Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Tequila: busting myths and fighting red tape

Matthias addresses the mob
The New Sheridan Club’s summer party on Saturday had (rather inexplicably, I admit) a Mexican theme. It proved a rich seam, with Frida Kahlo rubbing shoulders with Zorro, plenty of bandidos and Zapatistas, and one guest who came with a bloodied chainsaw and the head of a drug rival in a bucket. Our games included cutting the heart from an Aztec sacrificial victim and shooting a glass off the head of William Burroughs’ wife Joan Vollmer, in a recreation of the ill-fated “William Tell routine” in Mexico City.

A welcome bonus came in the form of Olmeca Altos tequila: Matthias Lataille, the brand ambassador, gave us a brief masterclass at the beginning of the evening, with a tasting of the plata unaged spirit and the reposado, aged in oak for 6–8 months. There was also a menu of tequila cocktails from the 1930s and 1940s which Matthias had prepared.

I like tequila (I like all the boozes, frankly) but I don’t know much about it. This seems to be a common obstacle for Matthias: during our masterclass he was unsurprised by comments from people who said that they had never before tried tequila in a stemmed tasting glass (rather than knocking it back from a shot glass), and never before 2am! The product’s reputation as an exotic but rough-and-ready shortcut to oblivion is clearly a problem if you’re trying to get people to savour its aroma and flavour as a premium sipping spirit.

In fact Matthias tells me that tequila is one of the most heavily regulated spirit categories. It must be made from at least 51% blue agave and can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. There are plenty of premium tequilas made from 100% agave, but in the cheaper ones the rest of the sugars come from sugar cane. (In fact, Matthias tells me, the prices of these two raw ingredients are constantly fluctuating, meaning that at times agave is actually cheaper than sugar cane.)*

Tequila must be between 35 and 55% ABV, but is typically 38–40%.** A blanco or plata must be unaged, or kept for less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak; a reposado must be barrel-aged between two months and a year; an añejo must be aged between one and three years. In 2006 a new category of extra añejo was introduced, aged for at least three years.

Olmeca Altos is a premium expression from the existing Olmeca brand, the fourth biggest in the world and the largest in Europe. It was developed as a collaboration between master distiller Jesus Hernandez and UK bartenders Henry Besant and Dre Masso. Regular Olmeca has a lot of Aztec styling about the bottles, and it looks as if the Altos versions originally did as well, but they are in the process of switching to a simpler, cleaner design, with “Olmeca Altos 100% agave” stamped into the glass (with the word ALTOS dominating, to help distinguish it from regular Olmeca) and a certificate of authenticity as the only front label. The glass also has a knobbly texture to it; I’m not sure if this meant to suggest rough-hewn stone or just rustic glass, but I gather the whole redesign was aimed at emphasising the “craft” qualities of the product. (The dedicated Olmeca Altos website features the slogan “The Colours of Tequila”, along with a lot of super-saturated imagery of red soil and blue-green fronds; perhaps this is just meant to pick up on traditional colourful Mexican folk art, but it does rather suggest that you can expect some psychedelic experiences drinking this stuff!)***

New style plata and old style reposado bottles
The production process is fairly “crafty” as these things go. The agaves are all grown in the Los Altos region, at a height of 2,104 metres, where the red volcanic soil is apparently perfect. After 7–8 years the plants are harvested; the leaves are trimmed off by skilled jimadores, leaving a piña, the heart of the plant. These are then cooked to release the sugary sap. For Olmeca Altos the piñas are all cooked slowly in a traditional brick oven, which they say brings out the herbal flavour of the plant. Next the fibrous flesh must be pressed to release the juice. A proportion of the agave that goes into Olmeca Altos is crushed using the traditional tahona method, where a two-tonne wheel carved from volcanic rock rolls over the pulp.

The distillery, Destilería Colonial de Jalisco, was originally built to make Patrón, but after that deal fell through they were left with the brick ovens and the tahona stone, relatively unusual in a modern distillery. To make the most of it, Olmeca produce the super premium Tezón, which is 100% agave, all of it mashed by the tahona. Olmeca Altos is intended to get as much of that character as possible, but at a more affordable price (it’s about £30 a bottle for the plata in the UK), to which end, it is made from a blend of tahona-crushed pulp and modern milled juice. It is also specifically aimed at cocktail-making, which might explain the emphasis on the less aged end of the scale.

The tahona wheel: in the old days it would be pulled round by
a mule, but today it is machine-powered
So what difference does the tahona make? The alternative method is to put the cooked agave through a steel mill, where the pulp is washed with water to extract all the sugars, before the solid matter is sieved out. With the tahona method, however, the crushed pulp is fermented as it is, fibres and all, which one assumes imparts more of the agave character to the finished product. It is slower to crush the pulp in this way and the fermentation with the plant fibre is slower, so it is inevitably a more costly process.

One treat at our masterclass was some strips of cooked agave that Matthias handed round for us to taste. They are a dark brown and look a bit like anchovies. They are juicy in the mouth, but with a fibrous core, which you don’t really want to swallow. The flavour is complex: I’m hit by caramel first, and something that reminds me of poached pears. Other people suggest plums, plantains, sweet potatoes, dates, figs. This is a very handy experiment, because I can see that Olmeca Altos is about extracting as much of that agave flavour as possible.

