Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Cheap Shot? Good Tequila, And Where To Find It

- Andrew Slowe

Tequila. “Tequila gives you hangovers…” “Tequila makes you angry…” “Tequila renders you largely incapable of proper speech”. But I (and a lot more respected and respectable Tequila-loving bodies) are here to absolve your fears and dispel the notion that Tequila is simply the ‘or’ to Sambucca on a night out in a dodgy club… when you’ve drunk too many beers… and J√§gerbombs, and you’re at the bar on your own… and there’s a £10 limit to use your card... and that girl’s boyfriend will not let you buy her a drink…

A little of the background. To be a real Tequila the drink must be made from at least 51% Blue Agave (or ‘Mixto’). To make the drink, the heart of the Agave Tequilana is removed and heated to produce a sap ,which is then fermented by those wiley Mexicans to make you forget why you got up in the morning.

Most of the Tequilas worthy of your attention and time (whether you remember or not) will be 100% Blue Agave and some of these are not only interesting, they are exciting, displaying true characteristics of their terroir. And helping these Tequilas to make a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of discerning drinkers are places like Cafe Pacifico in Covent Garden, Crazy Homies in West London and Navajo Joe’s; places that are bringing proper examples of this delightful spirit to our humble shores. 

As are the producers that are realising that Britain is a venerable and actually viable market for Tequila. Couple that with the spirit of exploration and you have a match made in heaven (or hell, depending how this reads).

And what better way to begin this love affair than with a tasting. Namely – and importantly one of my favourite Mexican restaurants - Wahaca’s ‘Tequila Experience’ which consists of Calle 23’s ‘Blanco’, ‘Reposado’ and ‘Anejo’ which is an absolute bargain at £10.65 and is designed to complement a three-course experience to be had before, during and after your meal respectively. Or, if you’re like me, you taste one and then smash two more glasses of Anejo before your refried beans have turned up. But I returned. In sobriety. On your behalf readers. To be objective.

So… Blanco is typically a young and fresh expression and is not usually aged but can be, up to a maximum of 59 days. My first test is no exception to the general rule and is bottled straight after distillation. It is crystal clear with subtle pepper and spice and pronounced Agave flavour but also offering hints of green apple. The finish is not long but it’s smooth and very clean; a short, sharp jab at the taste buds.

Reposado or ‘rested’ has spent time in oak; a minimum of two months but can be up to a year and this ageing is unrestricted and so can occur in larger barrels. In this case the double-distilled spirit has an 8 month sojourn before bottling and the oak produces a smooth, light amber spirit with notes of wood that however don’t detract from the distinctive Agave flavour. Again, the spirit doesn’t have a long lasting finish but it is smooth and rich on the palate before hinting at a touch of sweetness.

Finally, Anejo must be aged for at least one year (but can be up to three) and in smaller oak barrels which increases the surface area of booze in contact with the oak. This particular Tequila is aged for 16 months in old Bourbon casks, which is a favourite tool of the premium Tequila producers, and gives a nutty, toasty warmth to the spirit. This one is a little longer-lasting and my initial thought on the palate was of a well rounded Islay Whisky. It’s wonderfully smooth, with definite notes of caramel, butterscotch; hints of spice and chilli and white pepper - it’s superbly rounded, clean and vibrant.

Fortunately this is less about picking a favourite, because each Tequila has its own exceptions to offer, but I did enjoy the aged quality and superior smoothness of the Anejo. It was clean and fresh with a supple mouth feel without being cloying. But as an experience and as an introduction or investigation into something that we’re familiar yet truly unfamiliar with it was a joy. 

I’d recommend approaching this variable spirit with an open mind, free of the preconceptions that have dogged our opinions and experiences of Tequila. And I think there is a growing reputation for the venues offering these spirits exclusively, or as part of an excellent range, and there is a growing strength in top quality Tequilas and Mezcals - and a definite exoticism to the great ones.

Top image: Allan Donque. Agave plant: Raul Macias. Barrels: Mickou. All taken using Flickr's Creative Commons License.

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