Sorry, I’ve been away… have some Tequila?

Hi all. I’m fraid i’ve been busy yet again but do not intend to take up space with meagre apologies. Instead, i have written a little something for you!

For those of you who aren’t sure what i’m up to, i’m still doing work with SAF over in shoreditch and can be found there randomly. I’m also still permanently doing work with Shaker as well as private training and consultancy. On the quiet, i’m involved with a TV series which i’ll discuss as and when.

Anyway, to the topic of today…TEQUILA!

As far as much of the bartending community is concerned… Tequila is the shit! Despite all efforts by the industry, Tequila is still very much tarnished with the brush of dodgy shots and awful hangovers. Like many of my peers, I love Tequila but I can’t help but feel that Tequila is reserved as a sort of Bartender’s drink.

For sure, efforts have been made. The Oaxaca Old Fashioneds and Tommys of this world have done huge amounts for trying to engage those people already fond of cocktails with the peculiar spirit animal that is Tequila. For many, a sense of enlightenment regarding aged Tequilas as a sipping drink has been revelation enough for them to swap out those mild sipping rums for something a little more exotic.

For the bartender it seems, it is a slightly different story. Not Anejos, rather, Blanco is best and the more pungent the better. Forgetting the likes of Patron where the commercial viability of a 100% Tequila has surely been tested to the max, I’m talking here about Tequilas with genuine character (btw this is not brand assassination!). Tequila here is about the pure expression of Blue Agave character and how it is best harnessed (mixtos/’Tequila’ will not really come into the picture even though they still account for around 75% of Tequila consumed in the UK). For the bartender the raw, herbaceous, peppery citric delight of good Tequila is considered a passing gift to fellow bartenders – the quick layback, the cheeky shot, the night finisher.

I introduce Tequila in this manner as of late I have been having a rediscovered passion for talking about it. And as it happens, Carlos Camarena, 5th generation distiller of the Altena distillery in Mexico who produce such legendary bottlings as El Tesoro, Tapatio and the now infamous Ocho, came to visit London last week. It just so happens that I was one of the lucky ones who managed to attend his whistle-stop talks in 3 venues around London. Are you ready…this may take a while.

So, I’m sat in the basement of Barrio Central (just of Poland St in Soho and a perfectly suited venue for such a talk – wicker chairs, bright colours and painted wood), reading a book about Grecian attitudes to wine production and waiting for the talk to start. I’m told that Carlos is running late due to overrunning at the last venue, and whilst I know this to be true, it marks the start of an afternoon which seems so peculiarly, well, Mexican!

Carlos is a short man (I’m sure he won’t mind me saying) and arrived with an entourage of rather large looking Mexican gentlemen. From the moment he started talking, I had no doubt that he could have drank his entourages body weight in Reposado! I’ve never been to a tasting where the distiller has gulped down every single glass of product, but this he did as he expertly guided us through a wonderful tasting of his four bottlings in their Blanco state… the 3 previously mentioned as well as his new creation which is the purpose for his visit: Villa Lobos.

Carlos comes from a family which has a history of producing 100% Blue Agave Tequilas. He mentions along the way that only as far back as 1987, there were just 3 ‘Pura’ Tequilas being made: Herradura, Chinaco and El Tesoro. At that time, they were very much the minority of production. In 24 years, these Tequilas have gone from forming 10% of all Tequila made to now being part of a Pura Market which accounts for 52% of all Tequila made.

It seems obvious to Carlos that you should only make 100% Blue Agave Tequilas, after all, you wouldn’t make Pork Sausages out of 51% Pork and expect it to sell as quality. His pedigree as a distiller is unquestionable and it is easy to see his passion for the spirit as he talks us through production whilst quaffing suitably large measures of the good stuff.

