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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: tequila

Drinks billionaires – keeping it in the family

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are…

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are still in family hands.

Do you ever wonder who might raise a glass to you when you, to coin a phrase, raise a glass yourself? It’s an intriguing question. After all, drinks companies are fond of maintaining the façade of family owners. Think Bulleit Bourbon – it’s actually a Diageo brand (which arguably was mainly developed under Seagram’s) but a very high profile is maintained by Tom Bulleit and, until recently, his daughter Hollis. They’re speaking via their lawyers now. The story behind their acrimonious break-up is a rather unfortunate one and perhaps for another day, but sadly illustrative of the potential problems lurking in any family.

The Nightcap Drinks billionaires

Bulleit bourbon, a family business?

But back to Diageo. In its Scotch portfolio we’ll also find the Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and Haig brands. Now, once upon a time, there were real-life actual people answering to Walker, Buchanan and Haig who owned the distilleries that made these products – but no longer.

Today Diageo is a publicly-quoted company. That means you can buy a share in the business and be a part-owner. Actually, if you have any kind of a pension plan (whether through your employer or direct) you probably already own a share in some shares. Diageo is one of the UK’s largest and most successful businesses, and most well-balanced pension portfolios will have a holding in the company.  To declare an interest, I certainly do (I checked), and I’m very happy with its recent performance.

Many large industries have evolved in this way. But the drinks trade is something of a curiosity as a number of important brands remain in the hands of the descendants of the founding family.  Though some, like the Walkers, Buchanans and Haigs have long since cashed in, other companies remain determinedly independent and make great play of the long-term planning required in the spirits business. This, they suggest, means the industry is well suited to family ownership rather than being driven by the short-term demands of the financial community.

Some of the smaller examples are well known. Glenfarclas, for example, is happy to stress the fact that the distillery has remained in the Grant family since 1865 with chairman John Grant and son George directly and actively involved in every aspect. Grant Snr even lives on site, and you can’t get more hands-on than that.

Whisky Advent 2018 Day #18 Drinks billionaires

George Grant from Glenfarclas

Glenfiddich too is a family concern so, along with the various brands they own – think Balvenie, Hendrick’s Gin, Tullamore D.E.W. and Sailor Jerry rum among others – the forty-odd descendants of the founder William Grant thank you for every bottle you buy.  Oddly, though, while the public face of the company is largely represented by the Gordon branch (Peter Gordon and Grant Gordon in recent years) the major shareholder is believed to be the intensely private Benedicta Chamberlain. If her reputed 29.9% of the business is anywhere close to accurate, she’s comfortably in the billionaire class. Think of that next time you pour a dram of the world’s best-selling single malt.

As you’d expect, the family take the whole business very seriously. So much so in fact that Peter Gordon has even published a book on the subject. Family Spirit: Stories and Insights From Leading Family-Owned Enterprises looks at the strategies of eleven other family-owned businesses, though mainly not in the drinks industry. One of the companies he might have studied is Bacardi.  Yes, every drop of Dewar’s or Aberfeldy single malt or William Lawson’s (a million case-plus blended Scotch you’ve probably never heard of) adds a few coppers to the eponymous descendants of Don Facundo Bacardi.  A Bacardi and Coke puts a smile on their face, as does your call for Grey Goose, Martini, St-Germain or Patrón tequila.

Alexandre Ricard Drinks billionaires

Alexandre Ricard

Now the Bacardi family is very disciplined, borrowing if necessary to fund its acquisitions (over US$2 billion in 2004 for Grey Goose, then reputedly the largest purchase price in spirits business history for a single brand, and now a cool $5.1 billion for Patrón), but the equity isn’t sold. Much the same story could be told about Suntory Holdings, still controlled by the Saji and Torii families.

Elsewhere, public listing to raise capital hasn’t entirely removed family control as the tight grip of the founding dynasties at Davide Campari SpA, Brown-Forman and Rémy Cointreau SA clearly demonstrates. The Ricard family still retain 16% of the giant Pernod Ricard operation. It’s no coincidence that one Alexandre Ricard is both chairman and CEO, even if activist US investors Elliott Management are pushing to shake things up.

So, the reality and scale of family control is something to ponder as you part with your hard-earned cash. As you raise their brands to your lips, the question can’t be avoided: ‘what are the drinks billionaires sipping tonight?’

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The Nightcap: 26 July

You know what Friday means by now, it can only be the Nightcap! This week we’ve got all the digs on The Macallan’s newest release, Coupette’s mouthwatering Summer menu, the…

You know what Friday means by now, it can only be the Nightcap! This week we’ve got all the digs on The Macallan’s newest release, Coupette’s mouthwatering Summer menu, the rise of the Tequila cocktail and even a Jack Daniel’s shoe.

Happy Friday, folks! But before we get into the thick of all the wonderful booze news of the week that was, we thought we’d have a quick chat about the weather. Because, we don’t know about you, but nobody has mentioned the weather this week. At all. Was it warm? Was there sun? We tried to enjoy a refreshing Spritz here at MoM Towers, but apparently the whole of the UK had run out of ice. All we know is that it’s now raining again and the quintessential British summer is back on. Thank goodness for that. It was a steamy few days. Step away from the SPF 50 and settle down with a drink, the Nightcap is here!

On the blog this week, we kicked off Monday with a recap of all the Fèis Ìle 2019 fun, while Kristy chose a sherry-tastic single malt for our New Arrival of the Week, took a peek at the mysterious 2019 Diageo Special Releases, and reported back on a magic trip to Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey Distillery! Meanwhile, Henry mixed up a Tequila Sunrise for his Cocktail of the Week, chatted rum with Alexandre Gabriel from Plantation, and found out what on earth Uncle’s Day is with Uncle Nearest’s Fawn Weaver. Last but not least, Annie gave the 411 on where to grab a drink in Amsterdam, Nate Brown scooted over to Dublin’s Roe & Co, and our Jess carried on the Tequila and mezcal fun with a round up of agave spirits. Phew. But that’s not all – on with the news!

Beam Suntory

Behold, The Fred B. Noe Distillery!

