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Tag: Agave

Mezcal Amores: turning the customer on to agave

Luis Niño de Rivera from Mezcal Amores is on a mission to persuade customers to try his agave spirits neat. Though he’s also partial to a cocktail or two of…

Luis Niño de Rivera from Mezcal Amores is on a mission to persuade customers to try his agave spirits neat. Though he’s also partial to a cocktail or two of an evening.

A popular refrain in the whisky industry is: it doesn’t matter how you drink our whisky, mix it with coke, drown it in ice, drink it through a straw, as long as you enjoy it, that’s the only thing that matters. It’s all done in the name of opening up the category ie. selling you more whisky. 

It was interesting therefore, talking to Luis Niño de Rivera from Mezcal Amores who said just the opposite. He thinks, in order to build his brand, it was important that customers learned to appreciate it neat. He explained the mentality: “consumers will think ‘I know mezcal is hot, I want a cocktail with mezcal’ but no one goes in and says ‘I want an Amores’.” In the huge US market, 95% of mezcal is consumed in cocktails, but this means that you’re not just competing with other brands, you’re competing with other spirits. 

According to Niño de Rivera, for mezcal to thrive customers should be drinking it neat so they can understand “the precious time it takes to make, all the different flavours and aromas. It’s a very rich palate experience”. This is how 70% of mezcal is drunk in Mexico.

Maestros mezcaleros are at the heart of Mezcal Amores

Maestros mezcaleros are at the heart of Mezcal Amores

Amaras, Amores, let’s call the whole thing off.

Amores Mezcal dates back to 2011 when it was founded by a group of friends and investors including Niño de Rivera. In the US it’s known as Amaras Mezcal, meaning “you will love”, whereas in the rest of the world it’s Amores, “love is.” At some point soon, the brand is going to change to Amaras globally. 

They began by sourcing mezcal from one maestro mezcalero but in 2013 they diversified to take in other producers and began bottling themselves. According to Niño de Rivera things began taking off: “In 2015 we knew we needed an artisanal mezcal produced at a good price for cocktails. The original range was never going to do well because of price.” ‘Artisanal’ is a legally-defined term specifying how the mezcal can be made. It’s less stringent than ‘ancestral’ but uses more traditional practises than plain ‘mezcal’. So they began work on their own distillery in 2016 and the first batch came off the stills in March 2017. 

In addition to their own mezcal, they work with 24 maestro mezcaleros around the country. “They are very important to us, they are the roots of what mezcal is,” he said. “We work in three different states with five different agave species.” With so many different producers involved, it’s difficult to generalise about production processes. Maestro mezcaleros will typically use wood or stone, and grind the agave to different textures, but each distillery has its own recipe as well as favoured fermentation and distillation techniques. “Some cut heads and tails, some put everything in the second distillation, everyone cuts differently.” 

Master of Malt currently stocks two Amores Mezcals, an Espadin and a Cupreata (both varieties of agave). Luis Niño de Rivera describes the former as “a blend of all the Espadin we have – like a blended malt.” Whereas the Cupreata is from a single producer like “a single malt.”

Mezcal Amores Lifestyle 22

Go on, try it neat. You might love it

Sustainability and agave

One of the difficulties with working with agave is that it takes a long time to mature before you can use it, up to about 14 years. As Niño de Rivera puts it “you don’t just open the faucet and it pours out, and if you don’t have agave, you don’t have mezcal.” So sustainability is very important to Amores.

He continued: “We knew we had to get vertically integrated and see a holistic model that could work in the whole supply chain. Since 2012/ 2013, we plant agave in a very organic way.” They pride themselves on being “seed to sip”, working with nurseries where different varieties of agave are grown. In some places, in order to avoid deforestation, they either plant in “already-ploughed agave lands that were already worked” or even planted the agave around the trees. He added: “We never launch an agave if we don’t have a planting programme.” This year they have planted over 100 hectares. 

The respect for the agave continues after harvesting: “We don’t use any chemical, additives, during fermentation or post-distillation.” They use natural yeasts for fermentation. They are also environmentally friendly in other ways: “in 2018 we started buying carbon bonds so we are carbon neutral. First mezcal and Mexican distilled spirit with carbon neutral accreditation”. This involved planting trees in the Amazon, the Dominican Republic and now in Mexico. 

Mezcal Amores Lifestyle 2

The all-important agave

Reaching the customer

Then it’s just the problem of getting people to drink the stuff. “Industry people are very keen, they love it, they are going deep into the mezcal world.” But according to Luis Niño de Rivera, this enthusiasm isn’t filtering down to the end customer, it’s just “industry-driven right now, customers know it is a trend but they haven’t got to the next stage of trying to understand it.”

Which brings us back to where we started, educating the consumer. Niño de Rivera compares it with how widely understood concepts like blended whisky, single malt, age statements and different brands are in Scotch whisky. But for most customers mezcal is just mezcal. Which is why he wants to encourage people to drink and appreciate mezcal neat, so that they can begin to understand all the different types. “For a white spirit to have all those complex aromas, it’s very unique,” he said. 

With Scotch, producers are trying to simplify their products for consumers to make it more accessible. With mezcal, producers are trying to get people to understand its sheer variety so that they treat it with more reverence. Two different approaches to marketing.

But while we should drink more Mezcal neat, don’t forget it does make some bloody good cocktails. Niño de Rivera is a particular fan of the Mezcal Negroni made with their Cupreata. His favourite, however, is something called the Cupreatini. He explains: “just take a couple of measures of Cupreata, shake with four cubes of ice, strain into a Martini glass and serve with an olive. The cold and shaking brings out the veggie green aromas in the mezcal.” It’s the perfect introduction for someone who is mezcal curious who isn’t quite ready to drink it neat. 

Mezcal Amores is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy. 

Mezcal Amores Cupreata Bottle 41º - 700 ml

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A spotlight on… Sin Gusano

The Sin Gusano range is all about small-batch, authentic, and delicious agave spirits. The kind of booze we probably would have never tasted were it not for founder Jon Darby….

The Sin Gusano range is all about small-batch, authentic, and delicious agave spirits. The kind of booze we probably would have never tasted were it not for founder Jon Darby. We spoke to him to find out why he swapped the city for spirits, how he aims to introduce people to a whole other world of mezcal, and more.

Jon Darby doesn’t have a background in drinks or hospitality. He worked for a decade in finance, then tried his hand at being a financial journalist. Frustrated with his career, he took a break to Mexico in 2016. There he was introduced to mezcal, inspiration struck and everything changed. “I didn’t really know anything about mezcal before then. My friend Alvin Starkman runs a company called Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca and he developed these relationships with these really small-time producers. You head out with just him in the car and see all kinds of family-based production. It was mind-blowing for me. I realised I wanted to work in mezcal,” he says.

He called his boss from the beach and quit his job, eventually extending a ten-day stay into three months, hiring cars, knocking on doors, and asking around looking for small-batch mezcal to enjoy. “I would just go in looking for telltale signs of mezcal production, usually a big stone wheel in a field. Generally, people were welcoming and friendly and you could buy a little copita (a plastic shot) from the local tienda (store). When I came back, I thought I’d go to London’s mezcal bars. As it turned out, there was really nowhere that was anywhere near the level of interest that I’d found in Mexico. That was a lightbulb moment”.

Darby exploited this gap in the market and turned this passion into his own brand: Sin Gusano. It means ‘without worm’ in Spanish, which Darby describes as a “piss-take of the outdated perception that mezcal is just rough tequila with a worm in the bottle”. The idea for his brand was to bottle some of the family-made spirits he tasted and leave behind the gimmicks and slick marketing. Before he could source and import his own spirits, he opened a pop-up in Brunswick East, a cafe in London, in May 2017 mainly selling other brands and a couple of samples he brought back. 

Sin Gusano

A trip to Mexico changed everything for Jon Darby

Sin Gusano: a different kind of brand

An almost year-long residency followed in 2018 in Haggerston, then in 2019 a collaborative pop-up with Pensador Mezcal in Soho. For obvious reasons, the pop-ups dried up, but Darby now runs a subscription service called the Mezcal Appreciation Society, which fills the gap of a place where people can engage and get to know the product better. This is not a typical brand, so education is key. “I want people to see what I found in Mexico because the reason I got so inspired because it was such a rich experience. These kinds of mezcals can seem unattainable and hard to get your head around if someone just puts it in front of you with no information and a hefty price tag”. Eventually, he has plans to have his own space with a tasting room, bar and shop.  

