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!

Monday 10 November 2014

Big Gin makes a big impression

While helping to judge the recent Craft Distilling Expo Gin of the Year, it was my great pleasure to meet Ben Capdevielle and Holly Robinson of Captive Spirits Distilling, part of the wave of “craft”, “boutique” or “artisan” distilling that is sweeping the US at the moment. Based in Ballard, near Seattle, they make Big Gin, both in its standard form and in a version that has been aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

Theirs is not a happy-go-lucky tale of casting around for something to do and hitting on the idea of making a gin on a whim.* Ben is actually a third-generation distiller—his grandfather was a distiller for Templeton Rye** during Prohibition—and the pair spent four years visiting distilleries and experimenting with botanicals and distillation variables before finally launching their product in 2012. “We are using the traditional method of making gin,” Holly explains, “and creating a small scale, boutique brand just using two 100-gallon pot stills. We are exclusively a gin company, instead of making a variety of spirits like most of the budding brands. We have a few other gin-centric products that will trickle out in the next few years…”

Holly and Ben (second and third from the left) at the Craft Distilling Expo Gin
of the Year judging
As the name suggests the idea was to make a bold, unashamedly gin-flavoured gin. “We took this away from all the big players in the gin game,” Holly says. “Consumers are used to drinking Beefeater, Bombay, etc—we wanted something that ginners could identify with, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.” The botanicals are indeed mostly conventional—juniper, coriander, bitter orange peel, angelica, cassia, cardamom, orris—plus grains of paradise (not unusual either, being present in Bombay Sapphire) and Tasmanian pepper berries. The spirit base is made from corn. “This was the most neutral base we found to impart the botanicals,” Holly says.

Uncork a bottle of Big Gin and it is certainly big, with a strong waft of juniper. But it is more complex than that, with orange peel, dried fruit and a pronounced floral note like crystallised violets, perhaps from the angelica. There is also a herbal stemmy quality and a hint of ginger. It is big, bright and rich.

A Last Word made with Big Gin
On the palate it is powerful but remarkably smooth and sweetish, given that it is a hefty 47% ABV. Perhaps the corn-spirit base lends this sweetness. The flavour follows on from the nose, with that floral note to the fore and a slight peppery-bitter finish. It easily works in a Martini or gin and tonic, basically making its own rules. It is well-suited to a Negroni, clearly making its presence felt, whereas more delicate gins can sometimes get lost in the present of the Campari and vermouth.

Another muscular cocktail to test a gin is the Last Word, traditionally equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino: it has a balance between the sweetness of the liqueurs and the tartness of the lime, but these elements and the herbal blast from the Charteuse can drown the gin. I have to say that even Big Gin struggled here. But I noticed that on Simon Difford’s website he is now advocating a 3:1:1:1 ratio (the 3 being the gin). With Tarquin’s Cornish Gin I find that it does really need these proportions before you can really taste the gin in the mix, but Big Gin reaches that point at only 2:1:1:1.***

An Aviation made with Big Gin
I felt that Big Gin was less successful, however, in an Aviation, being perhaps too powerful for the subtle flavours of the maraschino and crème de violette (of which there is only about a teaspoon, otherwise the colour of the cocktail veers from the pale lilac-blue meant to represent the sky, from which the drink gets its name: try something like 50ml gin, 12.5ml lemon juice, 12.5ml maraschino, 5ml crème de violette).

You can get a sense of the big, savoury qualities of Big Gin from the recommended cocktails on the Captive Spirits website. The Out-of-Towner involves making a fennel syrup (plus gin, lemon juice and triple sec), and two of the recipes use elderflower liqueur (such as St Germain). The Morning Paper tops gin and elderflower with sparkling wine and a splash of grapefruit juice, and there is definitely a continuum between the gin botanicals and the sweetly pungent qualities of elderflower.