Beam Suntory breaks ground James B. Beam distillery

In big American whiskey news, Beam Suntory announced this week that it’s investing a whopping $60 million to build a new craft distillery and bring back The James B. Beam Distilling Co. name to Clermont! The James B. Beam Distilling Co. was the company’s name immediately after Prohibition, and will now serve as the name of Beam Suntory’s Clermont operations, as well as encompassing the production operations for the Jim Beam brand and small-batch brands such as Booker’s and Knob Creek. This investment will also build the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery on the Clermont site, named after seventh generation master distiller Fred Noe, which will house the exploration of exciting new fermentation and distillation techniques. “Beam Suntory is excited to honour our roots by investing in the James B. Beam Distilling Co., and setting ourselves up for a bright future in Kentucky and around the world,” commented Albert Baladi, President and CEO for Beam Suntory. “With nearly 225 years behind us, we are proud of our history of entrepreneurialism, craftsmanship and innovation. As the world leader in bourbon, we are thrilled to be laying the foundation for the next 225 years.” Goodbye Beam Suntory, hello The James B. Beam Distilling Co.!

Campari Rum

Campari takes on rum/rhum

Campari Group eyes up Rhum Agricole brands

Got a taste for the vegetal pronouncedness of Rhum Agricole? You are not alone. Campari Group, one of the world’s biggest drinks players, wants in, too. This week it was announced that the owner of the likes of Campari (obvs), Aperol, Wild Turkey and Bulldog Gin entered into “exclusive negotiations” with the parent company of Trois Rivières and Maison La Mauny (and Duquesne rum, too) to acquire the Martinique-based brands. While no price was revealed, the deal would include the brands themselves, the land they sit on, the distilleries and visitor centres, plus the aged rhum stocks. Yes please. In the press release, Campari Group said that if the deal goes through, it will “enhance its exposure to rum, a premiumising category currently at the heart of the mixology trend and growing cocktail culture”. It already owns Appleton Estate and Wray & Nephew, so it would make Campari a significant force for all things rum (and rhum). Ready the Ti Punches, folks!

Diageo

Cheers to a bumper year for Diageo!

Tanqueray and Don Julio drive Diageo sales

It’s that time of year again – financial results are in! And for Diageo, they make for pretty buoyant reading. Sales for the full year to 30 June hit £12.9 billion, up 5.8%, with profits hitting £4bn, (+9.5%). Why such strong results? Two words: gin and Tequila. Gin as a whole grew by 23% in value, with Tequila soaring by a whopping 37%. Brand-wise, Don Julio was a total stand-out, with sales climbing by an incredible 30%, while Tanqueray posted 21% gains. Which brands didn’t do quite so well? The biggest name to see a drop was Cîroc Vodka (-5%), although vodka as a whole actually saw 4% growth, a big deal seeing as the category has fared pretty poorly in recent times. And Scotch? All-in-all, things are going well! The category grew by 6%, with Johnnie Walker seeing values climb 7% on the previous year, and the Scotch malts collectively making 12% gains. Winning!

The Macallan Estate

The Macallan Estate, delicious and super popular

The Macallan unleashes home-grown Estate to the world

We had a thoroughly lovely Wednesday this week. Not only did The Macallan get its new Estate edition ready to ship, the brand also treated us to an utterly delightful lunch! We gathered at the incredible Hide in Piccadilly with Sarah Burgess, The Macallan’s whisky maker, and David Sinclair, brand ambassador to learn about (and of course, taste) the new expression. Burgess told us all about the production process – one week a year, mashing, fermentation and distillation is given over to barley grown exclusively on The Macallan estate. And the sensibly-named The Macallan Estate is the result! It’s an addition to the core range, and more bottles will be released each year (although Burgess stressed to us that she’s working to keep the flavour profile consistent over time). So, what’s it like? Tremendously autumnal, filled to the brim with appley, orchard fruit notes, plus lashings of marmalade on burnt toast, and a wash of sweet spices. Tasty.

Coupette Shimmer

Coupette’s mesmerising Shimmer cocktail

Coupette launches new menu ‘Summer’

Ah, Coupette. Something of a hole in the wall, to the uninitiated the award-winning bar may seem rather unsuspecting from the outside. We excitedly made our way down as just this week, founder Chris Moore launched the new menu in collaboration with local sign writer, Ged Palmer, titled ‘Summer’! One such epitome of the season was Strawberries & Cream, taking inspiration from Wimbledon and seasonal picnics. With strawberry eau de vie, rosé vermouth, wine and a vanilla-scented, clarified milk punch finish, served with a brush of white chocolate around the rim of the glass, it’s totally delicious without being overly sweet. This serve was just flying out from behind the bar, and no wonder in 34-degree heat! There’s a story behind each serve, and an intriguing one was Shimmer, marrying 30&40 Eau de Vie, green apple and sage, wine, genepi and sage soda, served in a mesmerising blue ceramic vessel on a blue geode coaster. Designed to be reminiscent of holidays and blue oceans it certainly accomplishes that, in flavour and aesthetic. Other delicious serves included the Bloody Martini with vodka, vin jaune, a clear tomato consommé and chive oil, part of a series of cocktails which mashes together two iconic drinks. There’s also a take on a Kir Royale, which sees a fabulous serving of blackcurrant sorbet in the cocktail glass. Slightly heavier serves include Obsidian, channelling a Rum Old Fashioned with the addition of cocoa and tangy passion fruit. We’ll certainly be back to try out the rest. Leave any expectations at the door, and prepare to be absolutely blown away with this stunningly complex and yet unpretentious menu. Bravo, Coupette.

Dalloway Terrace

Dalloway Terrace has cocktails on tap… from a flower wall!

Dalloway Terrace unveils new look for summer ’19

On Wednesday, we got to visit what is described by Vogue as “one of London’s most Instagrammable restaurants”. The Dalloway Terrace is now offering a taste of summer with the launch of its Summer Estate, in partnership with Ramsbury Distillery. Master florist, Nikki Tibbles, recreated the English countryside, transforming the Terrace with wild meadow flowers, blending silk daisies, cosmos, larkspur, delphiniums and foliage with embellishments of coral quince blossom. Flower walls are massive right now, and she created possibly the best one ever for the occasion:  a flower wall complete with botanical cocktails on tap. There’s also a bar for G&T drinkers where they can garnish drinks themselves with produce fresh from Ramsbury Estate. The seasonal cocktail menu will offer a selection of summer serves priced at £13. No reservations allowed at the Terrace, so be sure to get in quick – it’s open from 08:00am to11:00pm every day until mid-September.

