flavour that they produce) to produce a spirit at about 40% alcohol (80 proof)

As with many other spirits, it’s at this point that interesting things happen. As with whisky and others tequila is generally matured in wooden barrels (mainly ex-bourbon barrels, as the requirement that bourbon always be matured in new barrels means that there is a ready supply), and there are 4 types of tequila, named based on how long they stay in wood:

  • Blanco (white) – this is spirit that is unaged. It will generally sit for up to 2 months in steel tanks to ‘rest’ before being bottled, although some producers get it into the bottle as soon as possible. It is clear and generally considered the least interesting of the varieties – it doesn’t sell much in Mexico…
  • Reposado (rested) – this is slightly aged spirit. Due to the climate in Mexico maturation in wood motors along a bit more than in colder climes, and reposado tequila stays in the barrel for 2-12 months. This is by far the most popular form of tequila in its native land.
  • Anejo (old) – this is aged for 1-3 years.
  • Extra Anejo (extra old) – aged for 3+ years. Due to the accelerated aging compared to whiskies, brandies and the like, you don’t see much very old tequila, with the oldest that the Whisky Exchange staff could think of sitting at 10 years old. However, with the maturation of the market it’s only a matter of time before we get much older ones appearing, with the corresponding price tag…

The naming of tequila is, as ever, still further complicated, as tequila is actually just a type of Mezcal – the generic name for distilled drinks based on agave. Regulations were introduced in 1994 restricting what can be called tequila: To be tequila all the agave used must be Blue Agave, rather than any other type, and it must be produced within a certain geographic area (centred around Guadalajara). To add further confusion, much of the tequila exported in the past has been Mixto, where a proportion of the agave juice has been replaced with much cheaper sugar syrups – it still must be at least 51% agave, but anything up to that can still be sold as Mixto Tequila. Luckily the drinks we tried avoided all of that by being 100% blue agave Tequila.

tequila-matAnyways, now well versed in what we were going to drink we pounced on the tasting mat laid out before us – three from Tapatio, three from Chinaco and one special extra one from Tapatio. Tapatio, named using the word for a resident of Jalisco, the region containing Guadalajara and most Tequila production, is a producer based in the ‘highlands’ to the east of Guadalajara, near Arandas, the main tequila producing area of the region. The La Alteña distillery was opened in 1937 by Don Felipe Camerena, a former agave grower, with the reins of production now having passed on to his grandchildren. They distill their tequila twice and, unlike most other producers, bottle it undiluted at still strength. I couldn’t find much about it online, with google pointing me at Tapatio Hot Sauce, but with a little bit of poking it seems that Tapatio is the Mexican brand name, with it being exported to the US (seemingly with some changes for legal and local taste reasons) under the name El Tesoro de Don Felipe.

First up was Tapatio Blanco, 40% and rested for a few weeks in steel vats before bottling. On the nose it was a fairly standard tequila smell, with white pepper and general vegetal booziness. However it was quite different to taste, with the pepper being much more subdued than your regular bar tequila, appearing mainly on the finish, the spirit being very smooth and easy to drink and there being a red peppery sweetness to it. My first premium blanco and a nice drink – unexpectedly smooth and not entirely unlike good new make whisky spirit in feel.

To accompany the blanco we were also provided with some Verdita, the green shot in the picture. This is a mix of pineapple and coriander with a touch of mint and birds eye chilli that was made up shortly before the tasting to maintain it’s fresh taste. It was really good, sipped after a nip of tequila, and working well with the peppery finish and sweetness of the tequila.

Next on the list was the Tapatio Reposado, 38%, rested for about 6 months (with different barrels generally being left for between 3 and 9 months) and slightly coloured by the wood, this is Tapatio’s best seller at home. On the nose it had the typical pepperiness, a hint of wood and the astringent vegetably alcohol smell that I assume is the agave. To taste it was quite light and smooth, with more pepper than the blanco and some hints of woody vanilla, rounded off with touch of mint and sliced red pepper. Much more interesting than the blanco and a definite step up.

We then moved on to the last of the regular range with the Tapatio Anejo, also at 38% and matured for 15-18 months in oak. It was darker again than the reposado, and added more oak and a grape fruitiness to the regular pepperiness. To taste this was much more towards what I’m used, with some similarity to whisky – the pepper was light and there was winey wood, drying tannins and an icing sugar sweetness. Interesting, leaning much more towards woody, whisky flavours but with and underlying pepperiness rather than the malt of whisky. The reposado was definitely my favourite of these first three Tapatio tequilas, balancing the interesting flavours from the maturation process with that of the agave to make something that tasted like a tequila as well as having more to it than the blanco.

