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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: tequila

Cocktail of the Week: The Paloma

This Friday the 22 May is World Paloma Day, when todo el mundo celebrates Mexico’s favourite cocktail. Here’s how to make it the slightly fancy way. Say the words ‘Mexico’…

This Friday the 22 May is World Paloma Day, when todo el mundo celebrates Mexico’s favourite cocktail. Here’s how to make it the slightly fancy way.

Say the words ‘Mexico’ and ‘cocktail’, and most people will reply ‘Margarita’ but in Mexico itself, the Paloma is far more popular. It makes sense, Margaritas tend to be very strong, not ideal for sipping all day in the sunshine without things getting exciting. They also contain Cointreau or Grand Marnier, things that most people don’t have lying around. 

The Paloma in contrast is a long drink made up of Tequila, which most households in Mexico will have,  plus fresh lime juice and grapefruit soda. Oddly enough, over here it’s the grapefruit soda that might not be so easy to find. You could substitute with another citrussy drink like bitter lemon or old-fashioned sparkling lemonade, or you can make your own soda using fresh grapefruit, fizzy water and caster sugar as I’m doing below. 

The word ‘paloma’ means ‘dove’ in Spanish. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of World Paloma Day, it’s a new one, this is only its second year. Soon every drink will have its own place in the calendar: like International Pornstar Martini Day, World Snakebite & Black Day and National Shandy Week.

As with all Tequila cocktails, in fact all cocktails, it’s worth using a decent spirit. Cheap nasty Tequila will make your Paloma taste, well, cheap and nasty. I’m using Vivir Blanco, made from 100% Blue Weber agave. It’s double distilled In Jalisco and blended with local water from a volcanic spring. The result is smooth, delicious and ideal for mixing.

The final touch is entirely optional but it’s quite a fun way of adding character to your drink. At the end pour in a teaspoonful of mezcal, I’m using the quite difficult to pronounce QuiQuiRiQui Matatlan. Feel free to leave it out but it does give the drink a wonderful kick of complexity without overpowering the fruit or Tequila. Consider it a supporting spirit. 

Oh, and finally to salt or not to salt? Salt is counterintuitive as it actually makes the drink taste sweeter so you need less sugar but I find a whole rim coated in a thick layer of salt too, um, salty. So, I just wet the rim of the glass and dip it in a couple of places in crunchy sea salt. 

Pretty in pink, it’s the Paloma!

It’s worth making it up in batches and keeping in the fridge to drink over the course of a summer’s afternoon. Right, here’s the recipe.

60ml Vivir Blanco Tequila
Juice of one ruby grapefruit or approx 100 ml
30ml lime juice
Teaspoon of caster sugar
Sparkling or soda water
Teaspoon of QuiQuiRiQui Matatlan mezcal (optional)

Rub some Tequila round the rim of a tumbler or Highball glass, dip it in sea salt but don’t coat the entire rim. Add the grapefruit juice, lime juice, Tequila and sugar. Stir thoroughly and taste. Add more sugar if it’s too tart for you. Fill with ice, stir and top up with fizzy water. Add a teaspoon of mezcal and garnish with a lime wedge or piece of grapefruit. Or both.



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Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with Casamigos Tequila

Cinco de Mayo (5 May) is a national day in Mexico. Even for non-Mexicans, it’s a great excuse to feast and have fun. And to make your party go with…

Cinco de Mayo (5 May) is a national day in Mexico. Even for non-Mexicans, it’s a great excuse to feast and have fun. And to make your party go with a swing, we have Natasha Iny from Casamigos Tequila showing us how to make some delicious cocktails.

Do you remember when Mexican food meant those taco kits from the supermarket? And Tequila was just a drink to be knocked back in shots? So much has changed since then. Proper Mexican food has at last reached Britain (why did it take so long?) and we have woken up to the joys of quality agave spirits. Leading the charge is Casamigos Tequila, a brand set up by an actor and his friends with some spare time on their hands. 

The two amigos, George Clooney and Rande Gerber

To tell us more we have brand ambassador Natasha Iny. A Londoner, she got into the booze world through a pisco business belonging to her family in Latin America before joining Casamigos’s parent company, Diageo. She’ll be showing us how to make three delicious cocktails (see video below) as well as sharing her legendary salsa recipe.

MoM: And what makes Casamigos Tequila different?

NI: Well, firstly Casamigos is a 100% pure blue weber agave Tequila; it is not a mixto! Mixto is made of 51% blue agave combined with 49% sugar cane spirit and is what I personally think has made a lot of people wary of Tequila. Casamigos is out to change people’s notions of Tequila. It’s created in the Highlands of Jalisco, which is considered the most prestigious region for growing agave. This is where our agaves are grown for a minimum of seven years, and they have to be high in sugar content before they are harvested. After harvest, the agave piñas are roasted in traditional brick ovens for 72 hours, before being cooled for 24 hours, then crushed. That liquid, or mosto, is then slowly fermented for 80 hours (nearly double the industry standard) using Casamigos’ own strain of yeast. The fermented mosto is double-distilled in copper pot stills before being rested for two months to become our vibrant blanco. 