Slane Irish Whiskey

Delicious and sustainable Slane Whiskey

Slane Irish Whiskey announces trio of winners in sustainable cocktail comp

Earlier this summer, Slane Distillery’s UK brand ambassador, Michael Brown, set a challenge to bartenders to create the most ‘suSLANEable’ cocktails. And this week, not one, not two but THREE winners were selected! Slane is located in the heart of Boyne Valley in Ireland and, inspired by Earth Day, had tasked bartenders across the UK to follow in its green footsteps. And they are big shoes to fill:  the distillery has already installed a “catchment system” to collect rainwater off the roofs of the distillery buildings to reduce the volume of water needed for production drawn from the Boyne River. Cool stuff! Joint winner Jack Riley from Present Company, Liverpool, says, “We should all be taking small steps to help the impact on the environment.” He worked with local coffee shops to create his nameless ‘suSLANEable’ cocktail: 45ml Slane Irish Whiskey, 20ml Spent Coffee-infused Martini Bitter, 15ml Tropical Cordial and 2 dash Bitter. Fellow champ Tom Sutton from H.M.S.S challenged himself to find and use leftover produce to create his “Castaway”, from just 40ml Slane Irish Whiskey, 30ml reclaimed cordial and stir into a frozen embassy. Simples. Finally, we have Leon Back and his recipe for “Little Winner”; 50ml Slane Irish Whiskey, 40ml ghetto cold brew (spent coffee grinds), coconut syrup, 10ml Martini ambrato, 10ml P.X. Sherry and 2 dashes Angostura bitter with some tonic water over ice.  Delicious. Evolving and improving every year, Slane is working to become one of the most environmentally-friendly whiskey distilleries in Europe… Check out this video for more inspo to make eco-friendly drinks.

Patron Tequila

Goodbye Tequila shots, hello Paloma!

Shots are out: Brits now prefer Tequila cocktails, according to Patrón

Step away from the salt and lime: Tequila is now officially preferred in cocktail form, rather than as a shot, in new research from Patrón. In a study that suggests Tequila has finally shaken off its hard-partying image, more than 65% of drinkers said they enjoy Tequila cocktails on a night out, over slammers. It makes sense: Tequila is the fastest growing spirit in the UK, according to Euromonitor. Despite the upgraded drinking habits, Tequila knowledge is at a bit of a low. Only 23% of those questioned knew Tequila was made from agave, while just 10% showed knowledge of aged Tequilas. One response? To get tasting! You can find an array of Tequila drams for that purpose right here. What’s your Tequila of choice? Let us know in the comments below!

Nelsons distillery

Nelson’s carbon neutral distillery from the skies

Nelson’s Distillery bags eco award

More green news! Word reached us this week that Nelson’s Distillery & School in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, won a Green Impact Award for its eye-popping efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle. The award itself is the Signal 1 Radio Green Award, given out to recognise and celebrate local businesses making great strides in sustainability. Striving to be totally “off-grid” since 2016, Nelson’s is based at a flashy, futuristic and carbon neutral site with numerous green energy sources, including a wind turbine and super-snazzy anaerobic digester power plants. The site sells energy back to the grid, the team live in the local village to reduce traffic and pollution, they have their own natural water source, and use the reed beds to filter the water used in gin and rum. If this doesn’t sound amazeballs enough, then what about the 10% customer discount you get if you returning or repurposing the bottles?! More distilleries take note.  

Flor de Caña

No lunch, but lots of Flor de Caña!

Boisdale celebrates Nicaraguan rum

Last Friday, we were invited by Ranald MacDonald from Boisdale for an intimate lunch at his Belgravia restaurant with her excellency Guisell Morales-Echaverry, Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United Kingdom, in honour of Ron Flor de Caña. How could we refuse? When we arrived, the intimate lunch was a room heaving with dignitaries including the Bulgarian ambassador. So many ambassadors. It was like a Ferraro Roche advert. Only with less to eat. Of lunch there was no sign. We were whisked upstairs by Matro Ortiz Lima, the Chilean brand ambassador with a strong Scottish accent, to sample three rums, a 12 year old, 18 year old and a 25 year old. According to Lima, Flor de Caña these are minimum ages, as with Scotch whisky and indeed Jamaican rum. Apparently, the company has unparalleled stocks of mature spirit because during the revolutionary period from 1970 to 1990, the family who own the brand hid rum all over the country. We finished with the coffee and tobacco-scented 25 year old, which went beautifully with a big cigar. Something else this country does superbly. But of the promised lunch, there was no sign. 

Jack Daniel's Shoes

Jack Daniel’s takes on footwear

And finally… Jack Daniel’s-inspired… shoes?

Jack Daniel’s has made its first foray into the world of footwear! The whiskey giant has teamed up with the awesomely-named Shoe Surgeon, aka Dominic Chambrone, and together they’ve created seven Jack Daniel’s-inspired trainers (or rather, ‘sneakers’, as they’re calling them across the pond). “Craftsmanship is the ultimate common detonator between what I do and those who make Jack Daniel’s,” Chambrone commented. Each of the seven shoe designs was inspired by an iconic element of the Jack Daniel’s brand. These are grain, Cave Springs, the distillery, charcoal, the barrel, honey, and the Jack Daniel’s bottle. If you want in, then you’ll have to vote online in August, with only 10 lucky voters in to win a pair. We don’t like those odds… Our only question is, can you drink out of them?

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Cocktail of the Week: The Tequila Sunrise

For International Tequila Day, we’re shaking up a classic with an illustrious history that features the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Kurt Russell! What came first, the song or the…

For International Tequila Day, we’re shaking up a classic with an illustrious history that features the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Kurt Russell!

What came first, the song or the cocktail? Well that’s an easy one, it’s the cocktail. ‘Tequila Sunrise’ by the Eagles came out in 1973 whereas the Tequila Sunrise cocktail has been kicking about in one form or other since the 1930s. Originally it was far closer to a Margarita or Paloma being made with lime juice and fizzy water, and it got its trademark reddish haze from Crème de Cassis rather than Grenadine. 