So far Darby has bottled 18 different distillates from 12 different producers in three different states under the Sin Gusano name. Another 12 are on the way. They are all limited releases, so once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s certainly not the easiest way to create a brand. Doing it Darby’s way means more distance traveled, shipping, bottling, and labeling. More relationships to build. “It’s a massive logistical headache. But this has been a passion product for me. I’m rejecting the typical brand approach where you find one producer, strike a deal, buy as much of their product as you can and put all your money into branding to tell everybody that that’s the best version of that product in the world. I’m saying ‘there is no one best; they are all fascinating and it’s up to you to decide what your palate prefers’. It’s like the opposite of Casamigos”. 

The Sin Gusano range is also a tremendous example of the terroir that exists with agave-based spirits. “That’s where mezcal should be going, talking about agave variety and regional varieties. Three Espadíns made in three different places taste completely different. It’s an internal debate within mezcal right now, as the industry promotes certain standards of production but it doesn’t give any particular kudos to regionality. And if mezcal is going to grow sustainably then different regional variations are going to need to be protected and understood”. 

Sin Gusano

Education is crucial to understanding what Sin Gusano is trying to achieve

Not quite mezcal

Darby is not a fan of the regulatory body that protects mezcal, the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal. And you can understand his frustration. Everything he bottles is essentially mezcal but cannot always be called that because the legislation is too constrictive. “It doesn’t protect all these massively different profiles. Take our spirit made from the tepextate plant. It’s the rarest agave and takes the longest time to reach maturity, some people say 30-35 years. It has a lower sugar content, yield, and higher methanol levels, about 450mg, or 0.45%. But the legal methanol limits imposed on the mezcal certification is 0.3%. It’s an arbitrary number. The EU legal limit for methanol is 1.5%. It’s not that it’s safer to drink, it’s just that they haven’t thought about the perspective of protecting biodiversity when they’ve made the mezcal regulation. It’s been thought through from the perspective of ‘how do we commercialise something and sell shitloads of it’. 

Championing the craft and heritage of these small-batch agave spirits doesn’t just extend to creating the Sin Gusano brand, however. The project is now officially carbon neutral, with Darby carrying out a full analysis of his supply chain and purchasing credits to offset it. The aim will be to reduce that creation year on year and, in line with the legal requirement, he plans to make the full report and certification visible on my website in the coming days. Darby adds that “this might make us the first carbon-neutral agave spirits bottles in the world,” and to be honest I can’t evidence of another at present.

Darby also donates 10% of UK profits back to Mexican charities. The main charity partner is the Chicago-based S.A.C.R.E.D (‘Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development’), who work with NGOs and people on the ground in Mexico to improve local communities and ensure more sustainable practices. “They implemented a rainwater-catching system to reduce their need for imported water, they built a library in a mezcal-producing community, they have a project that donates agave pups to an agricultural school that’s teaching people how to grow more varied types of agave from seed. As I said before, this is a passion project. The ambition is not to sell my brand for millions of dollars. It’s to go to Mexico and engage in the craft I really enjoy while supporting the things that I think are deserving of support”. 

Sin Gusano

You can find plenty of the Sin Gusano range right here at Master of Malt!

Highlights of the range:

Sin Gusano Cuishe & Coyote – Amatlan

Produced from a duo of wild Cuishe and Coyote agave, released as part of the Sin Gusano range. It’s distilled in a copper alembic with refrescador, which is a method using a condenser that essentially allows for two distillations during a single pass through the still. 

Nose: So fragrant and fruity, with roasted apricot, tangy pineapple, creamy coconut, cucumber, and a little corn on the cob with some oaky smoke, black pepper, and some mineral-rich earthiness in support.

Palate: The agave is fresh and sweet and joined by more ripe tropical fruits, toffee, lightly smoked pepper, fresh mint, hints of potpourri, and mixed spices.

Finish: Some orchard fruit joins in the fun among a little caramel and flinty minerality.

Sin Gusano Espadín – San Luis del Rio 

This unaged spirit from Sin Gusano was produced from the most common agave variety, Espadín in San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca, and bottled at 42.8% ABV. 

Nose: Olive brine, charred bell peppers, a little petrichor, and cucumber lead with smoke from a spent bonfire, watermelon, a touch of tropical fruit, and some sweetness from white chocolate and raspberry bar. 

Palate: Plenty of sweet agave is at the core of this palate which has some pleasant earthiness and an almost chalky quality. Notes of wood smoke, white pepper, floral honey, cedar, lime peel, and red fruit are present throughout.

Finish: A delicately sweet finish lingers with some citrus and mineral qualities.

Sin Gusano Tobala & Tepextate – Amatlan

This vegetal number, produced in Amatlan marries the Tobala and Tepextate agave varieties, with 75% and 25% of each variety respectively.

Nose: Bruised pears, roasted agave, dried grass, and some fragrant smoke are present among notes of orange peel, charred pineapple, strawberry milkshake, and wet pebbles.

Palate: Through more of that minerality comes tart citrus, green apple, eucalyptus, garden herbs, vegetal oak, and charcoal smoke.

Finish: Peppery spice flickers through some tangy fruit.

Sin Gusano Tobaziche – Amatengo

This particular release was distilled by Maestro Sergio Juárez Patricio in San Augustin Amatengo using Tobaziche agave crushed by a tahona wheel pulled by two bulls. After a four-day open-air fermentation, the agave is distilled in a copper alembic still with a refrescador.

Nose: Smoke-dried grass, numbing sichuan peppercorn, dried flowers, stone fruit, chilli chocolate, and a little ground cinnamon are supported by a gentle wave of mineral-rich smoke.

Palate: Sweet and aromatic spice weaves through waxy orange peel, soft cooked agave, dried earth, pink peppercorn, anise, and underlying notes of caramelised banana and toffee apples

Finish: Ripe green apple, cinnamon, and flinty minerality.

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Mixto Tequila: time for a reappraisal?

As the UK starts to see a slew of new mixto Tequila brands entering the market, we examine the perception of mixtos, speak to the people making them and ask…

As the UK starts to see a slew of new mixto Tequila brands entering the market, we examine the perception of mixtos, speak to the people making them and ask the experts if it’s time to reevaulate this maligned category. 

In her book, Spirits of Latin America, New York-based agave spirit expert and bar owner Ivy Mix categorically tells her readers not to drink mixto Tequilas. It’s no secret that this style of Tequila has its haters (so much so one Tequila and mezcal expert declined to be interviewed for this piece).

Yet as new and previously unavailable brands start to make their way into the market, it’s time to take another you at this oft-slated style of the Tequila category.

Hacha agave bar in London

Hacha agave bar in London

What is mixto Tequila?

Since the 1970s, when the rules changed, Tequila only has to be distilled with 51% agave. The rest of the alcohol can be derived from any type of sugar, most commonly piloncillo, a type of unrefined Mexican sugar. Mixto is a term, often used disparagingly, for Tequila that isn’t made from 100% agave. Its reputation has plummeted as consumers become more knowledgeable and move away from drinking Tequila in shots.

“When I started my career the majority of house Tequilas were mixtos because people didn’t really have that understanding of luxury agave spirits,” explains owner of agave-focused bar Hacha, Deano Moncrieffe. How times have changed – sales of premium tequilas have rocketed in recent years and many customers can now tell their añejos from their reposados. So, what will it take to put mixtos back on the map?

Quality control

“I think we need to reframe them as regular Tequila – the term ‘mixto’ is one we’re moving away from,” says Hannah Lanfear, spirits educator and director of The Mixing Class. For Lanfear, what is more important is quality. And what’s the most important factor in a Tequila’s quality? The maturity of the agave. “You can make a proper shitty 100% agave Tequila if you’re using bad-quality agave,” Lanfear says.

