Wednesday 12 November 2014

Tequila cocktails with Ocho

Tequila is a bit of an enigma, but its star is certainly on the rise at the moment. It doesn’t seem to have been drunk much outside of Mexico until Americans discovered it in the 1920s during their runs across the border to avoid Prohibition. Then it surged again in the 1940s when US alcohol production was earmarked for industrial purposes for the war effort. According to Dale Degroff, it has only really been available in the UK for 40 years but he believes that the Margarita could well now be the most popular cocktail here—I have certainly heard that it has that status in the US.

When talking to tequila brand ambassadors you still hear that their biggest hurdle is getting punters to think of the spirit as something to savour rather than something to knock back. But I’m sure that is changing now, perhaps due in large part to the efforts of Patron to create the concept of the high-end tequila. Last year I sat in on a session with Matthias Lataille from Olmeca’s high-end, 100% blue agave brand Olmeca Altos, and it was clearly a welcome revelation to many there how much could be had from this spirit if one simply sipped it from a nosing glass rather than chugging it from a shot glass.

Then in the summer I was intrigued by the Pierde Almas range of single varietal mezcals, celebrating not just the effect of different agave species and different terroir, but also the batch-to-batch variations of artisanal products like this.

Tomas Estes
Most recently I chatted with Tomas Estes, the man behind Café Pacifico and La Perla restaurants here in London. The Mexican National Chamber of Tequila has crowned him Ambassador of Tequila to the European Union, and not only has he also now opened El Nivel, a dedicated agave spirits bar above La Perla, but he also has his own tequila brand, Ocho, which takes the celebration of variety one step further—not only do his bottles all state the precise field from which the family-grown agaves were harvested, but they declare the vintage as well.

The tequila is made for Estes by Carlos Camarena. The name Ocho, meaning “eight”, has a highly involved explanation: (i) the finished product is from the eighth test batch; (ii) it takes an average of eight years for the agaves used to ripen; (iii) it takes about eight kilos of agave to make one litre of Ocho; (iv) it takes eight days from when the agaves reach the distillery to when the blanco tequila is finished; (v) Camarena has eight brothers and sisters; (vi) the Camarenas are in their eight decade of tequila making. I was rather disappointed that the person behind all this only managed to find six reasons for the name Ocho, although in fact I later learn that the reposado version is rested in wood for eight weeks and eight days. Damn, just one more reason and we’d have eight…

Margarita with Ocho
My sample has a label across the cap identifying it as the 2014 vintage from Rancho La Magueyera, which you can find on a map on the Ocho website. I line it up against three other blanco tequilas I have to hand, Patron, Olmeca Altos and Tierra Noble. The Patron is fresh, fruity and soft, ultimately the least strongly flavoured of the lot.* The Olmeca Altos has a more pronounced agave flavour, a “blue”, petrolly note; the palate is drier and more flavourful than Patron, with a hint of blue cheese, but it is softer and smoother than the Tierra Noble, with an almost waxy character. Tierra Noble is more pungent, with a noticeably smoky element to the nose. (The agaves are cooked slowly prior to crushing, to release the sugars; more artisanal tequilas use agaves cooked in traditional brick or stone ovens and the degree to which they are exposed to smoke can be controlled.)

Paloma with Ocho
Coming after all that, Ocho is striking. Not only is it the most strongly agave-flavoured of the lot, perfumed and pungent, but it is dry and sharp on the tongue. In fact I could almost have believed that what I was drinking had lime juice mixed in already. This is no accident, as the literature does emphasise that Ocho is all about extracting and presenting as much actual agave flavour as possible. Nosing the aroma carefully, you’re struck first by dry herbal notes, then darker elements like coffee and chocolate, honey and cooked apple, and something a bit like wet plaster. It is initially sharp on the tongue, giving way to flavours of pears and a fading sweetness. (At El Nivel I had the opportunity to taste the 2013 batch, from Rancho Los Fresnos: it had a similar nose but a noticeably softer palate.)

The literature does stress that the best way to enjoy Ocho is sipped from a brandy balloon or similar glass, noting how its character changes in the glass with exposure to air. (I find that the attack softens and a floral note like violets starts to appear.) But they also list some cocktails, a mixture of old and new.

El Diablo with Ocho
As it happens we are theming our Candlelight Club party this weekend around Prohibition-era Mexico and the burgeoning party culture to cater for American visitors looking to drink and gamble with impunity, so I try out some of the cocktails we are looking at.