The Tequila Sunrise as we know it is far more recent. It was probably invented in the early 1970s by two bartenders Bobby Lozoff and Billy Rice at the Trident, a bar in Sausalito near San Francisco. It could have just been another cocktail that achieved a modicum of local fame before disappearing into oblivion, but for a chance meeting with an up-and-coming young beat combo known as The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger tried the cocktail, loved it and the band and its entourage took it up as their drink du jour. In his autobiography Life (well worth a read, it’s brilliant), Keith Richards referred to Stones’ 1972 tour of America as “cocaine and Tequila Sunrise tour”. How’s that for a serving suggestion?

With publicity like this, how could the cocktail fail? It quickly became one of the best known cocktails in the world. The Tequila Sunrise’s heyday was the ‘70s and ‘80s. There was even a baffling thriller named after it starring Mel Gibson, Michele Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell that came out in 1988. 

It’s not a difficult drink to make but I am sure that readers like me have had some pretty revolting versions. As always you need top quality ingredients starting with the Tequila. I’m using the delightfully smooth Maestro Dobel Diamond which is a 100% agave aged Tequila that’s filtered to remove the colour – just as how white rums like Havana Club 3 Year Old are made. Next, you must use freshly-squeezed orange juice, NOT juice made from concentrate. Then there’s the grenadine. You can buy grenadine but it tastes better if you make it yourself from pomegranate juice (recipe below).

The basic Tequila Sunrise is nice but it can be improved with some judicious fiddling.  Adding a little lime and/or grapefruit juice freshens it up beautifully and takes it back into Margarita/ Paloma territory. And while we are going there why not go old school and use Cassis to get that pretty sunrise effect, or perhaps Campari or Aperol?

The Tequila Sunrise,

The Tequila Sunrise, if it’s good enough of Keith, it’s good enough for us

Right got your ingredients in place? Stick on Exile on Main Street, and let’s make a Tequila Sunrise!

60ml  Maestro Dobel Diamond Tequila
120ml freshly-squeezed orange juice
Juice of half a lime
2 teaspoons grenadine*

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add the orange juice and Tequila. Shake and strain into a highball glass filled with ice cubes. Slowly pour the grenadine down the side of the glass to get that red haze. Garnish with an orange slice or a maraschino cherry, or both, rock n’ roll!

* Pomegranate juice (make sure it is pure pomegranate juice and not a drink containing pomegranate and sugar) is already sweet so you don’t need to add as much sugar as to water. A ratio of two parts juice to three parts sugar is ideal. Pour the pomegranate juice into a saucepan and gently heat, don’t boil, add the sugar and slowly and stir until it dissolves. Remove from the heat, pour into a sterilised jar (heated in the oven or with boiling water) and it should last in the fridge for months.

 

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Introducing some awesome agave spirits!

From the sudden influx of celebrities promoting their own mezcal to international celebrations of the spirit, it looks like the agave-themed fun just doesn’t stop! We’re carrying on the fun…

From the sudden influx of celebrities promoting their own mezcal to international celebrations of the spirit, it looks like the agave-themed fun just doesn’t stop! We’re carrying on the fun from last week’s London Mezcal Week, while across the pond in the big ol’ USA they’re celebrating National Tequila Day on 24 July.

In light of such festivities, we’ve done exactly what any reasonable folk would do and gathered up nine amazing agave spirits, for your perusal. Put that salt and lime away, these are some tip-top tipples right here.

 

Casamigos Añejo

An Añejo Tequila from Casamigos, a brand founded by some familiar faces, chiefly George Clooney. If you were thinking of another George Clooney, let us just clarify that it is indeed 1997 Batman George Clooney. Funnily enough, Casamigos was never actually intended to be released to the public and was enjoyed solely with friends and family for years, hence the meaning of the name, ‘house of friends’. Luckily for us, Clooney & Co. released it to the world for us to enjoy! Everything about this Tequila takes its sweet time; the Highland agave goes through an 80-hour fermentation process, and is then roasted in traditional brick ovens for 72 long hours, a smashing 10 times longer than average. The spirit is finally aged for 14 months in American white oak, adding those lovely creamy notes to the fresh agave flavours.

What does it taste like?

Roasted cacao and runny caramel balanced by more vegetal notes of agave, with sweet spice and toasty oak on the finish.

El Espolòn Reposado

Produced by Destilladora San Nicholas in Los Atlos, this well spiced Tequila is packed full of rock’n’roll (literally – the factory workers played rock music to inspire the Blue Weber agave). Starting life off as blanco, it rests between 3-5 months in new American oak barrels, gaining a more complex character and a unique, slightly charred flavour.
Inspired by the powerful symbol of pride, the rooster, the brand celebrates Mexican culture. Charmingly called Ramón, the rooster features on every label to tell a different unique story of Tequila. The labels pay tribute to José Guadalupe Posada, an artist, printmaker and rebel most famous for the calavera (skulls) that feature alongside the rooster. The combination is a commentary on social injustices in Mexico, to give the people a voice, and influence today’s pop culture.

What does it taste like?

Earthy roasted agave notes, with a touch of treacle, vanilla pod and fragrant oak influence, with a finish of tropical fruit, namely a lingering note of tangy pineapple.

El Rayo Reposado

El Rayo Tequila is something of a first, blending agave harvested from both Highland and Lowland regions in one bottle! The brand was created a world away from Mexico in the heart of Peckham, by childhood friends Tom Bishop and Jack Vereker. El Rayo translates as ‘the lightning’, after a tale in Mexican folklore which recounts a Blue Weber agave plant being struck by lightning, a phenomenon you can see depicted on the bottle label. Villagers discovered the now-cooked agave, and consequently, Tequila as well! Made up of 70% Highland and 30% Lowland agave, the Reposado has been rested for seven months in barrels which previously housed whisky. The ethos behind El Rayo couldn’t be further from the salt and lime rituals that somewhat plague the spirit. Its signature serve is the Tequila & Tonic, or rather more catchily, the T&T, with a wedge of pink grapefruit. Try it; you won’t be disappointed.

What does it taste like?

Orange oil and orange zest, subtle smoke and oak spice leading into gently salted caramel, toasted almond and hallmark roasted agave notes.