It was this very point that got Paul Hayes, co-founder and CEO of premium Tequila brand Vivir, and a new mixto brand called El Sueño, into Tequila 16 years ago. Having spent years believing an allergy to Tequila was a reaction to certain, cheaper styles (ie. mixtos), it was only after further investigation that he was in fact allergic to underaged agave. “Tequilas that came from diffusers were my main problem. They don’t cook the agave but can extract sugars from much younger agaves – that’s the allergy I had. So I can drink cheaper Tequilas as long as they’ve gone through the proper process.”

To make El Sueño, 70% agave and 30% locally-grown cane sugar is used. The latter is an important factor for Hayes as it carries a slight flavour, is sustainably grown and representative of the local community and environment. The agave is cooked in hornos and autoclaves, while he uses natural volcanic water (which is also used to clean the equipment). Hayes says he and co-founder Navindh Grewal like to know where every single part of their Tequila comes from.

VIVIR Tequila

The Blue Weber Agave used in VIVIR Tequila

Good basic Tequila

Bringing a mixto to market was actually not what Hayes and Grewel had in mind. “When we were creating Vivir, we went through the same process of developing a quality mixto, more for selfish reasons as I live in Somerset and I thought it would be great if we could produce a high quality, entry level Tequila.” When pub buyers tried Vivir, they loved it, but wanted to have a more accessible Tequila in order to upsell to their customers. After winning blind taste tests, El Sueño became part of the range.

Lanfear namechecks El Tequileño as another brand going to “extreme lengths to get good quality, sourcing top quality, slow-grown agave.” 2021 saw El Tequileño enter the UK market, bringing its 70-year-old history as well as one of Mexico’s most famous mixtos with it.

For Becky Davies, owner of Ten Locks which imports the brand, bringing in high quality mixtos is important for the Tequila category as a whole. “There’s a risk that an influx of poorly made mixtos and diffuser Tequilas, made to deliver at a price point some grocers demand, will undermine the true, high quality nature of the spirits. This is not good news for Tequila, where producers have spent such a long time trying to re-establish how wonderful the category is.”

EL Tequileño

El Tequileño line-up

Mixing with mixtos

During a tasting with bartenders and journalists on Margarita Day, Steffin Oghene, vice president of global marketing and business development at El Tequileño, was keen to impress that mixtos have a place in the Tequila market.

The brand dates back to 1959 when it was founded by Don Jorge Salles Cuervo. It is the Tequila of choice at the famous World’s Top 50 La Capilla Cantina. The bar’s signature La Batanga cocktail uses El Tequileño.

Mixto’s place as a cocktail ingredient has been its primary use compared to more sippable 100% agave liquids. There are some cocktails that can carry a mixto – larger formats like big batch Margaritas – while others need more body or flavour. “To make a Tequila Manhattan or Martini, then you may not have the body of flavour you’d need with a mixto,” admits Lanfear, but she sees ABV rather than the style of Tequila as a more important factor when it comes to cocktail structure. To use a lower ABV Tequila in a cocktail, she says, is “like using your finishing salt to season your pasta water.”

Is mixto more sustainable?

Conversations around sustainability also bring mixtos into the mix. Agave takes a minimum of seven years to mature – if mixtos use less agave, surely that makes them more sustainable? While Ivy Mix doesn’t see the need to make mixtos due to the sheer abundance of blue agave in Mexico, Hayes thinks the growing agave crisis is an important factor to take into account when we think about the future of the category. Lanfear agrees – anything to slow down the industrialisation of Tequila – but Moncrieffe isn’t so convinced. “It is maybe more sustainable, but what if you’re using twice the amount? It depends on the size of your operation. I understand the argument, I’m not 100% sure it’s legitimate.”

Mix instead is far more interested in hybrid Tequilas that use less agave. “I think there could be ways for sure to make a product that was interesting. Imagine if I took some sort of ideally Mexican product, for instance some of the amazing rums coming out of Mexico, and made a 51% lowland tahona-milled excellent Tequila then made the other bit an amazing Mexican rum. As far as I know nobody is doing that.”

Changing perceptions

When it comes to looking at the future of mixtos, Hayes is not unaware of the challenges his brand faces, but early interest is quelling some of those fears. “We’ve been inundated, two or three request a week, with people wanting to import El Sueño. They’ve just taken on ex-bartender and mixto cynic Jo Wilde on board as an ambassador (“he used to be that guy, – I think he actually had a T-shirt saying ‘No mixto’ on it), while a NYC distributor of Vivir recently took on El Sueño too. It’s just launched in 1,000 venues in Australia as well.

Mixtos may still have a way to go to change its image – but it looks like the tides might (slowly) be turning. Pass me a lime juicer.

El Sueno

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Changing the perception of Tequila with VIVIR

The founders of VIVIR Tequila believe they can change the way you think about Tequila. We spoke to them to find out why. Recognition of Tequila and mezcal as a diverse, impressive…

The founders of VIVIR Tequila believe they can change the way you think about Tequila. We spoke to them to find out why.

Recognition of Tequila and mezcal as a diverse, impressive and important category is increasing. Agave-based spirits have never been so highly sought after, with recent data revealing exports of Tequila from Mexico’s 155 licensed distilleries are worth over $1.6 billion. Tequila was also noted as the star performer in Diageo’s half-year results and there’s been a remarkable number of celebrities jumping on the bandwagon. George Clooney’s Casamigos Tequila brand (sold to Diageo for US$1 billion in August 2017) being the obvious example, but Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Michael Jordan, Nick Jonas and Rita Ora are also among those who’ve placed their faith and finances in the Tequila trend.

It’s about time, too. Spirits enthusiasts have long maintained that Tequila should be taken more seriously, pointing to its long, romantic history and complex production process. The party spirit perception may have held the category back in the past, but the tide is turning. Premium brands are playing their part as the likes of Patrón have begun to make a difference. But closer to home in the UK there’s a newcomer that has big aspirations and a promising range of spirits to match.

VIVIR (to live) was founded by Navindh Grewal and Paul Hayes and its core range of Blanco, Reposado and Añejo bottlings launched at the beginning of 2019. The ambition? To ‘change the way you think about Tequila’. Intrigued, we spoke to Grewal and Hayes to find out more.

VIVIR Tequila

Say hello to Navindh Grewal and Paul Hayes!

As far as inspiration for creating your own Tequila brand goes, there’s few more remarkable or unlikely than Bircher muesli of all things. But it was in the making of a Bircher muesli brand that Hayes became a fan of the agave-based spirit. “I founded a food company and was the first person to make Bircher muesli in the UK.  I’m a real stickler for my ingredients, where they come from, how sustainable they are, and I wouldn’t use refined sugar. So I used agave syrup instead,” says Hayes. “But it was hard to get your hands on agave syrup. I learned that the majority came from distilleries, so I got in contact and met with them to understand the process more. It was at that point that I started drinking and falling in love with Tequila”.

Unfortunately for Hayes, when he returned to the UK it was difficult to find a Tequila he was able to enjoy due to an unlikely allergy. “Back then the only Tequila you’d find really were cheaper bottlings that were about 49% agave and they were the one thing in the world I’m actually allergic to. I had a really bad reaction and a doctor said there was something in that 49% that isn’t the agave that you’re allergic to,” Hayes explains. “But when I started drinking Tequila while sourcing agave syrup in Mexico, it would be rude not as I was working with them, I would have 100% agave Tequila and I really liked it and I was absolutely fine.”

Fast forward to 2015, and friends Grewal and Hayes were talking about their shared love of Tequila and the production process. Wanting to drink some, the only brand that was available was the style Hayes couldn’t drink. “That begged the question, why is this always the case in the UK? Unless you go to a specialist cocktail bar or Mexican restaurant then getting premium Tequila was actually quite difficult or very costly. We thought ‘there’s probably an opportunity there,” says Hayes. “We already knew how to make Tequila, we’ve already worked with a couple of amazing distilleries, we already understood the import and export market, we’re registered with the CRT over there. We were in a unique place to do something about it”.

 

The duo then began to work on creating the first British independent Tequila brand based in the UK. But for all their expertise, they were missing one thing: a distillery. Using their contacts and knowledge of the category and region, they chose to work with The Casa Maestri Distillery. Also known as the Destiladora del Valle de Tequila, it was created just 11 years ago by Michael and Celia Maestri in the heart of Jalisco and now claims to be the most awarded Tequila distillery in Mexico. The success is not surprising given the duo have distilling in their blood. Previous distilleries founded by relatives include the Licores Veracruz Liquor Distillery and the Frank-Lin Distillers Ltd.