Margarita Well, it would be rude not to. It’s a classic combination of tequila, triple sec and lime juice, with an optional ring of salt on the rim of the glass. The exact proportions vary, with Dale Degroff giving 1½ parts tequila to 1 part Cointreau and ¾ part lime juice, while Simon Difford matches 2 parts tequila to just ½ a part each of lime and triple sec. I tend to use 2:1:1, though it depends on how dry you like it. Certainly a dry, strongly flavoured tequila like Ocho easily makes its presence felt in these proportions, poking through as mineral and earthy against the fruity citrus.

Paloma This is apparently how tequila is mostly drunk in Mexico, with lime and grapefruit soda, such as Squirt or Fresca. The closest you can find in the UK is Ting, and the Ocho site’s recipe adds 20ml fresh grapefruit juice to 50ml tequila and the juice of a lime, topped up with grapefruit soda. I can see the appeal, though I don’t think that Ting is ever likely to be my favourite mixer (and it doesn’t taste a great deal like grapefruit to me). The extra fresh grapefruit juice makes all the difference, though you may want to add some agave syrup as it is all quite tart (I tried Martini Fiero—see below—with delightful results).

El Diablo A 1940s recipe from California, this is built in a highball on the rocks using 50ml tequila, 20ml crème de cassis and 25ml lime juice, stirred together and topped with ginger beer. (In the past it would have been ginger ale but ginger beer is more flavoursome.) It’s not subtle but it is not simplistic either: you can taste all the ingredients, and I do think that tequila and ginger go well together, with the blackcurrant flavour slotting neatly in there as well. Bold and moreish.

Mexican 88 with Ocho

Mexican 88 Basically a French 75 using tequila instead of gin. This recipe is from Ocho’s website and specifies 30ml tequila, 20ml lemon juice, 10ml agave syrup, all topped up with Champagne. I guess it depends on the size of your glass, but I found this too heavy on the lemon and syrup. Another 10ml tequila helped, along with a bit more fizz, and then it balances nicely, with the earthiness of the tequila sitting quite effectively underneath the fizzy tartness of the Champagne/sparkling wine.

Screaming Viking made with Ocho, Cederlunds Torr
and Martini Fiero
Screaming Viking This one was created by Brian Silva, in response to an episode of Cheers in which the plot revolves around a cocktail of this name, which turns out to be imaginary. Various people have produced their own real-world versions, and Brian’s playfully uses Swedish Punsch to explain the “Viking” element of the name. Swedish Punsch dates back to the days of the Swedish East India Company, and is a liqueur made from arrack, a smoky rum-like Javanese spirit distilled from sugar cane and rice. The recipe mixes 35ml tequila with 25ml Punsch and the juice of half a lime, shaken, poured over ice and “coloured” with Martini Fiero, a very orangey vermouth made from blood oranges. (I used Cederlunds Torr Caloric Punch; the recipe also specifies a dash of agave syrup, but I didn’t find that necessary.) Made with Ocho, the tequila is to the fore, but with a solid sweet–sour balance from the liqueur and the lime. But it’s not a bouncy, fruity number. The presence of the vermouth and the arrack give this drink dry and bitter subtleties that seem to be a Silva trademark. It’s a grown-up drink, and very much to my own taste.

An Ocho Old Fashioned with Angostura Bitters and
agave syrup
And finally the Tequila Old Fashioned. It seems to be inevitable that any spirit that wants to be taken seriously presents itself in this simple, and therefore exposed, format. Traditionally made just with bourbon or rye whiskey, sugar, bitters and a little water, served on the rocks with a lemon peel garnish, this can also be an agreeable vehicle for rums, such as the sublime Botran Solera 1893, and complex gins (especially aged ones such as Big Gin Bourbon Barreled). Even with the blanco, Ocho owns this cocktail, its pungency marrying with sharp-sweet aromatic Angostura bitters and the lemon peel like an extension of the tequila’s character. I use agave syrup instead of sugar and such is the dryness of the spirit that this drink can take quite a bit without seeming too sweet. All in all, a good way to contemplate the personality of this, or indeed any other, tequila.

* Which I suspect is a deliberate strategy, given the way it is marketed as a super-premium product in the same way that certain vodkas are. Here the emphasis is all on brand associations, and you don’t want to throw a spanner in the works by producing something with too strong a flavour!

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