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.

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.

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.

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