Hayes knew they were a good bet having worked with them before. “They ticked all of our boxes. They’re a great team over there, they grow all their own Highland Weber Blue Agave, the only variety we use, they still adopt traditional production techniques,” he explains. “The water comes from a natural volcanic spring that occurs at the distillery, which makes a huge, huge difference. As we tasted and developed we found there was a pepperiness or metallic taste to a lot of other Tequilas who were using the quality agave we were producing. It actually ended up being the water”

Casa Maestri Distillery also emphasised sustainable production, an aspect that Hayes and Grewal take very seriously.  “It’s a massive focus for us and them. They actually won an award recently for being the best exporter with the CRT (Tequila Regulatory Council) and the government over in Mexico,” says Hayes. “They work really closely with the jimadores (Mexican agave farmers) who are all employed by the distillery themselves and they grow their agave to full maturity and cultivate a lot of it, so they grow until it flowers so they can collect the seeds and guarantee the next crop. They manage the wildlife around there as well, keeping the insect and bat populations healthy. It’s all the good stuff that we really care about”.

VIVIR Tequila

The highland Weber Blue agave used in VIVIR Tequila is estate-grown

After a year of development and hundreds of iterations, Hayes and Grewal were satisfied that they had made their first expression: VIVIR Blanco. “It’s been about nine years in the making as our Highland Weber Blue Agave takes about eight to nine years to mature. It’s estate-grown by our distillery which means we know the pH in the soil, the jimador who farmed it and we get these big 80-90 kg piñas from them. These are then cooked for about three to four days in the hornos (clay ovens) which keep that strong agave flavour and allow us to create a smooth spirit that has slight smoke in the background,” Hayes explains. “The agave goes through the milling process to extract all of the agave syrup which is then fermented and distilled in stainless steel stills. We did try copper but it added a slightly metallic finish which for us it just wasn’t right. On the nose, the Blanco is very fresh, almost floral and botanical. You get the slight hint of vanilla cause we do grow our agave to full maturity and they’ve got high brix content so it’s naturally a bit sweeter. The agave is very present and the profile carries into other drinks quite well, like long drinks with soda or tonic water and in a Margarita, which perfectly complements it”.

Once the duo were happy with the Blanco, it was then a case of waiting for the Reposado and Añejo to age, the former for six months and the latter for eighteen months. For the two aged expressions, standard-sized Jack Daniel’s casks were used. “We don’t use the big vat casks as the profile is quite strong and over-emphasises the natural vanillas and caramels. The casks were used twice before for two months for another reposado and that was by design. If you use it raw from Jack Daniels it’s a bit overpowering and we wanted to keep the agave flavour in there. There is nothing added to the reposado or añejo once aged,” Hayes explains. “We did try about eight or nine different cask types ranging from like wine-finishes to different bourbons, but the Jack Daniel’s worked best. They are also readily available as well which means we can better guarantee consistency. That’s one of the challenges that we found, especially in the independent Tequila business and with reposados, they can vary between batches. We know we’re up against it in the UK so we want to create a Tequila that’s has a strong agave profile but still very approachable, something very smooth, clean and crisp. That’s why we took so long getting it right”. 

The reposado was designed to be accessible as Hayes and Grewal recognise that the profile of a Blanco Tequila can be overwhelming for those who are new to Tequila. “We wanted the reposado to fill that gap and that’s probably its biggest selling point. You’ll get the agave presence so you’ll still know it’s Tequila, but the vanilla the caramel and the almost melted butter note people love. It still works really well as a base spirit in cocktails and long drinks. One of our biggest wins in promoting VIVIR has been the reposado with ginger ale. It acts like a rum replacement because it actually has a little bit of sweetness in there,” says Hayes. “With the añejo, the sweetness dies down a little bit and the sort of smokier notes, burned chocolate or burned banana, start to take over a little bit. If you drink it neat or with an ice cube it’s pretty epic. A lot of bars now use it in more traditional cocktails like a Tequila Twist, but it’s amazing in things like Espresso Martinis and Old Fashioneds”. 

VIVIR Tequila

The VIVIR range

The future of VIVIR will be about establishing the core range, but Hayes and Grewal are happy to reveal that more expressions are being developed. The duo are experimenting with cask finishes. “We’re going to export some Cognac casks and start ageing our blanco in them to do some limited edition runs of specific vintage cognac cask-aged blancos, which will be really interesting. Because our Espresso Martini did so well we keep getting asked to do a coffee-infused version of our blanco, so we’ve been working with a local coffee provider in Mexico on that with our own natural agave syrup,” says Hayes. “We’re also ageing some extra añejos, which will probably come to the market as limited editions,” adds Grewal. 

One thing you won’t be seeing in VIVIR’s distinctive bottles for the foreseeable future is mezcal, even though it’s a style both appreciate. “Mezcal’s great and we’d love to make our own, but ultimately we’re real sticklers around knowing exactly how to make a spirit. We might think we know a lot about mezcal, but in our own minds we don’t think it’s enough to really do it justice,” Hayes admits. “If we were ever to go down that route we’d want to get it really right. We’d want to partner with the right people, find the right location with the right agave. I don’t just want to rush a mezcal to market just for the sake of having one because of the buzz around the category”.

The biggest challenge for VIVIR will be the same for every Tequila brand: to shake off the stigma it has attached to it. A big step in the right direction will be to demonstrate the variety of ways that it can be enjoyed. “Tequila is seen as that horrible drink you had as a student at the end of a night when you’d probably drunk too much already. Most Tequila brands will tell you that. But there’s a lot more to Tequila than meets the eye and what your previous experience is,” says Hayes.”Showing it’s not just a shooter you do with salt and lime is key. We never serve them with VIVIR Tequila, because you just don’t need to, it’s as simple as that. Salt and lime are often there to mask the taste of a horrible Tequila you just had, but with our spirits, that’s not necessary.  There are so many other great ways to enjoy them. One of our biggest wins has been the Tequila and Tonic. People know gin and tonic so it’s not a challenging serve. It’s an easy way to get people into Tequila”. 

VIVIR Tequila

No longer should Tequila be seen as a drink that must be washed down with salt & lemon

The plan for VIVIR is to build on the success of the craft beer and craft gin sector, which have heightened people’s interest in the process of how a drink is made, why it’s made and the history behind it all. “The key is getting across to them the heritage and craft that goes into making it. People don’t know that a bottle of Tequila can take years to make. It’s not just extracted from some magical Tequila cactus to get you drunk. As soon as people understand this they’re interested,” says Hayes. “We want to change that emphasis because Tequila is so flavoursome, it’s so versatile and it’s one of the oldest known spirits in the world. We just want to help people understand what it is that Tequila is and can be. It’s one of the best spirits you could ever drink”. 

VIVIR Tequila Tasting Notes:

VIVIR Tequila

VIVIR Tequila Blanco:

Nose: Agave is clean, crisp and at the core of the nose, giving it a green, vegetal backdrop from which sweeter notes of vanilla, heather honey and wood char emerge. Lemon pith adds brightness among a handful of fresh herbs, wet stone minerality and a slight menthol note.

Palate: The palate has more bright sweetness from citrus and tropical fruits as well as a hint of vanilla, then more fresh agave and herbaceous notes of thyme, and just a little peppermint. There are touches of sea salt, peppery heat and minerality there too.

Finish: Savoury vegetal notes linger with just a touch of honeyed sweetness.

VIVIR Tequila

VIVIR Tequila Reposado:

Nose: Soft notes of sweet vanilla, roasted agave and a touch of white pepper. Manuka honey, salted popcorn and bittersweet herbs add depth among wet flint and lemon zest.

Palate: Butterscotch, vegetal agave and orange rind, then cedar, tropical fruit and complex herbal notes. A touch of red-chilli heat, wood smoke and honeyed peels are underneath.

Finish: The vanilla-oak sweetness lingers with touches of agave and garden herbs retaining the profile of the Blanco edition.