Mom: Tell me about the different expressions and how you would use them…

NI: The blanco (rested for two months) is great in a classic Margarita, Paloma, or even with soda and a squeeze of lime – oh and tonic, too! The blanco is a sure-fire hit for those who like their gin and vodka.

Then our reposado is aged for seven months in American oak barrels, so it really takes on the notes of bourbon from the barrels –think dried fruit, vanilla, caramel and sweet agave. The reposado is actually wonderful on its own over ice with a small squeeze of orange from an orange wedge, or you can top that with soda for a long drink. It is also great in a Tommy’s Margarita, and if you want to get fancy a twist on a French 75 – with the reposado, fresh lime juice, a hint of agave topped with Champagne! The reposado always seems to be a hit with whiskey lovers.

Our añejo is aged for 14 months in the same American oak barrels. I would also recommend having this neat or on the rocks. As a nightcap, it’s great in an Old Fashioned with agave and aromatic bitters. If you like your Manhattans, it’s also a great whiskey substitute twist considering it has the notes of tonka, cinnamon and spice! The añejo is a rum lover’s favourite!

MoM: What does Cinco de Mayo celebrate?

NI: Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, and is celebrated as a holiday in Mexico and the US in honour of a military victory in 1862 over the French forces of Napoleon III. It’s kind of an excuse to celebrate and indulge in amazing Mexican food and drink, and attend parades and parties. 

MoM: What do Mexicans eat and drink on the day?

NI: Tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and flautas Mexicanas to name but a few dishes. And then, of course, for the drinks, the Margarita comes out on top; then there are Palomas, copitas of mezcal, Batangas, and for the non-drinkers there is delicious Horchata. I have developed a bit of a ritual of putting a couple of spoons of Casamigos into food. I love experimenting, and have accidently made some rather yummy ceviche, chicken and even pasta dishes with a small trickle of Tequila. But the dish I am showing you today is especially for Cinco de Mayo and is my version of a Mexican tomato salsa, that usually is accompanied by lashings of guacamole and tortillas! 

Casa Salsa

240g diced tomato
240g diced red onion
120g coriander
60g cup jalapeño / mild green chilli
2 tablespoons Casamigos Blanco
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons passata
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 teaspoon agave syrup
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon onion salt
1/3 teaspoon herb salt 

Combine all ingredients together, serve with tortilla chips.

And now for some fine cocktails:

Tommy’s Margarita

50ml Casamigos Reposado
25ml fresh lime juice
10-15ml (according to taste) agave syrup
2 dashes Fee Brothers orange bitters

Shake and strain over ice into a coupe or tumbler, and garnish with an orange or lime wedge. 

Repo Old Fashioned 

50ml Casamigos Reposado
5ml Agave syrup
2 dashes Fee Brothers orange bitters
2 dashes Fee Brothers chocolate bitters 

Stir down over ice in a tumbler and garnish with an orange twist. 

Casamigos High Ball 

40ml Casamigos Reposado
20ml Kahlua coffee liqueur
Tonic water 

Build in a Highball glass with ice, top up with tonic water, stir gently and garnish with an orange twist.






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Top 5 drinks songs

The true perfect pairing to a delicious drink? A catchy song about said drink! Here’s our top five boozy tunes. We’ve chosen our top five drinks-related films, books and TV…

The true perfect pairing to a delicious drink? A catchy song about said drink! Here’s our top five boozy tunes.

We’ve chosen our top five drinks-related films, books and TV shows, so it was only a matter of time before we moved on to…. Music! The plethora of songs written about the plethora of boozes means it was a pretty big choice, but we managed to whittle it down to five. Let us know in the comments or on social which ones you would have included. We know one way to beat the quarantine blues; grab a drink, whack on these tracks and have a boogie.

Behold, the quarantunes!

As always, these may not always feature the most responsible booze consumption. Let’s keep it in the songs!

Whiskey in the Jar – Thin Lizzy

An iconic Irish folk song that’s been covered more times than you can shake a stick at, but Thin Lizzy’s version has perhaps been the most influential (bar The Dubliners’ 15 years prior). The Irish rock band took the traditional ballad and added a bit of oomph. Pour yourself your favourite dram and settle down for a good ol’ listening session, tale of an outlaw highwayman from the comforts of your sofa.