Matthias with some strips of cooked agave flesh
To help me get a handle on this flavour, at home I dig out some other tequilas that I have knocking around, for comparative purposes. I have blanco, reposado and añejo samples from Excellia, a French-owned brand (from the people who brought you GVine gin) that matures the spirit in barrels previously used for Sauternes and Cognac (ex-bourbon barrels are more common), plus a blanco and reposado of Tierra Noble (samples that were pressed on me at a trade show a couple of years ago, and I don’t think the brand is actually distributed here; I seem to remember that their schtick is also that the tequila is both grown and aged at high altitude).

It’s hard to describe the essential taste of tequila, but I guess it is herbal, smoky, almost petrolly at times. For me cooked pears are in there and something like tarragon or anise. Out of the three unaged samples, Olmeca Altos has far and away the strongest agave herbal character, big, pungent, caramelly, with a tart orange note and a hint of onion, banana, pencil lead and maybe fresh wood (odd, given that I don’t think it is rested in oak at all), and butterscotch on the palate. Excellia is similar but smokier and not as sharp or big. Tierra Noble is sweeter and softer, with a buttery and slightly floral nose and a distinct chocolate finish on the palate. Perhaps the latter was designed more for drinking neat, and we know that the Olmeca Altos is intended for cocktails, so I guess they wanted a big flavour to push through other cocktail ingredients. But none of these spirits is rough or fierce.

Nice bottle, shame about the price
I decide that I should bite the financial bullet (£25 for 35cl) and get some Patrón the highest-profile “ultra premium” tequila, and probably the one that invented the market. It is also made with a blend of tahona-crushed agave, fermented on the fibre, and milled juice. At this price I’m expecting intense agave flavour—but its aroma is subtle, mellow, rather undemonstrative, when put up next to the other white tequilas. The palate is less smooth than the Tierra Noble, but then it is bottled at 40%; so I add a splash of water and it develops a sweeter feel on the tongue, but still with a slight bitterness on the finish. There is agave flavour there, but I am frankly underwhelmed. The Olmeca Altos has far more 3D herbal punch, and the Tierra Noble has more sweet, smoky aroma and unctuous mouthfeel. The labelling brags about how each bottle is hand-blown (click on the picture on the left: you can see little bubbles in the glass), but it seems that that is where your money is going.

Moving on to the reposados, the Tierra Noble has a sweet, smoky nose with that herbal, petrolly “blue” note and a palate of smoky pears, tarragon herbs and a bit of chocolate and coffee. This time the Olmeca Altos has a milder aroma, buttery with orange citrus. The palate is honeyed and more herbal, reminiscent of that cooked agave, with hints of anise and wood smoke, and again that citrus. The Excellia is smoky but with a brighter nose, tart like gooseberries and white pepper on the finish. (The añejo Excellia, for the record, has a surprisingly quiet nose but lots of dark, varnished wood on the palate, yet still that discernable herbaceous agave character.)

The motley collection of samples (the jam jar contains the
Olmeca Altos reposado, as there were no full bottles available)
As a bonus, I have a bottle of Aqua Riva Reposado too. This is the brand that has famously been launched by Cleo Rocos, who as a teenager was the foil in Kenny Everett’s TV show. But I gather she hasn’t just casually leant her name to it—she’s a genuine tequila fan and the spirit is made to her specification.**** She makes blanco and reposado “barman” tequilas for cocktails, and a premium sipping resposado too. It is all 100% blue agave. I have the barman reposado (discounted in Sainsbury’s) and to me it seems fiercer than the others, with a sharper, steelier nose and a palate more dominated by high notes. This character persists in cocktails, and I’m not really a fan.

It’s hard to know where tequila is going at the moment, though Patrón seems to be leading the way for the high-end concept. The big news now is the opening up of the Chinese market, but the demand is only exacerbating an ongoing shortage of agave, leading to stories of unscrupulous tequileros buying up truckloads of immature agave from the mezcal-producing regions and illegally making tequila from it. This in turn is putting the squeeze on mezcal—along with the Mexican government’s attempts to pass legislation that would effectively outlaw most mezcal. Some are even predicting that the inability to meet sudden Chinese demand could be the end of tequila as we know it.

So perhaps the moral of all of this is to get out there and drink some decent tequila while you can.

* Agave, incidentally, is not a cactus; it was long considered part of the lily family, though it looks as if they’ve now decided it really belongs in the asparagus family.

** The majority of tequila I encounter actually seems to be 38%, lower than most premium spirits.

*** Which reminds me of the myth of the mezcal worm, one of the stumbling blocks that Matthias doubtless has to deal with. Many people probably think that the difference between tequila and mezcal is that the latter has a worm in it, which bold souls will dare to eat, believing that it contain mescaline, or some such. In fact the “worm” is the larva of a moth that preys on agave and the presence of one in a bottle suggests a severe lack of quality control; the idea of deliberately including one was a gimmick dreamed up in the 1940s. The real distinction between tequila and mezcal, Matthias tells me, is more like the difference between Cognac and Armagnac—they are both made from the same raw material but in different regions (giving an influence from the terroir) and using different distillation methods. Modern tequila is run along more industrial lines, whereas mezcal tends to be more rustic, in some cases being distilled in ways that haven’t changed for 200 years. Mezcal production is centred around the Oaxaca region and there is a wider range of permitted types of agave that can go into mezcal, though the bulk of it is Agave americana, whereas tequila can only be made from the Agave tequilana blue agave.

**** Another odd marketing ploy is her theory that if you drink nothing but 100% agave tequila and cocktails containing this plus agave syrup (but not sugary liqueurs like Cointreau) then you won’t get a hangover. This is probably based on the fact that agave nectar is pure fructose and has a very low GI, making it suitable for diabetics. But whether any of that makes it through fermentation (in which the sugar is consumed by yeast) and distillation, I am sceptical. 

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