 

 

VIVIR Tequila

VIVIR Tequila Añejo:

Nose: Roasted agave, home-made salted caramel and BBQ char initially, then dried fruit, fresh herbs and dry oak spice. Wet stone minerality is present underneath among baked earth and a touch of peppery heat.

Palate: Vanilla fudge, cacao, orange rind and salted butter, with only hints of agave underneath. It’s still very herbal, mostly thyme, with a drop of peppermint oil in support.

Finish: Tropical fruit, more thyme and buttery vanilla.

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Mezcal + poultry = pechuga (it’s much nicer than it sounds)

How do you take your mezcal – neat, on the rocks, or redistilled with a raw chicken breast? While Oaxaca’s experienced mezcaleros have long produced mezcal de pechuga, passing heirloom recipes…

How do you take your mezcal – neat, on the rocks, or redistilled with a raw chicken breast? While Oaxaca’s experienced mezcaleros have long produced mezcal de pechuga, passing heirloom recipes down through generations, the style is little known outside of Mexico. We take a closer look at the production process involved in making mezcal with meat…

Until recently, few people were aware of – let alone consumed – mezcal de pechuga. But now this typical Mexican wedding toast is garnering interest outside of native celebrations, and the bigger distilleries are slowly but surely starting to cotton onto its marketability as a point of difference amid the burgeoning mezcal boom. “Pechuga is a style of mezcal, it means ‘breast’ in Spanish” explains Eduardo Gomez, founder and director of Tequila & Mezcal Festival. “Mezcal is traditionally distilled twice, and pechuga mezcal is made when you take that liquid, add some sort of protein and fruits into the pot still, and distill for a third time.”

El Jolgorio Pechuga Mezcal

The ingredients in El Jolgorio pechuga

Traditionally people use chicken breast, but it’s not uncommon to hang other types of raw meat instead, for example, rabbit, turkey, deer, and even Iberico ham (the result of a one-off collaboration between Del Maguey and chef José Andrés). It’s suspended inside the still above a basket containing locally-sourced fruits, grains, and nuts; sometimes spices and herbs, too. The meat – which cooks during distillation, FYI – doesn’t impart any flavour to the liquid; rather, its function is to balance, soften and round out any potentially potent fruit notes. 

“They close the still pot, fire it up, and the liquid will start boiling and distilling and pass through the pechuga and through the condenser,” Gomez continues. “What you have, as a result, is a pechuga mezcal with very high fruit notes. Without the chicken breast, it would be super sweet because they add banana, guava, apples, peaches, almonds.”

The botanical proportions – which are usually derived from a family recipe passed down from generation to generation – varies among distillers and brands. Del Maguey’s pechuga combines “100 kilos of wild mountain apples and plums, big red plantain bananas, pineapples, a handful of almonds and a few pounds of uncooked white rice” with the typical chicken breast. El Jolgorio, by contrast, is made with limes, oranges, pineapples, apples, pears, plantains, and the breast of a turkey cock.

Montelobos

Fermentation vat at Montelobos

If the idea of a meat-infused agave spirit isn’t your cup of tea, there are vegan iterations, too. And they weren’t just invented to appease hipster bartenders, either. While the pechuga mezcal-making tradition dates is thought to back centuries – just how far is relatively unknown, since the style is typically made in palenques (distilleries) located in remote countryside villages where there are few written records – adding meat to the still isn’t necessarily expected. 

Sometimes, pechuga mezcals just contain fruits and herbs and forgo the ‘protein’ aspect of the production process. Don Amado’s pechuga bottling, for example, features wild apples, apricots, bananas, walnuts, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, with not a turkey or chicken breast in sight.

While the final flavour varies between bottlings as much as you’d expect, there are some generalisations. For starters, pechuga mezcal is typically “much sweeter than your standard espadin,” says Gomez. “Mezcal is usually spicy and smoky and earthy and citrusy, but with pechuga mezcal, because they distil it for a third time, it loses a little bit of the complexity. However, it gets a different complexity from the fruit and the pechuga.”

Rather than make pechuga year-round, mezcaleros typically make small batches of the spirit to toast specific occasions, from quinceañeras (a party thrown when a girl turns 15 years old) to bountiful harvests. Usually, pechuga mezcal is consumed neat – no ice, no mixer, just straight up in appreciation of the elaborate distilling process.

Monteloboz Mezcal almonds

Almonds to go into Montelobos pechuga

“In the villages and towns [outside] Oaxaca, when the granddaughter of the master mezcalero is getting married, he will prepare a batch of pechuga mezcal for the celebration,” Gomez continues. “Weddings in Mexico go for two or three days, it’s a big celebration, regardless of your economic situation or status, so they will make 500 litres and they will drink 500 litres across the wedding.” 

Mezcalaros may make just one or two batches of pechuga mezcal in a year, so even in Mexico, a bottle doesn’t come cheap – and the price tag has stuck even among more commercial brands, with bottlings typically starting from £80. “When you have time and your credit card with you, have a shot of mezcal pechuga and decide for yourself whether it’s worth the price tag,” says Gomez. 

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A spotlight on… El Destilado

El Destilado is shining a spotlight on fiercely independent producers by bottling some of their extraordinary expressions. We thought we’d do something similar for the spirits brand and cast an…

El Destilado is shining a spotlight on fiercely independent producers by bottling some of their extraordinary expressions. We thought we’d do something similar for the spirits brand and cast an eye on its intriguing story.

Agave spirits are making quite the climb up the premiumisation ladder of late, with bars like Hacha opening especially to cater for the increasing demand for Tequila and mezcal, and a variety of brands making waves.

Enter: El Destilado. Launched at the end of 2018, it was born out of the time Michael Sager, Marcis Dzelzainis (founders of Sager & Wilde bars), Alex Wolpert (CEO of the East London Liquor Company) and Charlie McKay (creative director, all the fantastic images in this blog are credited to McKay) spent in Mexico together and their shared love of the culture, the food, the people and, most importantly the drink. 

Dzelzainis, who is also the director of Fare Bar & Canteen, sat down with us to explain how a group trip led to the creation of a brand, why you can’t call these spirits mezcal and what he believes the potential of agave spirits to be.

El Destilado

Marcis Dzelzainis, in his element

The core idea behind El Destilado was to champion the terroir of the places the founders visited in Mexico and bottle the authentic spirits from the producers they met. “We started toying with the idea of importing very small batch mezcal back into the UK to really highlight its diversity, how interesting it is and how there’s a lot of similarities between mezcal and wine,” Dzelzainis explains. “They’re very terroir-driven products, not just in the sense of the soil but also the culture of the people behind it as well. It’s been produced for hundreds of years and they are very, very unique and interesting drinks”.

What they discovered was a world away from the mezcals that typically reach the UK’s bars and restaurants. In fact, due to the rigours of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), most of the products they tasted can’t even be classified as mezcal. This is why the team decided that certified mezcals weren’t the way to go. “We were more interested in bringing back non-certified mezcals. There’s a lot of regulations around mezcal production put in place by the CRM. However, they can sometimes clash with how smaller producers tend to produce distillate,” Dzelzainis explains. “For example, there’s a regulated amount for methanolic content, so parts per million. The CRM would say that you can only have 300 parts per million of methanol. Whereas a lot of non-certified mezcals actually have a higher percentage of methanol in them because they tend to put the heads and the tails back into the distillate to give them a certain kind of flavour profile and characteristics.”

The team quickly became interested in working with single producers and showcasing their production methods. “It was all about highlighting the producer, highlighting the varietal, highlighting the production methods. Whether something is hand-mashed or it’s mashed in the tahona or it’s mashed mechanically,” says Dzelzainis. “How it is fermented, what is it fermented in? Is it in cowhide? Or pinetinas? Or plastic? How is it distilled? Is it in copper or clay? Is it distilled at high altitude? How long do they roast the agaves for? All these things impart a flavour and a characteristic and these are the kinds of questions and parameters that we became obsessed with”.