Gin & Juice – Snoop Dogg

We’re taking it back to the ‘90s with this one, Snoop D-O-double-G knew what was up before the gin boom in his debut album. Oh, and he’s not just sipping on any old juniper goodness, he even specifies Seagram’s gin and Tanqueray! This song is in no way stuck in the past, in May 2018, Snoop Dogg even set the world record for the largest Gin and Juice at 500 litres! Needless to say, don’t try that at home… 

Red Red Wine – UB40

The ultimate song to sway around your kitchen to with a glass of said red wine in your hand, this is a true classic from UB40, even though the original was recorded by Neil Diamond. Who knew? Well, not even UB40 it turns out. When they recorded the song they thought that the writing credit ‘N Diamond’ was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond. That’s enough history, time to sit back, relax and enjoy the grooves. Even if you think that red wine isn’t for you, this is sure to convince you to give it another try!

Tequila – The Champs

Can you believe that this awesome little tune has been around since 1958?! Who doesn’t want to dance when this song comes on? Go on, get your Margarita and have a little quarantine boogie. Maybe even go all out and make a dance routine, it’s that kind of jig (though perhaps put your drink down for that one). Plus, it’s an easy one to learn the lyrics to… Tequila!

While it’s not the best quality, here is an absolutely stellar video of the band playing the song live on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show in May 1958.

Champagne Supernova – Oasis

Anyway, here’s… Champagne Supernova! Love or hate Oasis, whatever you feel about the Gallagher brothers, Champagne Supernova is the anthem of a generation (just behind Wonderwall, obviously). One for when you’re feeling a little fancy, pour yourself a glass of the fizzy stuff (we’re sure Prosecco would do as well) and contemplate whether the brothers will get back together. Or whether they should. Oasis may be gone, but Champagne Supernova is forever.

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The search for perfect snack & spirit pairings

If you’ve ever felt uncertain mixing spirits with snacks, you’re not alone. However, through rigorous and very scientific testing methods, we think we’ve uncovered some perfect pairings… Food and drink….

If you’ve ever felt uncertain mixing spirits with snacks, you’re not alone. However, through rigorous and very scientific testing methods, we think we’ve uncovered some perfect pairings…

Food and drink. The phrase rolls off the tongue in such a way that it makes me believe they should rarely be apart. Breakfast deserves orange juice. Tea demands biscuits. They complement each other so carefully that you can almost imagine every type of drink having an invisible string connecting it to its faithful food friend.

But then spirits enter the picture, and the strings end up getting a bit tangled. You can enjoy an excellent spirit with food, I just don’t think I’ve ever quite found a perfect duo. However, I truly think there’s opportunity for greatness when spirits meet snack foods, and so through my Very Important Research, I set out to uncover some impeccable pairs.

First order of business was to assemble a snack selection. I chose eight snack foods that I believed stood a good chance of complementing a spirit – with some caveats. For starters, I’m a vegetarian, which automatically ruled out some snacks – my apologies, pork scratchings aficionados. I’ve also seen the dangers of introducing cutlery to a casual pub setting first hand, so anything involving knives and forks was also not considered. With this in mind, the final snack list was…

The snack ensemble

Crisps – Specifically cheese and onion flavoured crisps. It’s the best readily available flavour of crisp and I am willing to fight my corner on that.

Peanuts – Specifically salted peanuts. Why wouldn’t I want my legumes to be covered in tiny mineral crystals?

Tortilla chips – Specifically salted tortilla chips. I usually want to avoid having my fingers covered in that bright orange dust found on cheesy tortilla chips.

Plantain chips – Specifically salted plantain chips. OK, this time I was limited by the selection at the shop, but probably what I would have chosen anyway.

Popcorn – Specifically salted popcorn. I refuse to acknowledge sweet popcorn.

Olives – Specifically green olives. You might think olives need cutlery, or at least a toothpick, but I don’t. Does this make me a monster? Maybe.

Pretzels – Specifically salted pretzels. Other jazzy flavours are available, but let’s be real. Let’s be really real. If you’re getting pretzels, you’re getting salted pretzels.

Pickled onions – Specifically… Actually, never mind. They’re pickled onions.

Next, a spirit selection was assembled. For this list, I picked out drinks that wouldn’t raise too much of an eyebrow if you were to see them on the back bar of your local drinking establishment. OK, the genever might be a bit surprising, but I really like genever and wanted to see what if there were any good matches. I’ll admit I was playing favourites. To allow for general applications of the findings I won’t be revealing any of the brands, but I aimed to use good examples of the spirit and style. The final list was peated single malt, sherried single malt, bourbon, dark rum, gin, genever and reposado Tequila.