Pensador Mezcal

Produced in Southern Oaxaca, Pensador Mezcal is crafted using methods dating all the way back to the 16th century by Don Atenogenes Garcia and his family. The palenque is located on the Calle Pensamientos, which translates to ‘Thoughts Road’, while the name Pensador also translates to ‘thinker’. The mezcal is made from two species of agave, Espadín and Madrecuishe, both widely cultivated throughout Mexico due to their high sugar content. The piñas are baked in a stone pit for six days before they’re crushed by a traditional tahona wheel. From field to bottle, each batch of Pensador takes around three months, so it’s little surprise that another interpretation of the name means ‘slowness of time’. We reckon the same principle should apply when drinking it; one to sip slowly and savour the smoky goodness.

What does it taste like?

Wood smoke and a dash of citrus peel, with barbecued stone fruit, black pepper and chilli spice, earthy mineral notes with a touch of lychee on the finish.

Mezcal Unión Uno

Mezcal Unión was founded in order to protect traditional mezcal production and benefit the families all around Mexico that are producing the smoky spirit. Indeed, it is a union of sorts, uniting various palenques around Oaxaca while supporting both environmental and social sustainability. Mezcal Unión Uno, a joven expression, is made with Espadín and wild Cirial agave, some of which are at the ripe old age of 20 years old when harvested. After they’re crushed with a traditional tahona wheel pulled by a mule, they go through a double distillation before bottling. This here is a mezcal with a mission, and we’re all for it.

What does it taste like?

Sweet tropical lychee and delicate floral notes, with earthy vanilla, a good helping of smoke and grassy notes, a tang of citrus on the finish.

QuiQuiRiQui Matatlán Mezcal

This smoky tipple is made in Matatlán, known as the ‘World Capital of Mezcal’. That’s a fabulous start right there. Even better, it has a particularly fun name, QuiQuiRiQui! Try saying that five times fast. This unaged joven expression is produced using Lowland Espadín agave, and is double distilled in the village of Santiago de Matatlán in rather small batches of 1,000 litres. If you were wondering about the name, it’s pronounced kee-kee-ree-kee, inspired by the sound of a rooster, one of which you can spot on the label.

What does it taste like?

Smoky to start, with rich cocoa and sweetly vegetal bell pepper, fresh grass, ripe apricot, and sweet baking spice fading into drying smoked black pepper lingering on the finish.

Patrón Silver

From what could well be one of the most famous houses in Mexico, Patrón Silver Tequila is something of a cult classic. It’s made exclusively from 100% Blue Weber agave, over at the Hacienda Patrón distillery. The agave is crushed using a combination of both traditional tahona wheel as well as more modern rollers. Bottled by hand, each glass vessel is signed and individually numbered, complete with Portuguese cork stopper. This is certainly one to try out all those Tequila-based cocktails you’ve been meaning to experiment with.

What does it taste like?

Lovely agave freshness, with buttery caramel, gently spiced with nutmeg and pepper, with lively citrus on the finish.

Mezcal Verde

From Verde Momento comes Mezcal Verde, a true celebration of all things Mexico, with the artisanal mezcal made with Oaxacan Espadín agave. The piñas are baked for five days in an underground oven using ocote, holm oak, and peppertree, giving its smoky profile a very distinctive flavour. Verde Momento means ‘green moment, and the brand is tackling reforestation, with 10 new agaves planted for every one that is harvested. The funky label artwork features work from Mexican artists, with each batch sporting a completely different design. We know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but when they look that good, what’s not to like?! Not to mention, the liquid inside is top-notch, too.

What does it taste like?

A slightly creamy, nutty note, with dried fruit, peach and sweet grass alongside all those expected smoky notes.

Montelobos Joven Mezcal

Montelobos Joven was created by biologist Dr. Iván Saldaña. That’s a good start, having studied plants, but Saldaña knew nothing about how to produce the Mexican spirit. He sought help from fifth generation mezcalero, Don Abel Lopez, and the duo have been smashing it ever since. Organic Espadín agave are harvested and roasted for around one week in a volcanic stone pit. In a pledge for sustainability, Montelobos has committed to never using wild agave in its mezcal. What’s more, in keeping with age-old tradition, Lopez throws chilli peppers into the fire when roasting the agave, because this is said to ward off evil spirits. Montelobos translates to ‘mountain of wolves’, so we reckon that explains the rather fierce looking fella on the handsome square bottle!

What does it taste like?

Loads of fruity sweetness, with pineapple and mango, lemon zest, a distinctive minerality, rosemary and a good hit of smoke remaining long after the last sip.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Piña Fumada

Take it from us, The Piña Fumada is the smoky summer tipple you didn’t know you needed. We chat with Thea Cumming, co-founder of London Mezcal Week, which returns for a…

Take it from us, The Piña Fumada is the smoky summer tipple you didn’t know you needed. We chat with Thea Cumming, co-founder of London Mezcal Week, which returns for a third year this week with one of the largest collections of agave spirits in Europe…

London Mezcal Week was set up by – and they won’t mind us saying this – two of the UK’s most dedicated and knowledgeable mezcal enthusiasts, Thea Cumming and Melanie Symonds. Their aim? To support and celebrate agave spirits across the board, working with traditional producers to bring authentic brands and industry experts to the capital.

Spanning an impressive line-up of supper clubs, bar takeovers, seminars, tastings and cocktail masterclasses, this year’s London Mezcal Week will culminate in a two-day Mezcal Tasting Festival this Friday and Saturday, featuring more than 60 agave spirits – including mezcal, Tequila, sotol, bacanora and raicilla – across 35-plus brands.

TT Liquor in London

TT Liquor in London

The mezcal category has transformed since Cumming and Symonds launched the event. Never-before-seen mezcal styles are being introduced the UK all the time – including Cumming’s own brand, Dangerous Don, which sees mezcal infused with coffee and redistilled – and new trends are unfolding, too. “There are certainly more interesting blended agave spirits,” says Cumming, who points to Pensador, a blend of madre-cuishe and espadin agave.

“There has also been a bit of a change in perception which has meant that more people are willing to try mezcal,” she continues. “However, this doesn’t come without its own challenges – we need to make sure that [bar operators] look into the brand ethos and background and ask the right questions rather than go for the cheapest option.”

Our drink of choice to toast London Mezcal Week is none other than The Piña Fumada, which combines mezcal, pineapple, lemon, velvet falernum and grapefruit and rosemary tonic water to form a lip-smacking summer sipper. The cocktail was created by TT Liquor in collaboration with Andrea Brulatti, UK brand ambassador for London Essence, for a masterclass led by none other than Santiago Lastra.

