Fortifying yourself for the festive season and the year ahead? PATRICK LECLEZIO finds three excellent candidates to do the job.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).
Fortifying yourself for the festive season and the year ahead? PATRICK LECLEZIO finds three excellent candidates to do the job.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).
Making spirits bright and laughing all the way. Patrick Leclezio prepares for some festive season fun.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).
Another year is set to bite the dust. This period always gets me thinking about the elapsing of time, and about how moments in life come and go with a disconcerting haste. We can get melancholy about it of course, but what’s the point. This passing is inevitable, it is beyond our control. What we do with our time however is another matter, and something over which we should exert our most diligent influence, particularly in the weeks ahead, when we all-too-briefly get to shrug off our work obligations and focus on what really matters – our friends, our families, our loved ones, and ourselves. This is a column about liquor though, so I’ll limit my counsel to the overall sentiment and more specifically to the decorative cherries to which it is dedicated i.e. the inspiring drinks that’ll add a finishing touch to your experiences and festivities this season. Cheers, sláinte, l’chaim, gesondheid! Make the most of it.
The Gin Box
The gin revolution, whilst much covered in these pages, especially as manifest in the country, and particularly in the Cape, keeps on keeping on, outstripping my ability to stay current; I always seem to be a few newcomers behind. It’s worth considering, given this effusive flow, how gin is so prevalent over here. The Cape Floristic Region is one of six worldwide, the only one entirely contained in a single country, and home to an incredible diversity of plant species, numbering some 9000, a large proportion of which (69%) are unique to the region. It is a botanical paradise, generally, but for an aspirant gin-maker specifically – and it goes some way to explaining the rapid local propagation of new and interesting gins. If you’re overwhelmed, as you’d unstintingly be forgiven for feeling, and unable to see the wood for the trees, then the Gin Box may be just the thing for you. This enterprising concept delivers to your doorstep monthly, bi-monthly (each R650), or once-off (R750), a carefully selected small-batch craft gin, accompanied by all sorts of delicious treats and useful gin-related information, including tasting notes and cocktail recipes.
The December / Christmas box is a treasure trove. The gins, there are three – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – each in a 200ml bottle, are bespoke limited editions developed for the Gin Box by the highly regarded Hope on Hopkins distillery. Each is delightful in its own right, each I’d be happy to drink at any time of year, but its Christmassy flavours of spice, nuts, and soft citrus make it an ideal complement for the festive season. It’s worth noting that the botanicals actually feature frankincense and myrrh, and that the gold version is lightly aged in oak to give the liquid its eponymous tinge. The box is stuffed with all sorts of other goodies, including two bottles of Goldberg Japanese Yuzu tonic, distinctly different from the Indian version with its sweeter, citrus overtones; some dried fruit garnishes; and a few food items – notable amongst these being the decadent “Fat Santa Bar” from The Counter (yum!).
Remy Martin’s flagship cognac is the ultimate luxury spirit, possessing a pedigree and an essence unmatched by any other drink. Its inspirations date back to the Battle of Jarnac in 1569, to the discovery of metal flask on the battlefield that would serve as the model for its renowned, meticulously-crafted, Baccarat decanter. The Louis “Treize” (French for 13), as it’s referred to, was launched in 1874 and has been continuously produced ever since, inexorably enhancing its reputation as it climbed to the presiding status that it enjoys today. The liquid itself is a blend with up to 1200 distinct Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie, the youngest matured for a minimum of 40 years, the oldest, incredibly, for over a century. When I first encountered it I was expecting an oaky character, being at a loss to understand how the cellar masters could restrain the wood on a product with such an extended maturation. I was wrong. There’s wood of course, but it’s one of many chimes in this multipart melody. The “secret” is the tierçon, a special type of cask employed in the maturation. Made from Limousin oak, with finer staves than typical casks, they are restored but never replaced. These casks, in my view of it – the Remy people don’t use this term – are largely exhausted, having little of their oak elements left to impart – leaving the maturation to persist via the chemical reactions in the liquid and the interaction of the liquid with its environment as they breathe. The result is tantalising and transfixing, a rare phenomenon of awe-inspiring depth and complexity – all the benefits of old age but without its drawbacks. The Louis XIII earns its chops and then some.
Our sunny alfresco South African Christmases demand a sunny alfresco cocktail, the kind that you mix up in a jug and serve under blue skies on a lawn. Enter the ho-ho-ho merry Cointreau Fizz. I’d never considered triple sec as anything other than a sidekick ingredient, Tonto to the Tequila Lone Ranger in my margarita, before chancing upon the Fizz – which promptly prompted me to revaluate my impressions. It’s simple, delicious and healthy, the sweet spirit offsetting tangy lime for a perfect balance.