Although Captive are determinedly not planning to make a whiskey, they are interested in pushing their gin in different directions, such as the bourbon barrel aged example now on the market. “All the worlds best spirits are aged in bourbon barrels,” Holly explains. “With Big Gin being so flavorful, we thought it could stand up well and one could still actually taste the gin. Thankfully, we were correct.”

A Martinez made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
Ageing gin is all the rage it seems, but at a tasting of several of them earlier this year I did feel that none of the examples seemed particularly successful, with the wood notes somehow quarrelling with the essential gin flavour. But there is certainly a tradition: Seagrams have always rested their gin in charred new oak barrels to smooth off the rough edges of the spirit.

The barrel-aged version of Big Gin came as a revelation to me, however. Perhaps there is something about the prominent orange notes in the gin which marries well with the wood flavours, or maybe there is something about these particular barrels (which presumably have had bourbon in them for a long time, damping down the sawmill quality of fresh wood). On the nose the sharp juniper of the base gin is softened but still present, while a warmth and sherried sweetness are added, plus an enhancement of the dried fruit flavours I noticed before and a pleasant woody, almost mossy, mustiness. On the palate there is excellent integration of the aromatic gin elements and the tannic, vanilla wood flavours, plus clear notes of bourbon, emphasising the orange peel.

On a whim I try to make a sort of sweet Martini using Regal Rogue Bianco and the result shows remarkable balance and harmony from two strongly-flavoured ingredients, a little like a Martinez with orange and herbal notes all blending well. I try making a Martinez, using 2 shots gin, ½ a shot each of dry and sweet vermouth and a dash of maraschino, the result is sublime. Likewise in a Negroni it works as well as the normal Big Gin but with an extra dimension that fits naturally, as in a Manhattan or Boulvardier**** (which it virtually is). It really is a revelation.

A Spring Fling made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
There is a recommended cocktail, the Spring Fling, that once again uses elderflower liqueur, this time with the barrel-aged gin plus dry vermouth and some celery bitters. It’s an extraordinary tour de force, with the elderflower merging with the big herbal flavours of the gin, followed by a sweetness emerging and woody notes, then a fiery warmth. You also get a sense of sun-kissed Mediterranean aromatic herbs, like thyme or oregano. The prescribed garnish is grapefruit zest, but I only had lemon to hand and its aroma floats over the other flavours, balancing without muddying.

If you like gin then you should try Big Gin. It’s nice to come across a product that is not trying to make a “gin” for people who really want vodka, nor is it trying push the flavour in outré directions for reasons of gimmickry alone. But at the same time Big Gin is distinct. And it is big.

In the UK you can buy Big Gin through Master of Malt for £39.96 and the bourbon barrel aged version for £44.85.

* Talking to Holly you realise that the process of starting up a distillery is more of a bureaucratic slog than most of us realise, especially in the US. “There is a lot of red tape, but mostly several different levels of permitting, each of which cannot commence without the previous—it's a domino game. First Federal, than State, then City, then Fire, etc… Every state/city has different ideas of what/how things should be done. That’s the confusing part. Once that is all waded through, it’s a slow start to getting product out the door.” To help with all of this the couple got a third partner, old friend Todd Leabman, to help with the paperwork and accounting.

** The good folk of Templeton, Iowa, apparently carried on distilling whiskey throughout Prohibition and Al Capone is said to have like it so much he would send a driver all the way there from New York to stock up. 

*** It an interesting experiment, because if you start with the punchy sweet-and-sour traditional recipe and just add more gin, it’s easy to think, “Oh, no, this is getting too dry.” But if you come back to it later and try it you do realise it as a good, subtler cocktail. All the lime and Charteuse are very much there, but now you can taste the details of the gin too. Hurrah.

**** 1½ shots bourbon or rye whiskey, 1 shot Campari, 1 shot sweet vermouth, so a sort of mash-up between a Negroni and a Manhattan. It was invented by New Yorker Harry McElhone after he emigrated to Paris, fleeing Prohibition, and set up Harry’s New York Bar. He created it for ex-pat Erskine Gwynne in honour of his Parisian magazine The Boulvardier.