El Destilado

The El Destilado founders, and some agave, in Mexico

The team wasn’t just drawn to the multitude of agave-based spirits they encountered, but also drinks they found along the journey, like Oaxacan rum and aguardiente. “The wild fermented Oaxacan rum is really interesting because it comes from Veracruz, up in the mountains. I’m a big fan of those punchy Guadeloupe, Martinique-style, French-style agricole rums. The big flavour profile is influenced by the humidity and temperature of where they are distilled. You cut sugar cane and it starts fermenting within two to three hours. Whereas being up in the mountains in this quite cold weather you’re slowing that fermentation process down and you’ve got much more control and altitude obviously affects the boiling point of various compounds and alcohols,” Dzelzainis explains. “So you get a much cleaner, fresh-cut-grass characteristic that’s not quite as in-your-face as a Caribbean-style agricole rum. It’s got a very unique flavour profile, it’s fascinating, it mixes well and it’s from a very stunning part of Mexico”. 

It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of the subject, but the process of organising this company, getting in contact with all the distillers, setting up the supply line and getting the drinks across to the UK is not one to be underestimated. Dzelzainis confirms it was a challenge. It’s where he and Wolpert were able to utilise their expertise and knowledge. “Alex came on board because he’s got an amazing knowledge of how bonder’s spaces work and import licenses and all this kind of stuff. He did a lot of heavy lifting and it was not straightforward because no one’s really done this,” says Dzelzainis. “Our first shipment got turned around twice. The first time it came in they thought we were trying to smuggle drugs into the country because they had no idea what it was. It took us a while and it’s been a difficult process”. 

Despite the difficulties, it’s clear from talking with Dzelzainis that El Destilado is a source of immense pride. This is truly a passion project. The brand caters to a creative desire each founder has. For Dzelzainis, he explains that his love of wine doesn’t necessarily stem from the production method. It’s the story behind the people who produce it. He points to the experience of getting to know Armando, a producer that the group met on their travels. “He’s a wonderful guy who has a deep respect for tradition. He hand mashes everything because he thinks even mashing in a tahona changes the flavour profile of the distillate. He’s also very much invested in minimising the ecological impact of distillation and harvesting, so there’s no plastic used at all. All the water comes from a stream from a viaduct so it’s all self-contained, there’s no impact, there’s not much of a footprint from the production process,” Dzelzainis explains. “He’s also reaching out to other mezcaleros, which is quite interesting because they tend to be quite insular, but he’s got a very forward-thinking way. I love his distillates, they’re very fruity and have lots of pine esters and volatiles, but they don’t have that smokiness you traditionally associate with mezcal. That’s a feature you find with the whole range really, we’re not smoke-driven.”

El Destilado

El Destilado champions local, independent producers

One of the most significant characters the group encountered was Bertha Vázquez from Chichicapa, who challenges any notion that El Destilado solely revers quaint, traditional and rural folk. Dzelzainis describes her as progressive and fiercely intelligent. “She distils so many different varieties, she’s got so much knowledge and she’s also very much investing in the future. Predominantly and historically mezcal and uncertified mezcal have been made with ‘silvestre’, which means ‘wild agave’. Increased demand for the product means that there’s less and less wild agave and the switched-on producers have realised that they have a responsibility to start cultivating, to a certain degree and setting up nurseries,” says Dzelzainis. “This is something Bertha has very much heavily invested in; making sure that there will be mezcal production further down the line for her sons and others. These are the kind of stories we want to tell, we want to focus on ensuring we shine a spotlight on the people behind the drinks. What I love about the whole range is when I first tried it is that I can remember how each one is linked to the person who makes it”. 

The core appeal of El Destilado is that it provides many of us a chance to enjoy and engage with spirits that we’d ordinarily have to travel halfway around the world to get our hands on. But why is it so difficult for this fantastic spirit to make it out of Mexico? “Certification and cost is the issue. The CRM wants to develop mezcal so they are strict with their regulations, which I understand. But they can be slightly arbitrary. These people have been doing this for a long, long time and then all of sudden somebody comes along and says ‘well that doesn’t qualify as mezcal’,” Dzelzainis explains. “It’s also $16,000 to certify your palenques. The majority of the time people can only afford this because an investor, usually a foreign investor, has said they’ll certify the palenque if they can guarantee production for me for x amount of years”. 

The approach of El Destilado is different. There’s an effort to pay these producers over the odds and put no pressure on them to produce more than they can so that the liquid doesn’t suffer. “Sometimes these distillates might not be available in six months time. It’s not about creating a consistent line of products. If you try our spirits now, it might not be the same in two years time. That’s really important to me and it makes it a very interesting journey,” says Dzelzainis. “Paying a bit more for the distillates is also really important for us. You have to think about the rising cost of agave and start asking yourself some questions. If I see an espadín priced at £34 having only been distilled six months ago, I question the maths because I know the costs of the raw materials don’t allow for that. It comes back to changing people’s perceptions about agave and agave spirits. In terms of raw materials, grapes are probably the most expensive type used in drink, but agave is pushing towards that top end. Especially with wild agaves that involve trekking out into the mountains for days at a time, harvesting by hand and like hulking it back onto a donkey. There’s a lot of work that goes into it and it is worth that money. That’s why we pay our producers more”. 

El Destilado

El Destilado spirits are made from a variety of agave strains using a multitude of production methods

At this point, if you’re anything like me, you’re dying to dig into the many El Destilado expressions. We currently have 16 bottlings at MoM Towers, including the two sugar cane distillates from Mexico. But with so many options, it does pose the question: where to start? Dzelzainis has some recommendations. “I think a good place to start is Pichomel. It’s such an interesting product with such a unique flavour that really challenges what people’s notion of what an agave distillate can taste like. It’s got this watermelon, cucumber flavour that is just so surprising. The Pichomel is definitely a highlight,” says Dzelzainis. “I’ve got a real soft spot for Armando’s one, the Papalome as I like very fruit-driven distillate. Pedro’s Tobaziche is really interesting, it’s made from karwinski (a long, thin strain of agave that look like palm trees) which don’t have a lot of sugar content or a large yield but they tend to have this quite piney, resinous, groundnut kind of flavour profile that I like. Also the Sierra Negra. The agave for that takes the best part of 12-15 years, sometimes even up to 25 years, to mature so it’s quite scarce but they’re amazing. Again, the producer took a very interesting approach. They’re very, very careful about how they cook the piñas so there’s not too much smoke interaction and you end up with a sheep’s wool, lanolin flavour coming through”. 

So, you’ve picked out your first El Destilado expression, now you need to know how you’re going to drink it. Neat is always preferable at first so you can get a true sense of the spirit’s profile, but Dzelzainis also has some interesting suggestions for how you can have some fun and play with these drinks. “My favourite way to mix these spirits is with a really good sparkling water in Mexico called Topo Chico, but any sparkling water that has a slightly mineral, quite saline character should work (you can even add a pinch of salt to regular sparkling water for a similar effect). In Mexico, they have a can of that and the mezcal on the side, so you have a sip of your mezcal and then you have some sparkling water I find that’s a really enjoyable way of drinking it,” he explains. “For a lot of our drinks, like the Tobalo, a stirred-down serve like a Martini really works. Personally I would say with a lot of our drinks you’ll want to be quite respectful of the spirits so you want to keep it clean and classic to really highlight the spirit instead of adding loads of syrups and fruit juices. But I hate dictating to somebody how they should drink something. If you enjoy it that way, that’s how you enjoy it. I like sparkling water and just sipping on the side!”

Dzelzainis believes that agave spirits have a really bright future, although he concedes there are still challenges to overcome. “There’s still quite a big educational process that’s interesting to be part of. We’re getting there. People are surprised that our drinks, like the Pichomel or the Papalome, are essentially mezcal because it can be hard to get away from this idea that any mezcal is the smoky version of Tequila. Because they don’t taste like people’s preconceptions of mezcal at all. It wasn’t long ago that the perception of Tequila was that it was an unhealthy hangover-causing spirit. But that’s changing.” he says. “But they are increasing in popularity. In our establishments that Tequila and mezcal drinks tend to sell really well. I see more articles about agave spirits and meet more and more people that have an understanding of them. There’s an openness to exploring these flavour profiles. They’re interesting, they’ve got character, they’re fun to mix. There are all kinds of iterations to enjoy and we’ll see more emerging into the market”. 