2 ½ parts Cointreau
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
5 parts sparkling water
Fill a jug with ice, add Cointreau and lime, top off with sparkling water, and garnish with an orange wheel or any sweet juicy fruit.
A change of drinks for a change of seasons. PATRICK LECLEZIO gets set for some sunshine.
First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2017 edition).
There’s something primal about the anticipation of summer – maybe because we depended on it for our survival, or maybe because after long, bleak winters it’s what made life worth living. Whatever the reason it’s an excitement that’s programmed deep within us. Benson and Hedges tapped into this emotion with the soundtrack for their cricket commercials in the 1990’s. I didn’t and never would smoke, and I didn’t really attend live matches at the time, but regardless I found that imploring incantation incredibly relevant and evocative. It was a summons – for sunshine, freedom, and good times – that gripped me at the core. I subscribe to the view that life is short and that we should enthusiastically make the most of any given moment, but it’s easy to get distracted, hypnotised by the tedium of everyday life. Summer is the clarion. A reminder that we should suck the marrow from every juicy bone presented to us – or more specific to our modest purposes here: drink the drinks that make the whole world sing. So, as we hear that rousing chant all around us [come on summer], let’s fill our glasses with right stuff [come on summer], and get ready to celebrate the season in style [come on summer, come on!].
Nothing says summer quite like gin – and it’s comforting to note, as we contemplate this sentiment, that the “gin boom” has furnished us with a magnificent selection, ready to be harnessed to the purpose. One of the latest to emerge, after a long and considered development, is Wixworth. Whilst there may be veritable flood, each gin, by virtue of its choice and combination of botanicals, has the potential to stand out and be distinctive – and Wixworth is no exception in this regard. Ironically though I think it distinguishes itself most in its adherence to tradition (and regulations), rather than its individuality. In an era of boundary pushing (and crossing!), juniper-recessive (if not absent) gins, Wixworth is a true London Dry Gin, out and proud brandishing its predominating juniper essence. This is the style that in the sweltering outposts of the British Empire gave birth to the gin and tonic, so in equipping ourselves for the conditions that made its name, it’s clearly not to be taken lightly. London Dry it may be, but it’s also avidly South African; its use of Renosterbos in particular, a local shrub that was historically added to river water to mask its brackish taste, unmistakably binds its identity to the country. Wixworth’s style and substance, the latter evidenced in a crisp pine and citrus flavour, makes it an ideal gin on which to ride this summer’s rolling swells.
With gin in play you’ll invariably need tonic, its trusty sidekick. When I first started drinking GnT’s I was astounded and dismayed by the amount of sugar in tonic. It’s there to check the bitterness of the quinine, but health-wise you may as well be drinking coke. There’s further concern, because tonic is largely water, in that a disproportionate share of what you’re buying is invested in packaging (mostly disposable and environmentally unfriendly). Enter the tonic cordial, and Symmetry in particular. By using cinchona bark (the source of the quinine) instead of the quinine extract alone Symmetry balances its typical bitterness with the bark’s other components, mitigating the requirement for excessive sugar. The pack delivers approximately 12 servings in concentrated form, as opposed to the four that you’d get from a litre bottle of the regular stuff. The format has enabled both the bottle and closure to be significantly upweighted, each made from glass and reusable as a carafe and wine stopper respectively. This is well and good, but if the flavour doesn’t measure up then it’s all for nothing – and it’s in this sphere that Symmetry arguably shines brightest, being constituted from a hand-picked selection of local botanicals that have been expertly crafted into a range comprising three variants: Citrus, Spice and Floral. A word of caution: you don’t want these full-flavoured tonics to overpower your specific gin, so choose the one that’s most complementary. Some experimentation may be required to get this right – luckily you’ve got a whole summer to work at it.
Snow Leopard vodka
Vodka is the world’s most internationally popular spirit: there are more people drinking it across a broad swathe of countries than any other. It’s also the one drink where lack of flavour (or subtlety of flavour, as one would have it) has wrought a crushing advantage – defining a versatility that’s largely responsible for this widespread appeal. This makes it the ideal summer spirit, a willingly assimilating partner for any number of tall, cool, refreshing mixers. Whatever your preference, vodka will enhance it. In Snow Leopard we have an exponent that straddles the fine vodka line between no flavour and too much flavour – it offers a little something when drunk neat, but it doesn’t interfere when mixed. The unusual use of spelt grain, an expensive ancient wheat hybrid more commonly employed by jenever rather than vodka distillers, lends a rich and creamy mouthfeel, and everything about it from the concept to its packaging to the liquid itself, suggests a high quality, well-made vodka. The clincher for me though is its commitment to nature conservation, dedicating a significant 15% of its profits to the preservation of the critically endangered Snow Leopard, and highlighting its plight. I like the idea of kicking my feet back and watching a late sunset with glass in hand, I like it even more knowing it’s doing some good in the world.