Through a series of paired small plates, the man behind the launch of Noma Mexico and forthcoming restaurant Kol sought to celebrate the relationship between Mexican cooking and mezcal: think Scottish scallops ceviche with pink mole, cured lamb leg tostada with kombucha and guajillo mayo.

The Piña Fumada

The Piña Fumada is all its smoky glory

“Mexican cuisine is all about powerful flavours and amazing ingredients,” Cumming explains. “Mexico is graced with immense biodiversity meaning the food is even more immense in flavour and variety.” As such, the same is true for mezcal production. “Terroir is a major influence in the taste of a mezcal,” Cumming continues. “Techniques vary from state to state and each mezcalero has his own secrets which have been passed down through generations. The relationship between mezcal and food is rooted in the earth – the very heart of what makes Mexico such a magical country.”

There are more than 50 different varieties of agave that can be used to produce mezcal. The flavour is further shaped by the region within which the plant grows, the altitude it grows at, and the conditions of the specific year it starts growing, says Cumming.

“Production techniques will vary, natural yeasts will be different from one area to another and of course the master mezcalero will each have a different hand,” she says. “This means the versatility of mezcal is limitless. Each one tastes so different, which means it needs to be treated in a totally different way

An exhilarating prospect for the capital’s bartenders, who have been busy experimenting with the spirit in all manner of serves, from classics to new creations. Which brings us rather nicely to The Pina Fumada, a twist on the Colada that comes highly recommended by those in the know. The flavours are “a match made in heaven”, says Cummings, “I would highly recommend everyone to give it a go”. Here’s what you’ll need…

Ingredients:

30ml QuiQuiRiQui Matatlan Mezcal
15ml Taylor’s Velvet Falernum
15ml lemon juice
35ml pineapple juice
London Essence Grapefruit and Rosemary tonic water to top

Shake first four ingredients hard and strain into an ice-filled highball. Top with London Essence Grapefruit and Rosemary tonic water, and garnish with a pineapple spear.

Keen to get involved in the festivities this week? You’re in luck – Cumming has very kindly created a 10% discount code for all MoM readers. All you need to do is enter ‘MOMLOVESMEZCAL’ when purchasing a ticket. Click here for a taste of the action (and a run-down of the weeks’ events)…

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Five minutes with agave guru Björn Kjellberg 

It’s London Mezcal Week, so today we have an agave double bill. First an interview with Björn Kjellberg, a Swede who fell in love with agave and now runs distillery…

It’s London Mezcal Week, so today we have an agave double bill. First an interview with Björn Kjellberg, a Swede who fell in love with agave and now runs distillery tours of Mexico. Then this afternoon, we’ll be mixing up some mezcal for our Cocktail of the Week.

You can’t miss Björn Kjellberg. He’s a tall pale Swede with a shaved head and Mexican-style tattoos all over his body. We met him back in May at the EBS conference held at a villa up in the hills above Sitges in Catalonia. This is the annual gathering of teachers from all the European Bartenders Schools around the world. It’s a bit like Highlander, only with cocktails. As you might expect, when nearly 100 bartenders mostly under 30 meet in a town famous for its nightlife, there were some late nights involved. But the EBS crew were as into learning as partying, and despite some bleary eyes, everyone listened intently as big names from the drinks industry like John Quinn from Tullamore Dew and Ludo Ducrocq, formerly with William Grant & Sons, now with Glenmorangie, gave presentations. Even among such drinks luminaries, Kjellberg’s talk on agave was a highlight of our visit. He’s so immersed in mezcal  and Mexican culture that his typically excellent Swedish English sometimes came out with a Spanish inflexion. So who better to explain all things agave during London Mezcal Week.  

Kjellberg in Mexico, note traditional fire pit for cooking agave in the background

Master of Malt: How did you get involved with EBS?

Björn Kjellberg: I started working as a bartender at the nightclub back in January 2002. And it just kept rolling. I started a bartending school with a friend in 2006 and ran that for about seven years. Today I spent most of time looking after the Tequila brand Altos in Sweden and soon also the mezcal brand Del Maguey. I began working with EBS in 2013. I got invited to host a full day education on Tequila, mezcal and agave as well as some cocktail inspiration for the Teacher Academy and Advanced Bartending programs they ran in Stockholm then. One thing led to another and some years later I got the opportunity to be part of the EBS Board of Education to push the school further and to take lead as, not only the largest bartender school in the world, but also the premier one.

MoM: Can you remember your first bottle of mezcal?

BK: I am pretty certain it was Recuerdo de Oaxaca or maybe, El Señorio back in 2006. The old original bottlings before Casa Armando took over the production. Not saying they ruined it or anything, but it was a whole other beast back then. I later became good friends with Vincente Reyes who founded the brands and he was the one who guided me in Oaxaca the first time and lay the foundation of the deeper understanding and appreciation of this culture.

MoM: When did you first go to Mexico?

BK: In 2010, I spent about a week in Jalisco visiting six or seven producers and then a few days in Oaxaca for another three or four visits.

Agave plants which are destined for mezcal

MoM: What is it that makes mezcal so special for you?

BK: It is still alive! Not saying all other spirits are dead or too industrialised, but mezcal really is more alive. The only other spirit that comes close, as I see it, is Haitian clairin. Say Scottish whisky, as an example, it is important for the people in the communities and it is important for the identity of Scotland and so on. But it is not about life, it is not about death. It has to some extent lost its deeper roots and connection to it origin, to its ancestors and its indigenous role. Then, of course, we have the agave. No other crop in the world of spirits is so unique and extraordinary as the agave. People have been using it for food and for textiles, drinks, fuel and even shelter for more than 9000 years. It is embedded in ancient folklore, myth, religion and culture. With agave we are preserving ancient cultures and traditions. Each bottle of family-produced mezcal actually matters to someone. There is a real person and a family behind, and for them a little means a lot. I would love to recommend everyone with the slightest interest in spirits, culture or Mexico to watch the beautiful documentary Agave is Life by Meredith Dreiss and David Brown of Archero Productions. It gives gives you a deeper understanding why agave is important.

MoM: Are you happy with the new designation system (good explanation here) for mezcal?

