Tasting Tequila at Wahaca

Despite my enthusiasm for tequila that started last year I’ve not had much of a chance to dig into tequilas and mezcals since, apart from on my occasional trips to Wahaca. As such I was rather pleased to be invited along to a tequila tasting session at the new Soho branch of Wahaca by Chris Osburn and Qype. The plan was quite simple – try out some new tequilas that Wahaca have found and give our opinions on them to help choose which ones will go on their menu.

One of the things at the heart of the idea of Wahaca is the moving of tequila from the current ‘stick it down your neck with lime and salt’ vibe that we inherited from the US thanks to the PR of the mass-market tequilas (Cuervo bottle holster wearing tequila girls, I’m looking at you) to a more considered ‘sip it like any other nice drink’ approach. This comes through from their current tequila choice (with El Tesoro de Don Felipe, the export version of the Tapatio I tasted at The Whisky Exchange last year, as their house tequila brand) to their choice of glasses, chunkier and less suited to necking spirit than traditional shooter glasses (although their ‘rustic’ unevenness and recycled glass make-up cause some mild twitches in me), as well as their having some mezcal on the menu as well as tequila.

IMG_0207IMG_0217Joining Wahaca co-founder Mark Selby we had tequila expert and co-founder of the Tahona Society Henry Besant to walk us through the drinks. While Wahaca’s tequila menu changes quite regularly they recently decided to try and get in some more obscure tequilas that aren’t usually available in the UK. To this end they contacted the Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) asking to work with them to bring in some interesting tequilas. In return a selection of 30+ tequilas turned up, not all of which were particularly good. After some tasting work they whittled this down to 10-12 that they felt might work on the menu and have had a number of focus group tasting sessions, of which ours was one, to decide which ones to add to their new “Tequila of the month” rotation.

IMG_0208IMG_0212Before we got started on the drinks Henry handed around a few things to have a poke at while talking about the tequila making process (which I’ve written about in the past). Firstly was a couple of glasses of soil, one from the lowlands at the western end of the tequila making region and one from the highlands (Los Altos) in the east (although lowlands is a rather deceptive term, as the area is still about 1400-1500m high). The lowland soil was grey and volcanic while the highland soil was bright red and rich with iron, both creating quite different growing conditions for the agave plants. We were also handed plates of cooked agave heart, cut into strips and ready to chew on. It’s a fibrous but juicy fruit, syrupy sweet with flavours similar to prunes, figs, treacle and apricots, and it’s quite difficult to see how much of that flavour makes it into the tequila in the same way that going from beer to whisky is a bit of a leap.

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We went through the tequilas in the traditional fashion, from blanco (aged less then 60 days in steel tanks) through reposado (aged in wood for at least 2 months) and then on to añejo (in wood for at least 1 year in barrels no larger than 600 litres). First up was Cascahuin Blanco bottled at 38% and made in the town of El Arenal. It’s has some old school elements to its making, with the agave hearts being cooked in traditional earth covered, stone-lined pits rather than more modern ovens. On the nose it had a strong classic peppery agave smell, which masked some underlying fruitiness and citrus. To taste the pepper came through again, although there was a lot of green veg with that, leading to a short dry finish. Mark had a price list, in US dollars, with prices for the various tequilas in various places, with this one coming in at $7 a bottle in Mexico. Before it gets to the UK you’d need to at least double that due to taxes, but that’s still very reasonably priced.

Next on the blanco list was Tequila Tromba, made in the highlands from agave cooked in autoclaves and bottled at 36%. This one had a nose of butterscotch, with artificial vanilla essence, sweet cooked agave and grass. To taste it was very green, with lots of raw unaged spirit flavours, but only a very light pepperiness. It reminded me more of an aquavit than a tequila and it slipped down very easily. This one shocked the room by coming in at about $70 in the UK, ~£40 – the first of the more expensive tequilas of the night.

The third blanco was meant to be Real Hacienda Unico but after pouring it was obvious something wasn’t right – it was very corked. We binned it and moved on to the reposados.

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First was Don Cosme from Amatitán, capital of the Jalisco region, another potential birthplace of tequila and centre of the tequila tourist industry. Amongst the distilleries in the town is Herradura, whose añejo I have sitting in my cupboard waiting for foolish visitors to tell me that tequila is nasty stuff that can’t be sipped. The Don Cosme was lightly coloured and had a nose of pepper, caramel, pineapple and nuts with a hint of stony minerals. The taste had bitter orange at the back and sweet orange at the sides, with orange pith and pepper, and an oily mouthfeel. Amatitán has a good supply of new oak and Henry reckoned this could be a mix of both new oak and refill casks maturation.

Next was Pueblo Viejo from the highlands, a very popular brand in Mexico. This was an old fashioned fashioned tequila that has been around for a while, but in the last 10 years they’ve moved location and changed production a number of times leading to the traditional mumblings of quality dropping. On the nose it was heavy with fake butter (which I assume is the diacetyl that I have been looking for in beer so I can work out if I like it or not – I don’t like it in tequila it seems) and caramel – a bit like the popcorn counter in a US cinema. To taste it was very smoothly flavoured with little of the sickliness of the nose – orange and lemon peel, lightly sour with a hint of metallicness and a spicy peppery sweet finish. This would have been my favourite of the evening if it wasn’t for the cloying and off-putting nose. I wasn’t sure whether to expect this to be cheap or expensive, with its local popularity, but was shocked to find it was the cheapest of the night, coming in at $6 a bottle in Mexico.