El Destilado

There’s plenty to smile about as the future for agave spirits is bright…

So, what does the future hold for El Destilado? Exploration is the key. “We want to try and see what else is out there. Whether that’s in France or Germany or that’s in Columbia or wherever really. It’s about finding these unique spirits that highlight a culture, highlight a way of doing stuff that doesn’t necessarily always get the chance to be represented on a wider stage,” says Dzelzainis. “We want to look at other distillates from around the world, whether that’s unaged Armagnac, unaged Calvados, all those kinds of things. It’s about highlighting small distillates that don’t fit into very homogenised norms”.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Red Devil

Today we’re getting all diabolical with a special smoky Tequila from Maestro Dobel and a cocktail inspired by Día de Muertos. Agave 101 is that mezcal is smoky while Tequila…

Today we’re getting all diabolical with a special smoky Tequila from Maestro Dobel and a cocktail inspired by Día de Muertos.

Agave 101 is that mezcal is smoky while Tequila isn’t. Well, it’s time to tear up the rule book because Maestro Dobel has just launched Humito, a smoky spirit which the company claims is the “world’s first smoked silver Tequila.” We won’t get into an argument about who got there first only to say that there are other smoked Tequilas out there and, in the distant past, agave used in Tequila production would have been cooked over wood. Maestro Dobel won’t tell exactly how its process works, only to say that it involves: a secret technique that harnesses mesquite wood”. And who doesn’t love a secret technique?

We tried it earlier this year at a special evening put on by Maestro Dobel. The brand is owned by the Beckmann family who also own Jose Cuervo, but Maestro Dobel is independent. Over the course of the evening we tried a number of Tequilas from the range: first the Diamante which is an aged blanco Tequila, the world’s first, apparently. This is like the white rum of the Tequila world, aged in oak and then filtered to remove colour. It’s a category that has inspired a certain amount of scepticism among Tequila fans. Why remove the colour? But it certainly tastes good, the ageing giving it a gentle creaminess without masking any of the fruity character. We also tried a very special Tequila called Maestro Dobel 50 1•9•6•7 Extra Añejo. It was created for the 50th birthday of Juan Domingo Beckmann (born in 1967) who started the Maestro Dobel brand. It’s a blend of five to seven-year-old spirits aged in a mixture of new American and French oak, blended and finished in sherry casks. There’s no filtering here. In its colour and flavour, it’s not unlike a very swanky rum. The price is pretty swanky too: it’s only available in a few select hotels where a measure will  cost you about £200!

Which makes the Humito at £43 sound like a terrific bargain. It’s a delicious drop too, lots of fruity aromatic agave character, very smooth, with the smoke present but sort of lingering in the background. Like a good drummer. We tried it in conjunction with food from top Brazilian chef Rafael Cagali from Da Terra in East London (who won a Michelin star earlier this year). 

Maestro Dobel Humito

Serving suggestion

Humito is a great cocktail Tequila providing lots of character but it’s not overpowering like some mezcals can be. In fact, it’s rather like adding a teaspoon of mezcal to a Tequila cocktail. To tie in with Día de Muertos, which is turning into quite the international event, Maestro Dobel has come up with a suitably diabolical cocktail called the Red Devil which accentuates Humido’s subtle smokiness with hibiscus syrup. Rafael Cagali has even come up with some recipes to go with it including beef tartare and mackerel croquettes but we are sure it will go equally well with nachos.

Right, got your red horns on? It’s time to make a Red Devil:

40ml Maestro Dobel Humito
15ml fresh lemon juice
5ml agave syrup
10ml hibiscus syrup

Add first three ingredients into ice-filled highball glass and give it a good stir. Top up with soda water, stir again and pour on the hibiscus syrup. Garnish with a lemon wheel. 

 

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Five eco-friendly distilleries

From carbon emissions to wasteful byproducts, spirits production is a strain on nature, with the average 750ml bottle producing more than six pounds of CO2* (equivalent to a seven-mile car…

From carbon emissions to wasteful byproducts, spirits production is a strain on nature, with the average 750ml bottle producing more than six pounds of CO2* (equivalent to a seven-mile car journey), according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable. The second part of environmental series this week, we shine a light on five eco-friendly distilleries that take sustainability seriously…

Distilling is an art. It’s an expression of nature, creating complex flavour patterns – from delicate floral to powerful smoke – using little more than some combination of raw ingredients, yeast, water and occasionally wood. And yet, despite being au naturel in spirit, the production chain is liable to wreak havoc on mother nature. Generally speaking, the higher the ABV, the higher a product’s carbon footprint.

There’s the environmental impact of farming the base ingredient, be it sugarcane, grain, agave, grapes, or potatoes. This includes fertilising, watering, harvesting, processing and transporting the crops, as well as the impact on local wildlife and biodiversity. Distilling, as you’ll know, requires lots of energy (and creates plenty of waste) as does bottling, packaging and storing the resulting booze. Then, that precious liquid is freighted by air and sea across the globe – usually heavy glass bottles wrapped in plastic and cardboard boxes – for our drinking pleasure. Yikes.

The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way. From multinational companies to fledgling distillers, spirits producers of all sizes are busy taking steps towards a greener future. Looking across renewable energy, water use, philanthropy and more, we’ve highlighted five spirits distilleries that are going above and beyond to make sure their craft is kinder on the planet without compromising on taste. That’s the spirit.

The absolutely lovely Absolut distillery in Sweden

The Absolut Company, Sweden

One of the most sustainable spirits-makers in the world, Absolut Vodka’s Åhus-based site only uses green energy generated by hydro power, and its entire distillation process is carbon neutral. The Absolut Company works with local farmers to ensure minimal amounts of fertilizers and pesticides and little-to-no irrigation. Wheat stillage, a byproduct of production, is sold to local farmers and feeds 250,000 pigs and 40,000 cows a day. The site aims to be entirely zero-emissions, zero-waste and 100% recycling by 2040.

Belgrove Distillery, Tasmania

Not only is Belgrove Australia’s first dedicated rye whisky distillery, it’s also home to the only biodiesel-powered still in the world (a type of biodegradable fuel made from waste cooking oil – in this case, sourced from a local chip fryer). Owner Peter Bignell grows his own grain, ferments, distills and barrel ages on-site. A reclaimed laundromat tumble dryer is used for malting and spent mash is fed to his sheep (apparently he’s thinking of using sheep dung instead of peat in the malting process – watch this space). The water used to cool his still is sourced from an on-site dam, while any waste water is either recycled or used for irrigation.

Square One Organic Spirits, US

From wind-powered energy to carbon-neutral labels, every aspect of Square One’s Wyoming-based distilling operation is organic and eco-friendly. Founded in 2006 by environmentalist Allison Evanow, each of its various spirits is made from 100% organic American-grown rye and water from the Teton Mountains, with no GMO yeasts, chemical additives or synthetic de-foaming agents used in the production process. Not only are the bottle labels paper-free – made with bamboo, sugarcane and cotton – but the ink is soy-based too.

Jimador harvesting agave for the Patron distillery

Patrón Tequila, Mexico

Hacienda Patrón is big on sustainability, being the first distillery to use a natural gas pipeline as its proprietary energy source in a bid to reduce its carbon emissions. The Jalisco-based site uses a reverse osmosis water treatment to recycle 70% of the stillage from the distilling process – used in its cooling towers and for cleaning – and creates more than 5,500 tons of compost every year in agave fibres, which it donates to fertilise agave fields and green spaces in the surrounding community. Oh, and since 2015, the distillery has reforested around 16,000 trees.

Greensand Ridge Distillery, UK

The UK’s first carbon neutral distillery, Greensand Ridge, works with local farmers to transform surplus produce rejected by supermarkets into delicious rums, gins and fruit brandies. They’re big on ‘reuse or recycle’ – the team’s total non-recyclable waste output is one bag every six to eight weeks, a remarkable feat – and pride themselves on using non-biodegradable chemicals. Any plastics used are plant-based. From heat recovery systems to chemical-free production, environmental savviness is a top priority. And they make some cracking spirits, too.

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Rare single field Ocho Tequilas are here!