BK: Very! As a rare thing they put people in charge who actually listened to the smaller producers and looked at production from a craft and tradition perspective first when stipulating these new rules and regulations. Also, I think they made it really fair even for the bigger producers who have chosen a more industrial way of reaching growth. Is it made from agave? Is everything made within the borders of the designated area? Good! Then we have a mezcal. Then if you choose more ancient or crafted methods of production you may add that to the name. Brilliant! More spirits categories should look at this.

MoM: Do you think mezcal is challenging for consumers? Do you think it will ever be mainstream?

BK: Yes, of course. Just look at the journey we made the last ten years. I never think mezcal will be as rum, vodka or gin, but it for sure will become normalised. This is also why it is so important with education and showing all parts of the mezcal industry and world. To allow growth and new influences without diminishing the traditions. I am pretty sure both modern and traditional mezcals can live side by side and that both will prosper from each other.

Bjorn Kjellberg

Kjellberg in his natural habitat, drinking mezcal

MoM: Do you have a favourite mezcal bar? 

BK: In Mexico I say Mezcalogia in Oaxaca and La Clandestina in Mexico City. Outside I would go for The Barking Dog in Copenhagen. Even though it is not a pure Mezcaleria they always carry a great assortment that is always on the move and also care a lot about each bottle. Then I have to mention La Punta in Rome as well. Great bar by great people.

MoM: Do you have any tips for people wanting to go on a mezcal tour? 

BK: It is always tricky, since a lot of people these days are going to Mexico, I always get the questions for recommendation for cool palenques (small artisanal distilleries) to visit. I can, but you will never find your way there. Not that they are secret or anything, it is just that most of them are located in such remote places and that this is not an industry as Tequila is where a lot of producers have organized tours or a visitor center or such. For a lot of visits, you need someone on the inside. This is one reason why I have been organising and putting together educational trips to both Jalisco and Oaxaca. To give more people the chance to see and get to know what I care about the most in the world. Other recommendations if you happen to be in Oaxaca is to swing by the bar Mezcalogia and talk to the staff there and they can hook you up. The family who owns the bar produces some of the finest mezcal I have ever tried and know pretty much everyone.There are also tours you can take and buy tickets for on the streets, and if you drive to Santiago Matatlán there are plenty of palenques to visit.

MoM: What’s your favourite mezcal cocktail?

BK: Funny, that this is the hardest question here. Since there really are no classic mezcal cocktails, most are signature drinks from a bar or bartender or contemporary riffs on classics. But I would have to say either a mezcal Negroni (equal parts) with a Jamaican style dark rum float (brand of choice for me is Smith & Cross), or something light fresh with tropical fruits like pineapple or mango. In general, I think mezcal is at its very best in cocktails when it acts more as a modifier than as a base. It only takes a little to do a lot.

MoM: And finally, when did you get your first Mexican tattoo?

BK: The first with a pure Mexican motif is a day of the dead sugar skull I had done in 2008. Then I also have part of a drawing by the Mexican painter José Posada and an agave behind my left ear. Then again, pretty much half of what I got are Latin American Catholic motifs, so I guess I got a lot of Mexico-relatable stuff. This comes even before mezcal found me. It was meant to be!

 

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Terroir in spirits: the myths and the marketing

Nate Brown says that the word ‘terroir’ is becoming increasingly meaningless as producers and marketers deploy it to describe a whole range of inappropriate products. It’s time we stopped using…

Nate Brown says that the word ‘terroir’ is becoming increasingly meaningless as producers and marketers deploy it to describe a whole range of inappropriate products. It’s time we stopped using it.

Terroir is like quantum mechanics. Nobody can fully understand or explain it, though we are all aware of its existence. And much like the refusal of a quantum particle to be independently measured, as soon as I hear the word terroir in spirits, I know it isn’t at play. It vanishes at the sound of its name, like the opposite of Beetlejuice.

But for the purposes of this article, I’ll offer my own interpretation. Terroir is the flavour imparted by the idiosyncrasies of the location of its production. It’s a word owned by the wine world. It speaks not only of microclimates, polycultures, soils and sunlight, but also of tradition, culture, history and identity. Terroir is introspective. Terroir is retrospective. 

All very lofty. Perhaps I should explain what terroir is not. Terroir is not foraged local botanicals thrown in with sourced imports. Terroir is not a meaningless buzz-word employed by uncreative creatives. Terroir is not synonymous with small batch. Or ethos. Or foraged. Or local. Or mountainside. Or handmade.

Grace O’ Reilly from Waterford in Ireland

“The terroir, [is not] the process and the people ensure passion, innovation and tradition are poured into every bottle of Caorunn Gin”, according to a certain master distiller. There. I fixed it. 

Just for the record, claiming terroir in gin is pretty much always nonsense. Chances of you growing your own source material, fermenting it with wild yeast, then undoing all that hard work by distilling to 96%+ ABV, before sourcing juniper form Macedonia and orange peel from Seville pretty much makes a mockery of your idea of terroir. Because let’s face it, you’ve bought in your spirit, and your handful of locally-foraged botanicals aren’t going to cut it.

Similarly, rum has little claim to the word. I shan’t argue that some distilleries display characteristic styles, but where does the molasses come from? Some may be local. Most of it is shipped in bulk from Guyana. A rum company that imports spirit from a plethora of islands, making no reference to the molasses source, and part ages the product in Europe in French oak, should not be using the term terroir, grand or otherwise. 

As for whisky? Not likely. The overwhelming majority of Scotch produced uses barley from outside Scotland. There are those, like the chaps at Bruichladdich who source individual fields grown by local farmers, and as these ferment there’s a case for terroir. But if the distillation wasn’t destructive enough, the distillate is then aged in mostly American casks, or ex-sherry butts, all of which are most likely made from quercus alba, which isn’t even grown on this continent. Don’t tell me there’s terroir after all of that. 

That’s why vodka can probably use the term. There’s so little of anything else, that if the source starch is from a unique place, then its shadow grows long and reaches the bottle. Vestal does this well with some niche expressions made from individual potato varieties. Belvedere does it too. The other 99.9999% of vodka does not. As for Tequila & mezcal? Well, OK, maybe they have a claim, the blancos at least. 

Terroir can exist in spirits, barely, like fading colours of a painting left in decades of the afternoon sun, but until the likes of Waterford start delivering it in whiskey, it just doesn’t yet.