Snacks chosen. Spirits chosen. The science soon followed. These tastings were done over a series of days, and the routine was to sip Spirit A, eat Snack A, assess, take a good glug of water, eat Snack A, sip Spirit A, assess, take a good glug of water, repeat with Snack B, and so on. Tasting the spirits and snacks both ways around seemed important to me when I started, but it only ever really made a difference a handful of times. If a combination tasted bad one way around, nine times out of ten it tasted bad the other way around too. I did get to eat more pickled onions than I would have done otherwise, though. Silver linings.

Well then. Here’s how it all played out.

Peated single malt

Top Snack: Peanuts

Peat and peanuts!

It appears that peanuts and phenols are good friends, as the salted peanuts were the best partner for peated single malt. It ended up tasting like smoky peanut butter, which absolutely should be a thing. I am willing to lose crunchy peanut butter if it means we can have smoky peanut butter instead. The briny intensity of olives stood up well to peaty whisky, and the tangy brightness of pickled onion was enjoyably refreshing when juxtaposed with the smoky single malt. Popcorn is the enemy of smoky whisky – the combo was astringent and unpleasant.

Sherried single malt

Top Snack: Plantain chips

Plantain chips and sherried whisky makes for a fruit-forward combo

The sweet, subtle fruitiness of plantain chips blended brilliantly with the red berry and chocolate notes in sherried single malt, making it the best partner for this whisky. However, the rest of the snacks didn’t really put up much of a fight for the top spot. The cheesy crisps we’re pretty good (after a few seconds – it starts out a bit too sweet, but gets better), and pickled onion is definitely worth a go, though neither were anywhere near great. Tortilla chips and sherried single malt somehow ended up having the consistency and flavour of spent coffee grounds. As you can imagine, not great.


Top Snack: Pickled Onions

Who didn’t see this one coming?

Pickle juice and bourbon is a strange combination that sounds terrible but is the complete opposite. With that knowledge, I will admit that I approached bourbon and pickled onions with an inkling that this would be a winning pair. Reader, I was right about pickled onions and bourbon. They’re such a great team. Popcorn performed well here, as did the tortilla chips, which I think has something to do with their corn content and the corn content of bourbon. The sweetness of plantain chips did not help its cause, with the combination becoming unappealingly marshmallowy. Sadly, olives are just too funky to pair with bourbon very well at all.

Dark rum

Top Snack: Popcorn

I was a big fan of rum and popcorn

Popcorn was the biggest surprise here. I’d say it “really pops”, but that’s the kind of pathetic pun that makes me want to push chairs over instead of do a polite giggle. Anyway, the heaviness of the dark rum along with its powerful fruit notes pair brilliantly with the lightness of the popcorn, as well as feeding into the classic sweet/savoury dynamic. If you really like peanuts, dark rum is a good match, as it somehow manages to bolster and intensify the peanut’s flavour profile. The subtle estery notes of plantain chips blended well with rum, giving it a tasty, tangy kick, too. A strange, acidic bitterness developed when introducing pickled onions to rum, so that combo is to be avoided, I reckon.


Top snack: Inconclusive

So here’s the thing. I didn’t find a snack that I could confidently say paired perfectly with gin. That isn’t to say one doesn’t exist. This was only a test of eight snacks, I have of course missed great swaths of snack foods, including ones across the globe that I have never had the chance to try (but really want to – if anyone knows where I can get halva in Ireland, give us a shout). I did taste a few good matches, though. To the surprise of no one, olives work well with gin. The creamy, subtle sweetness of plantain chips helped to balance the herbal bitterness, as did the very light toastiness and saltiness of pretzels. Pickled onions were fine, if a little bit too punchy. The best thing to be said about crisps and gin was that it opened up the chance to write something about “crisps and crisp juniper”, but even then it was kind of hard to fit into a sentence naturally. A missed opportunity.


Top Snack: Peanuts

Got all artsy with the peanut placements

You might think that genever is too similar to gin to yield any different outcomes, and that my personal love of the spirit might influence the results. However, try genever and peanuts and tell me that combo isn’t awesome. I dare you. Spiciness, creaminess, saltiness, a whiff of earthiness and subtle sweetness – it’s all there, and it’s great. Plantain chips are on a similar wavelength to peanuts when paired with genever, except leaning a bit more on the sweetness. Tortilla chips, crisps and popcorn helped the herbaceous elements of genever come through a little brighter, which was cool. Pretzels and genever ended up being a pretty bland combination, while the pickled onion overwhelmed the genever completely, which is a sin in my book.

Reposado Tequila

Top Snack: Olives

My favourite combo of the lot – Tequila and olives

Only one snack and spirit pairing made me swear out loud, and that was olives and Tequila. It’s such a good combo – instantly bright and juicy on the palate, with savoury, oily notes lasting, plus a little hint of funk popping up later on. But that’s not all – both popcorn and pretzels really impressed me with the Tequila too. The big, crunchy salt crystals on the pretzels supercharge the vegetal earthiness of the spirit, and the softly toasty popcorn created an almost bourbon-esque flavour profile with the Tequila. The oniony notes of the crisps made for an enjoyably tangy experience, while the estery elements of the plantain chips were bolstered wonderfully. Tortilla chips performed pretty well, but did get a bit lost underneath the Tequila, while the opposite was the case for pickled onions, which took over the palate once again. Peanuts started out alright, but after a few chews the combination became surprisingly way too sweet.