Third of the reposados was Carmessí, made by the same manufacturer as Pueblo Viejo. On the nose it was heavy and sweet with a hint of smoke, sweet veggie agave and a good peppery spice. To taste it was very smooth with gently peppery agave and a lightly woody citrus finish. My favourite of the three reposados so far and a bargain at $12 in Mexico.

We also had a fourth bonus reposado in the shape of the house El Tesoro Reposado, bottled at still strength of 38%. The nose has a fresh and spicy green plant smell, with sweet olive oil and pepper. The taste has menthol and pepper as well as an oily mouth feel. My favourite of the reposados by a good margin, balancing sweetness, savouriness and the traditional pepperiness.

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We then moved on to the añejos, starting with Tres Mujeres, complete with Rémy Martin influenced bottle. On the nose it had mustard, spicy smoke and cooked broccoli. To taste it had big sour wood flavours, liquorice and butter, all balanced with a delicate sweetness.

Next was Don Valente, also made from agave cooked in the traditional underground method. On the nose it had, as all of the #2 tequilas had so far, butterscotch and fake butter – rather like liquefied Werther’s Originals, but more so. To taste it was astringent with a sickly sweetness and not much else – my least favourite of the night and almost undrinkable in my opinon, although it went down fairly well with others at the table.

Last was Fortaleza, known as Los Abuelos in Mexico, a traditionally made small batch tequila from the town of Tequila itself. The agave is cooked in the distilery’s single oven before being crushed using a tahona (traditional grinding stone), although they have at least upgraded from having a mule drag the stone around to using a tractor. It’s distilled in two tiny copper pot stills with capacities of 250 and 450 litres, before being aged and bottled without additives (as producers may add caramel colouring, smoke extract, sugar, glycerine for mouth feel and fruit essences to tequila) by hand in handmade bottles. Despite all that it still ‘only’ comes in at $60 a bottle locally. On the nose it my notes say ‘cheesy death’ – along with some sweet butter it had a strong cheesy smell. To taste it was very sweet, with white chocolate, butterscotch, salt and a hint of warm Mini Babybel. Not my favourite.

Having worked our way through those 9, with 1 tainted bottle missed out, we retired to the restaurant for dinner accompanied by some El Tesoro Silver for those who weren’t sick of Tequila yet – I was not. On the nose it had a strongly vegetal agave note, without the sweetness of the cooked agave we tried earlier, as well as the strongly chlorophyllic (if that’s a word) grassy pepper that you get from cold pressed olive oil. To taste it was oily and sweet with candied green vegetable – I reckoned sugar coated asparagus, which got a few looks of disbelief.

IMG_0239While eating I asked Mark about his mezcal selection, having enjoyed the Forever Oax on previous visits. It seems that mezcal also now has Denominación de Origen status, based around Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wahaca’…), and its own governing body, The National Chamber of Industry of Mezcal. The regulations are similar to tequila’s, although with nine different types of agave that can be used in manufacture rather than tequila’s one. During one of Mark’s trips to Mexico he saw a rare mezcal I’ve been looking for being made – Pechuga. Named for the fact that during the third distillation (done in small clay stills) they hang a raw unboned chicken breast (pechuga in spanish) in the still along with a basket of fruit – after the distilling there is only chicken bone left. It has very small production, being made in what looks like the maker’s back garden shed. I have no idea about the taste, but at about £150 a bottle it’s not one that I particularly want to chance without a sample first. Anyway, Mark didn’t have any of that in but he did have Del Maguey Mezcal Vida to try – on the nose it had salty smoke, mulchy agave, BBQ’d meat and burning cigarette packet plastic wrap (a very specific smell if you’ve ever been a smoker). To taste there was a hint of sweetness overpowered by salty green vegetables, with burning hay behind. It was quite young tasting, with hints of caraway – a bit like a smoky green capsicum infused gin. Maybe…

Anyways, thanks to Chris, Qype, Henry, Mark and Wahaca for a great evening. There are a few of the tasted tequilas that I’ll be keeping an eye out for on the Wahaca menu and a bunch that I will be avoiding, but it’s still impressive as to the range of flavour in a drink that’s so often lumped into one category of ‘nasty stuff to get pissed on’.

I was a guest of Wahaca for the evening as part of a group of people from Qype. Hopefully there should be some more reviews appearing on Qype soon for more details of the food side of the evening. Also thanks to Eric Brass at Tequila Tromba for clearing up some confusion about the prices.

El Tesoro de Don Felipe Silver
Blanco tequila, 40%. ~£30 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange, £3.35 a measure at Wahaca

El Tesoro de Don Felipe Reposado
Reposado tequila, 40%. ~£40 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange, £3.50 a measure at Wahaca

Del Maguey Mezcal Vida
Single village mezcal, 42%. ~£40 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange, £4.60 a measure at Wahaca

Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga
Single village mezcal, 49%. ~£150 a bottle from The Whisky Exchange

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