Not that any of that matters. It doesn’t take a genius (or a well-funded PR campaign) to see that a change in the source material will indeed change the resulting product. Stills aren’t that efficient (thank goodness or we’d all be drinking vanilla flavoured vodka). But, terroir exists in wine because there we have fermentation, followed perhaps by some subtle ageing, (and the low ABV of the ferment minimises cask influence) followed by bottling. Sure, there may be some filtration and other manipulations, but in a good wine there should be no greater influence than the grapes and the fermentation, without distillation to eviscerate terroir’s legacy. 

Nate Brown

Nate Brown in action behind the bar

So yes, talk about local provenance, sure. Incorporate your heritage and your surroundings by all means, but don’t use terroir. Try ‘sense of place’. Or ‘parochial’. Wouldn’t parochial spirits be a nicer term to band around? Because we really have to draw the line at a terroir-inspired (glass, blue highlighted) bottle design. Give me a break. 

I personally believe that terroir in spirits is possible, but I cannot reconcile this scale and commercialisation. I can fantasise about a poitin maker in the hills of Galway, growing his own grains and spuds for his tea, putting a bushel aside to ferment with wild yeasts, a rough, basic single distillation to ‘up the burn’ to ‘make something worth drinking, boy’, all done on a homemade still made from scrap parts and an old bucket. This is how his Daddy did it. And his Daddy before him. This is how he’ll teach his nephew to do it. This is terroir, it’ll be found in the place where the word has never been mentioned. See? It’s quantum. 

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

 

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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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Move over gin, our new favourite highball is the Tequila and Tonic

Tequila may have the terroir of a fine wine but the category lacks a serve that illustrates its sense of place. Until now. Here, we chat with Tom Bishop and…

Tequila may have the terroir of a fine wine but the category lacks a serve that illustrates its sense of place. Until now. Here, we chat with Tom Bishop and Jack Vereker, co-founders of contemporary Tequila brand El Rayo Spanish for ‘the lightning’ who have made it their mission to refresh the category, one Tequila and Tonic at a time…

Peanut butter and jam. Macaroni and cheese. Tequila and Tonic. It seems so simple, but all this time we’ve been putting two and two together and making five. The category needs a hero serve, and it’s been right under our noses the entire time.

“When we first started drinking Tequila, we realised there was no simple way of drinking it,” says Vereker. “Do you get the pub to make you a Margarita? It’s a simple cocktail, but no one knows what the ingredients are. Tequila and Tonic highlights the flavours of the agave – those delicious vegetal notes pair really well with the tonic – but it’s also a long refreshing drink. It has all the same elements of a Gin and Tonic but it’s a different experience.”

Tom Bishop and Jack Vereker

Tom Bishop and Jack Vereker bearing piñas

El Rayo’s strategy couldn’t be any further from the lime and salt ritual Tequila has become synonymous with. But then, its founders aren’t Diageo or Pernod Ricard alumni, nor are they bartenders-turned-brand ambassadors. Bishop, an ex-insurance broker, and Vereker, formerly the strategic consultant for a tech firm, are just two childhood friends with a penchant for Tequila.

It started with a bottle of Siete Leguas Añejo, a gift from Bishop’s brother, which had been aged in whiskey barrels for two years. The bottle sat gathering dust on a shelf until the future co-founders returned home from a night out in Peckham to find they’d run out of beer. “The first sip completely smacked us around the face,” Bishop continues. “At that stage we’d had similar experiences with Tequila to a lot of people, we’d had a lot of fun with it – probably too much fun in some instances – but this was like nothing we’d ever tasted before. And it lit a spark in us.”

They began roaming around London trying different brands and chatting to bartenders, and were surprised to find a category that was “over-reliant on a lot of dated stereotypes about Mexico”, Bishop says, “it didn’t add up with contemporary Mexican culture, which is so much more than just sombreros and cactuses.” It was a lightbulb moment. “We wanted to create a complex and delicate Tequila that really excites people, but at the same time is also really approachable, smooth and easy to drink,” says Vereker.

Tequila and tonic

Tequila and Tonic, why did no one think of this before?

After a year of research – and more than a dozen distillery visits in Jalisco, from very traditional, old school production lines “all the way up to what was essentially a science lab”, Bishop says – they teamed up with Maestro Tequilero Oscar Garcia at Hacienda La Capilla to develop El Rayo; the first brand to use a blend of highland and lowland agave.

“It takes eight years for blue agave to grow before it’s harvested for Tequila production,” Bishop explains, “so, much like wine, where it grows is important to the overall flavour and taste of the end product. In the highlands you’ll find really fruity, sweet notes; in the lowlands there are more vegetal, spicy, peppery notes – it’s all to do with the amount of sugar and water the plant retains.”

El Rayo is made up of 70% highland-grown agave and 30% lowland-cultivated agave, resulting in a Tequila that’s soft and approachable with subtle pepper and spice and a really clean citric, grassy flavour. The piñas are roasted for 12 hours, crushed, and the juices twice distilled in 105-year-old copper stills.

There currently are two varieties of El Rayo: the buttery, herbaceous, floral Plata, with its notes of pepper and pineapple, and a vegetal, slightly smoky Reposado, rested in American white oak whiskey barrels from Jack Daniel’s, with notes of salted caramel, almond and orange zest.  A third, Añejo, is still ageing in barrels and will be sampled once more before summer is out.

Blur agave

Safety always comes first when out in the agave

The beautiful bottles, designed and created in Guadalajara by local design agency Toro Pinto, give a nod to Mexican folklore that credits a rogue lightning bolt and curious campesino with the invention of Tequila. While both styles are delightful served straight up – we can attest to that – El Rayo’s signature serve, the Tequila the Tonic, is the highball drink we didn’t know we needed.

While El Rayo is certainly good enough to be sipped, the duo are realists: people don’t generally sip premium Tequila on a night out – certainly not in the UK, anyway. “It’s about creating something approachable,” says Bishop, “the way I see it being adopted is mainly at home first, and I think that’s a big challenge for Tequila as a product. You might be brave and make some Margaritas if friends are coming round, but there’s no simple way to serve it.”

The most important thing, he says, is that the Tequila and Tonic really champions the agave, as opposed to those traditional serves (hello, Paloma) which almost exist to mask the flavour. Could the serve spell the end of salt and lime-tinged regret and reframe Tequila as a spirit to savour? We certainly hope so.

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