I recognise that I have written a lot of words about snacks, all of which sort of amounts to a series of yummy/not yummy verdicts. I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped past them in the hopes of there being a graph or something you can refer to and quickly see what snack you should pick up to pair with a tasty bottle you’ve got on your shelf. If you did do that, you’re in luck. Inspired by a colleague’s deep love of charts and graphs, feast your eyes on this incredibly artistic chart that I made. Enjoy.

Artistic, scientific, and very colourful

What did we learn from this? Well, personally I think I have learnt that Tequila may be my favourite spirit to pair with food. It produced the best combo with the olives, and worked well with almost all of the snacks. While I was very excited to see how pickled onion would fare, I found that it wasn’t actually a great match for most of the spirits on the list. I’m honestly not surprised, but I think it’s good to have that confirmed – I’ll stick to eating them straight from the fridge when I accidentally wake up at 2 a.m. I also decided that further research will need to happen to find a good partner for gin. Even with top tier Martini and Gibson garnishes in the running, nothing made me jump out of my chair. Perhaps sweet snacks are the way to go? Only time will tell. On the topic of more testing, I really would love to do this again with different spirit and different snacks. If you reckon there’s a spirit out there that could use a partner, or snacks that deserve investigation – or if you’ve done your own analysis and found your own perfect match – let me know in the comments!

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Top 5 drinks TV shows

We like drinks, and we also like TV. So, here are our top five TV shows with some rather significant tipples in them. A drink can tell you a lot…

We like drinks, and we also like TV. So, here are our top five TV shows with some rather significant tipples in them.

A drink can tell you a lot about a character, if you know where to look. Plus, TV shows are like a snapshot in time, so it’s rather fun to go through the different ages and see how cocktail culture reflected in our TV shows has changed!

Full disclosure, the characters in these series are not necessarily always drinking responsibly or doing responsible things having had a drink. Remember, sip, don’t gulp. Let’s keep it fictional, people!

Christmas drinks trends

Sex and the City 

Nothing has done as much for the Cosmopolitan as Sex and the City. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you! A true representation of the rise in colourful cocktail culture, the pink drink is a mixture of vodka (often citrus-flavoured, as was the rage in the 90s), cranberry juice, triple sec or Cointreau, and lime juice, all served up in a Martini glass. Just don’t try ordering one at a McDonald’s like our girl Carrie.

You can find Sex and the City on Amazon Prime.

Better Call Saul

Ring, ring, Better Call Saul is on our list! Seeing as the Breaking Bad prequel is also set in New Mexico, you can imagine where we’re going with this. Oh yes, Tequila. The eagle-eyed of you may have spotted a rather fancy bottle appear throughout the show called Zafiro Añejo, complete with an agave-shaped stopper. While Jimmy McGill / Saul Goodman starts his journey drinking Rusty Nails alone, soon he’s conning people into buying him fancy Añejo Tequila… Let’s just ignore the fact that it’s clear. Maybe it was filtered? Oh, and its fifth season came out this year, so what better way to celebrate than with a sip of some non-fictional Tequila?

You can find Better Call Saul on Netflix.


‘Sherry’ was probably the most-said word in Frasier. The sitcom, originally a spin-off from Cheers, revolved around Seattle psychiatrists Frasier Crane and his brother Niles, and their sherry decanter. Romantic misadventures, professional disappointments and family feuds, were all ameliorated with a couple of glasses of the very finest sherry (though in some episodes it does look like they are drinking Harvey’s Bristol Cream.) The tension in the show came from the relationship between the snobbish Crane brothers and their beer-drinking ex-cop father Marty, and his equally no-nonsense English carer Daphne (complete with dodgy Manchester accent.) Things got really confusing when Marty starts seeing a woman called Sherry.

You can find Frasier on Amazon Prime.

Mad Men

How could we not include Mad Men on this list? While Don Draper’s whisky consumption may be slightly on the enthusiastic side, we can’t fault his choice of Canadian Club, which he’s regularly seen sipping throughout the seven seasons (though funnily enough, Jack Daniel’s actually sponsored the first season). Like Sex and the City, Mad Men also sparked a cocktail resurgence, though Don Draper has a penchant for classic cocktails like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, so you know exactly what you should settle in with when you decide to crack this classic show out.

You can find Mad Men on Netflix.