We have a treat this week, as Jesse Estes from Ocho talks us through his family’s single field vintage Tequilas. Oh, and coincidentally a consignment of these rare as hens…

We have a treat this week, as Jesse Estes from Ocho talks us through his family’s single field vintage Tequilas. Oh, and coincidentally a consignment of these rare as hens teeth spirits has just arrived at MoM HQ. What timing!

Perhaps more than any other individual, Jesse Estes’ father Tomas Estes is responsible for introducing Europe to Tequila. Originally from California, in 1976 Estes senior opened the first Pacifico restaurant in Amsterdam. A London branch opened in 1982 which became a celebrity hangout with Queen (the band) and Hunter S. Thompson both photographed there. Before Pacifico, Tequila was virtually unknown outside the Americas but in the ‘80s sales in Europe took off. In addition to the restaurants, Estes wrote a book on his favourite spirit and was made official Tequila ambassador for the EU by the CNIT (Camara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera).

Jesse and Tomas Estes

Tomas and Jesse Estes, and yes Estes junior is old enough to drink

In 2008, Estes teamed up with Carlos Camarena, an award-winning third generation Tequilero, to make Ocho Tequila. It was a very different market back then, according to Estes junior: “People laughed us out of the room when we talked about terroir.” The first batches only really sold through their restaurants, “we were never commercially-driven brand”, he said. Since then, the bar industry has changed immeasurably .

You can’t move for the word terroir these days in spirits. Much of this is nonsense (article coming soon!) but with Ocho Tequila it makes sense. Small differences in soil, altitude, and microclimate really can have an enormous effect on blue agave and the taste of the resulting Tequila, and each agave harvest is unique. “Tequila does not lend itself to consistency”, Jesse Estes told me. Most companies blend this variation away but Ocho Tequilas are bottled from single fields and harvests.He grew up taking yearly trips to Burgundy with his father where neighbouring vineyards can make wine that go for vastly different prices because of differences in the terroir. The aim with Ocho was to bring some of that sensibility to Tequila. Though unlike grapes, you don’t get a harvest from each field every year as the plants take on average eight years to mature.

All Ocho Tequila come from the family’s own fields. Jesse Estes told me that they harvest late to maximise sugar. Sometimes the fields smell of vinegar because the agave has already begun to ferment in the ground. Every batch is 100% agave, slowly steamed in brick ovens for 72 hours, fermented with wild yeasts, and double-distilled. There are no additives pre or post-distillation. As well as blanco unaged Tequilas, Ocho offers reposados (aged for eight weeks in ex-bourbon casks) and añejos (aged for at least a year). 

La Magueyra 2014

2014 harvest at La Magueyera

We spent a very happy morning at Cafe Pacifico in Covent Garden with Jesses Estes sampling our way through some of the range, and we were amazed at how different some of them are. You can really taste the difference between the fields – some are fiery and spicy, others sweet and floral. What they all had in common was that though they are distinctive, they are not difficult spirits for the uninitiated to appreciate, unlike some mezcals. There is a full range available exclusively to Master of Malt. Some are only available in limited quantities so you better hurry. I’ve picked out a few highlights:

Las Presas blanco 2018

“I love this field”, Estes told us.
Nose: pure and saline with a touch of mint.
Palate: olive brine, green fresh olives, you know those bright green Puglian ones.
Finish: green peppercorns. 

La Latilla blanco 2015

Nose: green banana, like a delicate rhum agricole.
Palate: sweet and smooth, vanilla, caramel, very creamy, refreshing acidity
Finish: black pepper.

Loma Alta blanco 2015  

Nose: really powerful, dark chocolate and vegetal notes.
Palate: aromatic pepper, pink peppercorns balanced by sweet toffee notes
Finish: very long, aromatic spicy notes.

La Magueyra 2014

Piña ready for cooking at La Magueyera in 2014

La Magueyera blanco 2014

Nose: lively and peppery, touch of paprika
Palate: intensely spicy, almost a chilli pepper burn from all that spice, but again there’s a sweetness that balances it.
Finish: creamy and long.

La Magueyera reposado 2014

As above but aged in oak for eight weeks.Nose: touch of toffee, aromatic.
Palate: floral, very big and spicy, touch of smoke here and then a caramel sweetness.
Finish: honey with lingering pepper.

 

 

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Five things you should know about agave

You’ve probably sipped on fermented and distilled agave sap in the form of Tequila and mezcal – perhaps even drizzled the syrup over your porridge as a honey alternative –…

You’ve probably sipped on fermented and distilled agave sap in the form of Tequila and mezcal – perhaps even drizzled the syrup over your porridge as a honey alternative – but how much do you really know about Mexico’s most beloved plant? MoM became acquainted at The Ginstitute’s Agave Sessions masterclass in London, hosted in partnership with Herradura Tequila…

Hands up, how often do you give thought to the raw ingredients that make up your favourite boozes? Our guess is, not too often. Understandably you’re probably more interested in the finished product, and hey – who can blame you?

For spirits holding a Denomination of Origin – which can only be made in a designated region, since their distinct characteristics are the product of their geographical environment – the plants they are produced from have a special significance and history, and this is especially true of Tequila, and, in turn, agave.

We headed to Notting Hill for an in-depth masterclass covering agave history, heritage and craft, nibbling tacos, sipping cocktails, and tasting our way through some of Mexico’s spirited creations. Here are a few things we learned along the way…

agave

You’ve presumably tasted a drink made from agave, but how much do you know about it?

#1: Agave is a type of lily

It may closely resemble a cactus, but the agave plant, also known as maguey, is actually a member of the lily family. It’s a pretty versatile, hardy crop, dating back to pre-Columbian Mexico. Back in 1650, Spanish priest and naturalist Friar Francisco Jiménez said the “plant alone would be sufficient to provide all things necessary for human life”, and could be used to make all manner of items from sandals to razors and even a tincture for bandaging fresh wounds.

#2 The plant has babies called pups

Agave takes around 10 or 15 years to flower, producing a large stem that shoots up several metres into the sky, known as a quiote. The flower is the largest produced by any plant in the world, and requires a fair bit of energy (read: sugar) to grow, so farmers cut the stalk off as it grows to make sure all that deliciousness stays in the piña. How, then, do they reproduce? Each agave produces around 18 genetically identical ‘pups’ around its base through the course of its life, which are connected by an umbilical root.

#3 Agave is the goth of the plant world

Agave is pretty self-sufficient and grows naturally with very little intervention. It’s one of just 10% of plants that performs photosynthesis at night time. While all those other mainstream sell-outs are busy using sunlight to grow, the agave uses the reflection of the sun on the moon. This gives it a pretty distinct advantage – there isn’t much water in the dry volcanic soil; using moonlight means the plant requires less water to grow.

agave

The Ginstitute’s Agave Sessions masterclass included some delightful cocktails

#4 They’re usually harvested at around eight years

Agave plants can take up to 10 years to reach maturity. While a handful of small growers will check each agave and harvest them individually when they’ve reached perfection – a time-consuming and expensive process – most do a ‘sweep harvest’ which is basically means ‘eh, most of them are ripe, let’s take them all’.

#5 There are more than 200 types of agave

The variety that goes in your Tommy’s Margarita is called Blue Weber, and there are strict rules that forbid Tequila producers from using other types of agave. That’s not to say you won’t find them in other agave-based sippers – you might’ve heard of Espadin, a large agave species, as well as Tobala, which, conversely, grows to around the size of a houseplant. The larger varieties can take decades to mature, some 10, 20 or even years. Some are very rich in sugars, which means the sap is very sweet, while others are far lower. Agave can be found growing everywhere, from vast, wild hilltops to cracks in the pavement.

Bonus fact: Mezcal is the name given to *all* spirits produced from agave. This means all Tequila is mezcal in very much the same way that all Cognac is brandy. There are several other Mexican spirits produced from agave that also fall under the umbrella of mezcal and these have protected regions too, such as Sotol, Bacanora and Raicilla.

Keen to expand your agave knowledge? The Agave Sessions event is held weekly on Saturday afternoons at The Ginstitute on Portobello Road, comprising a two-hour masterclass, four agave cocktails, an agave-based tasting, a selection of tacos, a 700ml bottle of Herradura Plata Tequila and a miniature barrel. Tickets are available to purchase here: www.agavesessions.com

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