My tastes run to strong cocktails. And my favourite cocktail ingredient is lime, which happens to be perfectly suited to summer. The Gimlet, neatly encompassing both those attributes, is a tried and tested classic that’s been persistently drunk for almost a century. Most importantly it’s simple and delicious. If you want to shake things up (no pun intended) and try something different, then look no further.
Add two and half tots of Wixworth gin, one tot of fresh lime juice, and half a tot to a tot of simple syrup (according to taste) into a cocktail shaker loaded with ice. Stir or swirl, and strain into a coupe. Garnish with a lime wedge or a cucumber wheel.
PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the recent exploits of South Africa’s signature spirit
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).
After years of decline the popularity of local brandy has stabilised. Ostensibly this is the product of fiscal policy, so to speak, but there’s cause for hope and optimism, and to believe in a real recovery beyond. Shepherded by the South African Brandy Foundation, and driven by the contributions of a group of talented producers and an influx of fresh brands, the drink has taken on a new lustre and a renewed purpose. There’s a mountain of good work that has been done, and is ongoing, in three areas in particular, and whilst only time will tell if it will be enough to revisit and exceed past glories, the fruits of this labour, deserving of a (pride of) place in any liquor cabinet, speak for themselves.
In a similar sense that you are a product of your DNA, so brandy is a product of its definitions, the rules that guide how it is to be made and matured. I’ve been critical of these in the past, having considered them weaker than those of its peers, whisky and cognac specifically. Since then though significant, concerted progress has been made in this area. Brandy has three classifications: blended brandy, vintage brandy and potstill brandy. The judicious excision of a dubious 10% allowance for spirits that were neither matured nor potstilled from the makeups of the latter two has been a major stride in the right direction. Whether producers were exploiting it in the past or not, its removal happens to be coinciding with a bright era of excellence for potstills, and it gives us a measure of assurance that things should stay this way. I wouldn’t be giving a balanced view though if I didn’t admit that problems remain. The bar for blended brandy is staying comparatively low, stipulating a 30% minimum for matured (3 years or more), potstilled content, in excess of which it seems (I can’t know definitively, but my enquiries suggest as much) few or no producers are venturing. And who can blame them in a price sensitive market – 3YO potstilled brandy being materially more expensive than the unmatured column-stilled wine spirit that makes up the balance. It’s a situation though that’s inimical to the true greatness to which this drink aspires and which it deserves. It means that on average, if you’ll forgive my crude analysis, the liquid in your typical blended brandy is less than a year old, and only one and half in a labelled 5YO. Younger potstill brandies are available, such as the hearty, robust Kingna 5YO, but these are mostly of this age and its vicinity, and sold at a premium price. My persisting conclusion is that a gap exists in the definitions, and in the market price-wise, for a fully matured, lighter style of young brandy. Perhaps this is partly what created space for the precipitous growth of VS cognacs…
There must be acute despondency in the other brandy producing regions of the world. Over the last three years, building on an already impressive award-winning track record, South African brandies have made a clean sweep at arguably the world’s two foremost competitions, the International Wine and Spirits Competition and the International Spirits Challenge, taking the best-in-class “Trophy” prizes in each case. This year’s winner at the latter, the KWV 15YO, perfectly epitomises the evolution of local brandy at the upper end of the spectrum. It is rich, oh-so-rich, full-bodied, and complex, with notes of husk fruits, oak and spice, delivering on and exceeding expectations for a fine, luxury spirit. This is a bottle to enjoy at (m)any given moments (not quite any, close though), but pull it out in repose with friends after a fine meal, and you’ll be soon be ascending to an everything-is-right-with-the-world plane of satisfaction.
The industry is still young in marketing itself to the world, and in building and justifying stocks of mature enough liquid to go toe-to-toe with the big boys, but the momentum is gathering. It’s just a matter of time. In the interim we local admirers can relish our well-priced access to the world’s most outstanding brandies.
There’s one phenomenon that’s convincing me of brandy’s resurgence and of its potential to kick-on more than any other, and that’s the explosive proliferation in the “craft” sector of the industry. There are now dozens of small producers who are putting out audacious, delicious, exceptional offerings, and who are weaving the magic of unique stories to be told, the adventure of new and flavoursome territories to be explored, and the romance of daring exploits to be tasted and experienced, into the tapestry of brandy’s landscape. The lure of its call is being dialled up exponentially. I’ve already mentioned Kingna, made by a diesel-mechanic who discovered a passion and skill for brandy-making and consequently turned distiller, but there are so many others. The coco-nutty Sumasaré 5YO and the fragrant Boplaas 8YO both made immediate, this-is-special impressions on me, and more recently I discovered the Ladysmith 8YO, a journey of garden aromas, with pods of sweet spice, and rakings of orchard fruits and velvet custard scattered on palate and finish. The scene is replete with variety – different music each, but merging into a harmonious concerto. Volumes are small, but that’s not the point. This is the leading edge of the wedge, representing the wider product, and infusing it with an aura of amplified credibility, vigorous energy, and innovative thinking. We have the sweet, exciting privilege of being able to embrace this revolution in its infancy. Long may it last.