Peaky Blinders

Irish whiskey, represent! The series not only inspired a whole generation to shave of the bottom half of their hair, but also gave wonderful Irish whiskey some proper screentime. Though it’s set in 1920s Birmingham, the Peaky Blinders seem to be rather partial to a dram of Irish whiskey. Plus, there’s even an actual Peaky Blinders whiskey, the ultimate companion to your binge-watching! Even Tommy Shelby’s arch nemesis (played by Tom Hardy, another bonus) is a fan of the stuff, with the (not so) wise words: “Whiskey, now that… that is for business.” 

You can find Peaky Blinders on Netflix or BBC iPlayer.

Whisky is for business | Series 2 Episode 2

We couldn't celebrate #WorldWhiskyDay without this quote from Alfie Solomons could we?

Posted by Peaky Blinders on Saturday, 18 May 2019

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Five minutes with. . . Thea Cumming from Dangerous Don mezcal

Soft, floral and perilously quaffable? It could only be Dangerous Don’s new Joven expression, a dazzling 100% Espadin mezcal lovingly crafted in the depths of the Oaxacan countryside. We caught…

Soft, floral and perilously quaffable? It could only be Dangerous Don’s new Joven expression, a dazzling 100% Espadin mezcal lovingly crafted in the depths of the Oaxacan countryside. We caught up with the brains behind the brand, Thea Cumming, to chat about experimental destilados, the original ‘Don’, and a cowboy called Frank…

You might recognise Cumming’s name. As the co-founder of dedicated agave celebration London Mezcal Week – now in its fourth year – and co-owner of Stoke Newington music and mezcal bar Doña, she’s carved a reputation as a figurehead in the city’s mezcal scene. 

While today Cumming may have her fingers in many enchiladas (figuratively speaking), her spirited journey began on the final leg of an epic US road trip, in the port town of Puerto Escondido, situated on Mexico’s Oaxacan coast. 

“That’s where I drank mezcal for the first time,” says Cumming. “We were staying in a place called Sunset Point and met this cowboy from Colorado called Frank. He was going up into the mountains, buying mezcal and mixing it with coffee, vanilla, sugar and some other things in his kitchen, then bottling it and selling it. And he had some amazing mezcals.” 

Thea Cumming with friend in Oaxaca

A few sundowners later, Cumming was sold. “I remember being sat by the pool and deciding, ‘I’m going to start selling mezcal,” says Cumming. “And I’m going to call it Dangerous Don’. That’s my dad’s nickname – his mates from university called him dangerous Don because he had this elaborate plan to go and smuggle cigars with his best mate, big Andy.”

One large bank loan, a tour of Oaxaca and 12 palenques later, Cumming met the Martinez family in Santiago Matatlan, headed by fourth generation master mezcalero Celso. Taking inspiration from Frank’s DIY kitchen blending, she and Martinez would go on to develop the very first Dangerous Don variant, a ‘mezcal destilado con café’.

It isn’t a liqueur – rather, the coffee is treated as a botanical. Martinez twice-distills his 100% Espadin agave in a copper pot still before adding medium-roasted, coarsely-ground Naom Quie coffee beans to the distillate. He allows the mix to steep for 24 hours before distilling again, resulting in a smooth sweet mezcal. 

“The production process of mezcal is unbelievable, it’s such a labour of love,” says Cumming. “Each producer has such different techniques, from roasting the agave to the fermentation process. It’s the same as being a chef – each chef will produce a different dish when they’re asked to cook the same thing.”

Coffee being prepared for distillation

Terroir is also a massive influence in mezcal, as follow-up bottling Dangerous Don Joven demonstrates beautifully. It’s made by master mezcalero Juan Nacho Diaz Cruz in picturesque Santa María Quiegolani – around seven hours’ drive from Oaxaca – where he roasts, ferments and then twice-distils his 100% Espadin agave. 

“It’s very secluded, there’s nothing around for miles and miles,” says Cumming. “I drove out to meet him and his family last April, they’re growing loads of agave and making these incredible mezcals, all super soft and floral and really approachable.”

While the Joven is just hitting shelves, there’s no slowing down for Cumming, whose next destilado is already in the works. There’s plenty of experimentation within mezcal – master mezcaleros love a botanical or two – and Dangerous Don’s master mezcaleros are no exception.

“We’ve just made a ‘destilado con mandarina’ – mandarin – which is really delicious,” says Cumming. “We distil the mezcal twice, peel [the fruit] and leave them to steep for a day, then distil again. The plan this year is to roll out a few more destilados. It’s a really great way to get people to start exploring [the category].”

While it’s beloved by bartenders and drinks aficionados, mezcal is yet to make waves in the mainstream. This presents a unique opportunity for the tight-knit mezcal community to present their liquid as the artisanal product it genuinely is, free from the ‘slammer’ and ‘shot’ connotations associated with its agave cousin, Tequila. 

