It’s been a busy month. Or so. However out of a combination of a (misplaced and unrequired) sense of duty and the fact that this blog is increasingly a replacement for my rapidly deteriorating memory it’s time for some more Whisky Squad magic. Way back in April (about a month as I write) we hit the mammoth third session within a four week period, breaking out very much for pastures new. Eschewing both our usual pubby surroundings and the chilly lands to the north of Hadrian’s wall we gathered at Dishoom on St Martin’s Lane for a run through some Indian whiskies with Icons of Whisky Brand Ambassador of the Year 2012 Ashok Chockalingham of Amrut.
One nice thing about my new job is that as we hold tastings at our Vinopolis shop there are occasionally a few spots for us head office lot to go and visit. Extrapolating that a bit found me on a tube train at the end of my second day at TWE heading towards London Bridge and a rum tasting with Meimi Sanchez, UK brand ambassador for Havana Club. Meimi was born in Cuba, but due to a stint of working in Scotland, including some time at the rather excellent Bramble (which I still haven’t visited…), currently has a Scots accent, which caused a little bit of confusion at first.
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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
Next 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.
Blanco Tequila, 40%. ~£20
Reposado Tequila, 40%. ~£20
Añejo Tequila, 40%. ~£45
Ocho Extra Añejo
Extra añejo Tequila, not available in the UK.
Blanco Tequila, 38%. ~£25