After these initial Tapatios we moved on to the blanco, reposado and anejo from Chinaco, makers of the first ‘super premium’ tequila. This tequila comes from a slightly different area, Tamaulipas to the east of the regular region, the only tequila to do so. The story behind this struck me as slightly dodgy, but it would be rude of me to read state corruption between the lines. The original owner was a farmer who lost of all his crops due to storms, apart from the hardy agave. He then stuck with agave and made deals to sell it when ripe, but ended up with a load of unsold agave due to his buyers going back on their side of the deal. At this point, in 1977, he founded a distillery, Tequilera La Gonzaleña, and started making tequila, lobbying to have the regions for tequila production expanded to include Tamaulipas, despite it being a satellite area from the rest. The fact that the owner in question was Guillermo Gonzalez, the Mexican secretary of agriculture, changes the feel of the story slightly. This is now all rolled in to the family history along with Guillermo’s great-grandfather Manuel being a famed freedom fighter (one of a group called the Chinacos, hence the tequila’s name) and Guillermo’s children have now taken over the running of the distillery.

tequila-protected-territory-map
Tequila regions, from Tequila.net

Anyways, we started, as expected, on the Chinaco Blanco, 38% and bottled after resting in vats for a mere five days. Chinaco harvest their agave earlier than Tapatio and the soil is much more clay and limestone heavy, leading to less sweetness and more stony flavours coming out in the spirit. On the nose it was slightly peppery with hints of sweet red pepper. To taste it was very smooth, buttery and savoury with a thick mouthfeel, light pepperiness and a sweet, sugary finish. A very different flavour to the Tapatio Blanco, but also very much in a different league pricewise.

To accompany the blanco, we had a shot of Sangrita – a cooked and then cooled mixture containing tomato, orange juice, lime, beef stock, oregano, ‘Da Bomb’ hot sauce (pure capsaicin), mint, salt, pepper and pomegranite molasses (as well as some other ingredients, I think, as the tequila had affected my ability to write quickly). It was an excellent accompaniment adding, strangely, chocolatey notes to the mix of flavours and made me wonder what a tequila old fashioned might taste like…

Chinaco’s maturation process is slightly different to the others, including not only french oak in the process but also whisky barrels (although their website describes them as ‘english oak barrels’ which I don’t entirely believe). As yet there isn’t much of a tradition for using interesting woods when maturing tequila, although with rum now moving into wine finishes and people like Chinaco experimenting with whisky barrels it can only be a matter of time.

Next was the Chinaco Reposado, 38%, matured for about 11 months and about as coloured as the Tapatio reposado. On the nose it had vanilla wood, white pepper and marshmallows, starting to have some hints of whisky flavours in amongst the agave and pepperiness. To taste there was chunk of sweet creamy vanilla and a peppery finish, with not much that wasn’t on the nose. The main thing I noticed was the very creamy mouthfeel, like some young whisky.

The last on the mat was Chinaco Anejo, matured for 30 months and clocking in at 40%. On the nose it had sweet wood and red berries, and was quite pleasant, however the tasting of it divided the room. The mouthfeel was very strange, very thick and syrupy and with an oily nature that led it to coat your tongue in an unsettling way. Flavour-wise it was interesting, with sweet woodiness starting things and bitter burnt wood finishing. In between there was spice, a tannic woodiness that dried out the mouth and a flinty stoniness to it. Very different to what I’d thought tequila to be and not one that I was too keen on, especially due to its strange consistency in the mouth.

As a special treat we had a 7th tequila to taste, described by Declan as the best that he had ever tried (with an admitted bias to the brands that he looks after) – Tapatio Reservas de la Excelencia Extra Anejo. It’s matured for between 3 and 5 years, with most of the mix being at the 5 year end, 40% and over double the price of any other tequila served on the evening. It’s very dark, the tropical climate of Mexico accelerating the aging, and looked more like a dark whisky than the tequilas we’d tasted so far. Again they go with interesting wood, with some new Limousin oak, the loose grained wood sought after in France for it’s excellent maturation characterists, thrown into the mix. On the nose it was all about roses – dried roses, rose water and rose sweets with some vanilla wood and a background of orange smokiness mixed with the ever present agave. To taste it was something else, with agave syrup, limes, demerara sugar and vanilla (almost on the edge of being cloying – a bit like in Innis & Gunn beer) leading to a long dry wood finish. Something really very different and quite special to finish the evening.

While I didn’t run off and buy a bottle of the Tapatio Reposado to take home I certainly won’t be looking at tequila quite the same way again. I knew there was a lot more to it than is generally assumed, but the range of flavour is maybe as wide (as I would have guessed if I’d thought about it) as it is with whisky. More research must be done and thanks to those at my table I now have a list of places to go and do the practical experimentation…

Tapatio Blanco Tequila
40%, ~£20

Tapatio Reposado Tequila
38%, ~£25

Tapatio Anejo Tequila
38%, ~£30

Tapatio Reservas de la Excelencia (Extra Anejo Tequila)
40%, ~£150

Chinaco Blanco Tequila
40%, ~£45

Chinaco Reposado Tequila
38%, ~£50

Chinaco Anejo Tequila
40%, ~£60

All available from The Whisky Exchange – Tapatio, Chinaco.

To try interesting tequila in London (as well as eat some good Mexican food) I was recommended a couple of places: Mestizo in Camden and Santo in Notting Hill. Don’t ask for a salt rimmed glass, you might get asked to leave.