El joven esta acqui

So long as the category can retain its ‘craft’ credentials, anyway. Which might prove tricky as multinational spirits companies carve their own slice of the agave action. The problem with bigger players coming in, Cumming warns, is that they’ll drive the price point down. And if this sounds like a good thing, trust us – it isn’t.

“Mezcal is an expensive product because of the process,” she explains. “We’re not talking about a grain or sugarcane – we’re talking about something that takes eight years to grow, and that comes with a price point. Many smaller brands can’t necessarily get their price down, and I don’t know that you would want them to.”

On the bright side? As drinkers, we’re more open and invested in the industry than ever before. “The way we consume has changed a lot,” Cumming says. “We care about the origin of the products we buy now, more so than ever, and with mezcal, that’s really important. If that conscious consuming mentality is applied to the mezcal category, then that’s just the dream.”

While we’d always recommend appreciating any artisan spirit neat – at least to begin with – Dangerous Don is also made for mixing. The range is exquisite with tonic (garnish with an orange or grapefruit wedge). If you’re keen to experiment, the original con café variant makes a cracking Negroni when subbed in for the gin. 

“My favourite drink is a Mezcal Tommy’s Margarita,” says Cumming. “Lime and a bit of agave with Dangerous Don Joven, it works really well. If you want to be slightly more creative, you could do a take on an Espresso Martini with Dangerous Don, cold brew, crème de cacao and a tiny dash of agave syrup and that’s delicious too.”

There’s currently £5 off bottles of Dangerous Don original and Joven at Master of Malt.

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Top 5 drinks books (and a jigsaw)

Taking in cocktails, whisky, gin, Armagnac and every good spirit under the sun, here are our favourite drinks books by the best writers on earth. Plus bonus jigsaw. Fun for…

Taking in cocktails, whisky, gin, Armagnac and every good spirit under the sun, here are our favourite drinks books by the best writers on earth. Plus bonus jigsaw. Fun for all the family!

A good drink has transporting qualities. One sip of Lagavulin and your senses will tell you that you’re on the storm-battered coast of Islay, a chilled glass of Santorini wine is almost as good as a trip to the island itself, and shut your eyes while sipping a good strong Martini and you could be in New York City. The magic is even stronger if you add a good book into the mix which is why we’ve picked five of our favourite drink books in stock at Master of Malt. So, you can explore the world, drink in hand, while maintaining social distancing. If there are any that we have missed, do let us know in the comments or on social. Oh, and we’ve stuck a jigsaw in at the end because you can never have too many whisky-based games. 


The Home Bar Henry Jeffreys

If you can’t go out to the bar then why not bring the bar to you? That’s the premise of The Home Bar written by MoM’s very own features editor. It features tips on how to get the right look from an old fashioned pub bar to turning your room into a tiki wonderland, the basic kit you need, and cocktail recipes from the top bartenders. You might never need to leave the house again.


Whisky: The Manual Dave Broom

As experienced drinkers you probably think that you don’t need a whisky manual. It’s not a piece of flatpack furniture, just open the bottle and pour. Well, put your scepticism aside because this book from one of the country’s best loved and most majestically bearded whisky writers will take your appreciation of whisky to the next level. 


Distilled Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley

The dynamic duo of Harrison and Ridley have written quite a few books but we like this one because it distills (pun fully intended) what the duo do best: insatiable curiosity about drinks, and an amusing style that belies a deep knowledge and understanding of the wide world of booze. Taking in whisky, Calvados, baijiu, Armagnac, gin and more, it’s all here. There’s even a tasting set to go alongside it.



Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2020

Love him or loathe him, there’s no doubt that Murray has mastered the art of setting the whisky agenda. When Murray made a Japanese whisky, a Yamazaki sherry cask, his whisky of the year in 2014, it made the front page of the papers around the world. Most whisky writers would sell their grannies for that kind of clout. So find out who’s up and who’s down in Murray’s view in this year’s guide, just don’t take it all too seriously.


The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace Tristan Stephenson

If you’re serious about cocktails, then you need to read Tristan Stephenson aka the Curious Bartender. He’s been in the industry since his early twenties, won all kinds of awards and he’s a great writer. You almost want to dislike him. We stock a few of his books and they’re all brilliant but we’ve highlighted this one as we know how much our customers love gin.


And finally. . .  The Whiskies of Scotland Jigsaw Puzzle 

Here’s the perfect thing for when you can’t go outside, a whisky jigsaw! Produced by the cleverly-named Bamboozled, it’s a map of Scotland market with famous distilleries. It’s the brainchild of Rebecca Gibb, an actual Master of Wine (she knows a thing or two about whisky as well), so you should learn something while you puzzle. 


