Taming the Beast: One Night in Wahaca

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One night, not so long ago, we sent an unsuspecting intern into battle with one of the world’s most formidable foes. The reputation of this beast is unparalleled. It has felled armies of seasoned, conflict-hardened veterans, brought the toughest of cage-fighters to their knees and even – I’ve witnessed on one occasion – made an old friend of mine simper like a six-year-old girl. As for the intern, the last we saw of him on that fateful evening, after a wave and a confident nod, were the fading flickers of his torchlight as he slipped into the darkness of this beast’s lair.

Its presence is as ubiquitous as its reputation. But, for one so renowned, we know very little about this animal. Our attempts to tame it on these shores have, for decades, proved futile. And the name of this insidious creature?

Tequila.

But there is hope. There is opportunity. There is a small band of illustrious pathfinders determined to show us the way to appreciating this much maligned and misunderstood liquor. One night in Wahaca – sounds like the name of a song – one of a small group of restaurants leading the way in re-inventing Mexican cuisine, in the basement of their Soho venue – a small group of discerning (well, I was at any rate) journalists gathered with key restaurant personnel and a man named Henry for an introduction, nay, re-education on this noxious poison. It must be noted, however, that Henry was not some random addition. This man has spent years travelling the length and breadth of Mexico, going native, running in with the law, even trying to distil it himself once; all in an effort to indulge and immerse himself in his passion. And it shows. Slicked-haired, unshaven, knackered, Henry cuts a weathered Hemingwayesque figure who looks like he’s seen more border action than the front line at Helmand. Henry is our tequila expert.

As with many beasts of myth, their fearsomeness is usually the product of bad PR. And a couple of degenerate nights out. Get to know the monster within and you start to understand that here, really, is a subtle, sensitive creature. One who, if you spend a bit more time getting to know it, the malevolence subsides and one realises we’ve only ever seen a frightened animal with a thorn in its paw.

Did you know, for example, that in its native Mexico tequila is sipped as an aperitif, a fitting accompaniment to a meal and as a digestif? As the latter, there are some that rival the subtlest of single malts.

Naturally, as with any craft, achieving excellence takes patience and skill. Unfortunately we’ve only ever seen the lazy, mass-produced memory-eraser. When one considers what goes into tequila and the processes involved, it’s easy to see how, because of this pain-staking process, many producers have opted for quicker, easier methods that sacrifice quality for quantity and that, alas, is the stuff that has made it onto these shores and given it its reputation.

Contrary to popular belief, however, tequila is not made from crushed termites, the festering intestinal tract of Tauntauns, nor is it the by-product of landfill. Though, admittedly, most tequilas I have had – doubtless so have most of you – tasted like all of these. It is, in fact, made from the root of the agave plant, a huge cactus-like desert relative of the lily family. The original process required the plant to have reached maturity (at about 7-9 years), before it was then hand cut, cooked, crushed and its liquor distilled. At every stage, sadly, there has been a means of doing it quicker and on a larger scale and each one of these processes removes it a step further from finery. Mass farming, machine harvesting and over-cooking on a large scale all introduce textures and flavours, such as the bitterness commonly associated with the tequila we’re familiar with, that are, essentially, unfair to what it really should taste like by design.

A quick lesson, for those not in the know (I wasn’t), there are two different types of tequila, essentially; that which is at least 50% agave (the minimum required for a tequila to be called tequila) and that which is 100%. It’s the equivalent of blends and single malts in Scotch whiskies. And it’s the latter which we concentrated on that night at Wahaca. Tequilas then go through an ageing process giving us ‘blanco’ (not aged), ‘reposado’ (or ‘rested’ for between 2 months and a year) and ‘anejo’ (or ‘aged’, for a year or more). And, as with artisanal single malt distilleries in Scotland, it is Wahaca’s intention to get people appreciating these spirits for what they really can be. Their intention is that these are sipped, not shot. You wouldn’t shoot a single malt, would you?

The team behind choosing those now selected for Wahaca’s cellars coursed their way through 40 different tequilas, from specialist producers, artisan farmers and any man with a still, to bring us six of the best. The idea being, not unlike finding one’s favourite single malt, is to give lesser known producers the opportunity to get their pride and joy noticed on the international scene. These tequilas are so special, so distinct, so hard to get hold of that one in particular, Los Abuelos, required Henry to contact ‘someone he knows’.

At first, sampling the blancos, it was difficult to get over the traditional association one has of tequila. Putting my nose to the first, Gran Orendain, ignoring what I previously associated with it, I tried to put my finger on what I was smelling. Was it floral? Peppery? Slightly caramel? “The aroma most commonly associated with agave,” Henry told us, “is wet cardboard.” That was it. And rather delightful it was, too. If there’s one thing about tequila that’s different from other spirits, is that many flavours and aromas one is normally put off by become rather alluring. Take the second blanco, for example. On the nose Tromba smells like nail polish remover (the result of that aggressive distilling I mentioned earlier). Yet, once you’re past its astringency, the taste of this is far smoother than expected. It makes it distinct, and it makes the list.

The reposado tequilas represent the range Mexico has to offer. The image of a benevolent-looking old man on the bottle of Don Cosme suggests the fruits of the labour of a single-handed hardy farmer but it is, in fact, the product of a conglomerate from the Tequila valley. Evidently rural Mexicans know how to market products as well as anybody. It’s grassy and liquorice-like and contrasts with the more complex aromas from that of the olives and truffles of El Tesoro, from the highlands. Like the burnt rubber of Tromba, the subtleties of mushrooms aren’t necessarily what you would expect from a spirit but consider this is meant to be enjoyed with a meal, and it makes sense. “This is made in the most traditional way,” Henry tells us, “the stone oven, the tahona, the roller mill process, this is tequila as it used to be.” And this is Wahaca’s tequila of choice.

The third and final pair, the anejos, need me to say very little. As with El Tesoro, Los Abuelos is made in the most traditional way in one small stone oven, one small copper still and is a true labour of love. Not, however, by a subsistence-struggling small-holder but by the current heir incumbent of one of Mexico’s wealthiest families. It’s his hobby. Only 2,000 bottles are produced a year and they are made when he feels like it. This is boutique tequila and the result is like Stilton on the nose, again contrary to what you’d expect, but so smooth that once sipped – Henry helps me with the simile – “is like stroking a cat.” Its counterpart, again, chosen from the other end of the spectrum is Campo Azul. This is the grandfather of tequilas, aged over three years, and benefits from the barrel assuming characteristics of the wood but, crucially, bottled before it goes too far and becomes rum or a whisky.

Not long after this tasting session, I was in New York and I saw a banner advert on a taxi for a blanco tequila (I forget which). Nevermind that the idea of advertising tequila in the UK is almost unheard of – and probably considered a waste of money, for that matter – but the creative for that ad suggested it was a particularly exclusive drink. It featured the face of that intern we’d previously lost sight of. I’m kidding, of course, but you get my point.

The idea behind this venture is not simply a case of stocking something unique – although it should be noted that the tequilas at Wahaca are not available anywhere else in the UK – but it’s more about re-educating the British on exactly what tequila is about. These tequilas are not only designed to be appreciated, they deserve to be.

Wahaca are stocking these guest tequilas throughout the year, each featuring a cocktail designed to match its flavour profile. They will be continuing to work with the Mexican Tequila Council to ensure their offering includes the best and rarest tequilas that Mexico has to offer. For information on Mexican market eating at Wahaca, visit their website.

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