He starts us off by talking about the harvest. For the Altena distillery, things are kept in house. Rather than buying Agave Pinas (the heart of the plant) which is the norm for many of the larger scale production houses, the Altena distillery is a single estate which grows and harvests all of it’s own Agave. He wants good quality Tequila with high levels of fructose for his Tequilas so rather than ‘speed growing’ or using enzyme technology in greenhouses, his Tequila is grown for the lengthy 7 to 9 years it takes to mature. He claims Tequila produced in this way is what gives you that special buzz, which he spuriously claims to be due to minute levels of mescaline present in the final distillate as a result of mescaline being a derivative of fructose. But I digress…..

Once the Tequila has been harvested, it’s necessary to convert any starch but more importantly inulin into fermentable sugar. Inulin is a complex polymer which contains fructose and glucose which can be broken down. This must be done by slow heating and will release the sugars locked within, though be warned says Carlos, if you try to rush your Tequila, your sugars get burned and go beyond being fermentable. This is why stainless steel autoclaves (which resemble a sort of miniature Hindenberg), whilst being effective, can produce poorer quality products. It is the traditional clay ovens, Carlos insists, which are the best as they will also remove any of the ‘honey’ or moisture which forms during the baking process which in the final product can become bitter.

(NB – It is worth noting here that it is the processing of Inulin which causes confusion over Agave syrups suitability to sufferers of Diabetes. Inulin and the sugars within cannot be broken down via the human digestion system, making it safe for diabetics. However, some Agave syrups may well have been heated and are therefore not guaranteed as suitable.)

Once the Pinas are baked, they need to be mashed or pressed to extract the liquid used in fermentation. The Pinas are crushed using a large stone wheel, crushing the pinas down into their fibres and sugary liquid. In much of Tequila production, this is done via the additional use of acids and enzymes which can increase yield though can also tarnish the product with a bitterness which is hard to shake off in distillation. At the Altena distillery, the fermentation also takes place in wooden vats using natural yeasts. Engineered yeast strains can generate more alcohol and less aldehydes which might increase potential congeners in the final product. However, it is these aldehydes which retain the raw flavour of agave and it is the distiller skill to separate these.

The final process of distillation should then be simple. However, it is commonly misunderstood. In all other distillation processes, you have a complex ‘wash’ which will contain water, raw material, ethanol, methanol, fusel oils, aldehydes etc. Normally, in distillation, Methanol will be the first to come off… the heads of the spirit. Then will come the middle cut and finally, the fusel oils (some of which will be retained depending on the product but mostly discarded as they are heavy, bitter and drastically affect texture/mouthfeel). In Tequila, it happens differently. Fusel oils will be the first compounds to come off the still and the art is in never raising the temperature high enough for the Methanol to come over. This 1-Carbon molecule will stay in the wash part of the still during the whole process so long as the temperature doesn’t exceed 85 degrees. (If anyone wants a further scientific discussion, email me, otherwise I’ll leave this here as I’m wary of becoming boring.

Villa Lobos bottle No.6

At the end of the presentation, Carlos gave us a taste of Villa Lobos. We were the first of a few people to taste the product as it is truly an experiment. Carlos seems to think there is merit in it, and as such, so does his crew! It was the result of an open tank of Tequila which was accidentally left to oxidise for a few months. Through a little trial and error, Carlos turned this into an expression of Tequila which is quite remarkable. Retaining the raw agave character but with a smoothness you would associate with filtration of some kind. It’s mouthfeel is rich with a light tannin which sits only at the front gums. It has great smokiness and green peppercorn freshness with a nose that is really alive with fruit and grass. It is only for initial release in the UK and will probably reach us next year and I for one, can’t wait!!!!



2 Responses to “Sorry, I’ve been away… have some Tequila?”

  1. 1 Phil Turner
    June 19, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Love It, I was only thinking yesterday I fancied a nice glass of Tequila in the sun. Very interesting read alot more educational than the Wiki page I was reading yesterday. (I like the green peppercorn comparison)


  2. 2 Joe
    June 25, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Brilliant article John! Can you recommend any good premium blancos?

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