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Majestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

It’s World Margarita Day on Saturday (22 February) so there’s no better time to enjoy the delights of the various agave-based spirits we have here at MoM Towers! Loved and…

It’s World Margarita Day on Saturday (22 February) so there’s no better time to enjoy the delights of the various agave-based spirits we have here at MoM Towers!

Loved and consumed by millions, made from a couple of simple ingredients and utterly delicious. God, I love Maltesers.

Maltesers share all of these qualities with Margaritas, which are also delightful. So good, in fact, that a day was created especially to champion them. On 22 February (which is this Saturday, folks), drinks lovers all around the world will honour this tasty mix of Tequila, triple sec and lime. We even featured the classic holiday drink as our Cocktail of the Week this time last year if you’d like to learn more about it and how to make it. But why stop with just celebrating the cocktail when you can enjoy the spirit behind it, or indeed any agave spirit. From terrific Tequilas to majestic mezcals (hey, that’s the title!), we’ve got everything you need to mark World Margarita Day or just indulge in some of the best Mexico has to offer.

Magestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

El Rayo Plata

Our first Tequila on the list is one that actually celebrates the legend behind the creation of the first Tequila. El Rayo translates to ‘the lightning’, and the name is a homage to the story that lightning struck a blue Weber agave plant and cooked it, giving us the beloved spirit we enjoy today. El Rayo Plata wasn’t made with lightning, however, but with 105-year-old copper stills which distilled the blue Weber agave twice before it was housed in those handsome bottles. It’s made for a Tequila & Tonic (catchily named a T&T), so definitely give that a try.

What does it taste like?

Exceptionally smooth and gentle, with an almost oily mouthfeel, notes of citrus, lots of earthy agave and a hint of flinty minerals, with a warming peppery finish.

Magestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

Casamigos Añejo Tequila

As Casamigos was co-founded by George Clooney, it’s very easy to become distracted by thoughts of his big handsome Clooney face when actually you should be focusing on the delicious Tequila his creation makes. The Añejo Tequila is made slowly as the agave is fermented for twice the average and roasted for 10 times as long, before the spirit is matured for 14 months in American white oak casks. 

What does it taste like?

Toffee penny, roasted agave, dark chocolate and sweetly spiced oak.

Magestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

El Espolòn Blanco Tequila

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, that is a skeleton riding a rooster. The unique label was inspired by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the importance the bird holds in Mexican culture. El Espolòn Blanco Tequila was made with 100% blue agave and bottled without ageing by the Destilladora San Nicolas in Los Altos.

What does it taste like?

Light and floral, with agave, cracked black pepper, citrus zest, lime and vanilla.

Pensador Mezcal

Pensador Mezcal is made by Don Atenogenes Garcia and his family, who employ traditional production methods that date back to the 16th Century. The unique profile comes from distilling a combination of espadín and madre-cuishe agave. 

What does it taste like?

Oak-y smoke, roasted apricot, black pepper and a mineral-rich earthiness supported by citrus and grape.

Magestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

VIVIR Tequila Reposado

VIVIR was founded by Navindh Grewal and Paul Hayes, the latter of which made his name as the first man to bring Bircher muesli to the UK. Their Reposado expression was crafted with 100% blue Weber agave and aged in bourbon oak casks for at least 6 months. You can drink this one neat or in all manner of Tequila-based cocktails…

What does it taste like?

Chewy caramel and melted butter, with agave earthiness as its backbone.

Magestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

Fortaleza Blanco

When Fortaleza Blanco first came to market in 2005, few probably knew of the brand’s remarkable history. Fortaleza founder Guillermo Sauza’s grandfather was Don Cenobio, a key figure in establishing Tequila as we understand it today. However, his company was sold when Guillermo was little, although they held onto the distillery and land though so Guillermo was able to get the traditional distillery back up and running. It’s a lovely story for a lovely Tequila.

What does it taste like?

Everything a good Tequila should be with herbaceous, vegetal agave, citrus, green olives and brine as well as a creaminess that carries into rich buttery character.

Magestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

Amores Espadin Mezcal

Amores Espadin Mezcal was made with sustainably-cultivated Espadin agave from Oaxaca, so if you love tasty spirits with an ethical production process this should be right up your street.

What does it taste like?

Subtle capsicum and mint leaf character backed up with wood smoke and just a hint of cream.

Magestic mezcals & terrific Tequilas

El Destilado Sierra Negra

An intriguing agave spirit produced for the El Destilado range, a brand that explores spirits from Latin America that was founded by folks from Sager + Wilde and East London Liquor Company. This particular expression is an agave spirit produced using a particularly rare variety called Sierra Negra.

What does it taste like?

Powerfully fragrant, with notes of fresh flowers, cigar box and earthy spices all playing their part.

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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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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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