If you are or were a brandy drinker or had considered giving it a go this is the time to take another look. Things are happening, and they merit your attention. South African brandy has a new mantle, an evolved reputation that’s taken it from being referenced as “karate water” to the elegance of a dedicated drinks trolley, there by request, at the Test Kitchen. It’s not for nothing. This new style has a substance of iron to it. I wouldn’t want to miss out and neither do you.
A world of liquor. A world in liquor. PATRICK LECLEZIO unearths a few lesser known spirituous gems.
First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).
Drinks are more than just drinks. The typical person doesn’t really think about it but one’s enjoyment of a drink goes beyond the liquid itself, and the value that this offers in isolation. Context is important, the intangible elements with which it is associated are important, which is why untold millions are spent on engineering and augmenting context, on creating these little worlds in which you the drinker experiences the drink – from its story and its rationale, and its packaging and its advertising, to the perception of yourself that it frames for you. These machinations though often take inspiration from what is already there. I take great relish from a drink’s pure and natural context. All over the world drinks have evolved in response to and in harmony with their environment, to become a portal into a history, a culture, and a way of life. The pleasure in a drink is often irrespective of the liquid. So put aside your regular beverage, step out your routine, and open yourself up to a different world, to a holiday abroad every time you have a drink. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Anise (or Aniseed) is a flowering plant native to the Eastern Mediterranean, the fruit of which, or rather its essential oil – called anethole, is used to flavour a variety of spirits indigenous to the region. The best known and most widely consumed are pastis, ouzo and raki, in France, Greece, and Turkey and Greece respectively. The distinctive licorice-like flavour is somewhat polarising, but even if you don’t have a ready affinity for it (and I count myself in that number) it can be immensely satisfying. The typical serve – diluted with water over ice – is a revelation: I would struggle to find something to compete on the basis of sheer refreshment. These are drinks that obviously evolved to douse the throat and quench the thirst during the hot summer months in the Mediterranean basin…perhaps when sitting in a little family-owned café, overlooking the sea, eating a few dolmades whilst waiting for a freshly caught fish to be served. Or at least that’s the world you’ll experience when you sample these drinks. Their other, equally distinctive feature is a transformation in appearance to a cloudy, milky colour when mixed with water. This reaction is known as spontaneous emulsification or, more memorably, as the Ouzo effect. This Lion’s Milk (as the raki version is known in Turkey) notwithstanding, these drinks have some versatility: I was recently in Crete, where raki is also served a digestif shot, complimentary (!) at the end of a meal in many places. A great way to end to a Greek meal.
I must confess that when I hear the word “byejo” (as it is pronounced) it strikes fear in my heart. I first encountered the stuff at dinner with a supplier in central China. I was incited to throw it back to loud shouts of “gan-bei”, the Chinese equivalent of cheers, which literally means drink it all. At 48 to 56% ABV (and sometimes even higher), with a flavour that needs protracted acquisition to an uninitiated Western palate, and when introduced to you with frenzied drinking, baijiu can be intimidating. But it’s worth persisting. Chalking up an estimated half a billion nine-litre cases in sales, it is easily the world’s biggest spirits category, so with millions upon millions of Chinese drinking it, and having drunk it or its antecedents for thousands of years, it’s clear that it’s something worthwhile. And yet it’s almost unknown outside of that country, even now in the post isolation era. How ironic that the world’s most plentiful spirit is also one of its most obscure. The stuff is made using a variety of grains, primarily sorghum, although rice is also used in some regions, and it is categorised by fragrance, with varieties ranging from the “sauce”, with a character resembling soy sauce, to “phoenix”, which is earthy and fruity. It is served warm or at room temperature and usually as an accompaniment to a meal. Interestingly Baijiu is aged in large earthenware pots, a process which I would think is of dubious value for distilled liquor. So whist you shouldn’t be fooled into buying the older, premium priced varieties – do keep a bottle at hand for raucous, banqueting celebrations, Chinese style!
There are few cocktails that compare to Brazil’s caipirinha. The exquisite taste both belies and credits the simplicity of the ingredients – lime, sugar and cachaça. I find many cocktails to be frivolous, but then there are those that bring such weight of tradition and meaning to bear as to be undeniable. If you haven’t had one, then make it your mission to correct the oversight. Despite its similarity to rum and specifically to rhum agricole, both are made from sugarcane juice, cachaça is its own unique spirit with a distinctive, funky, evocative flavour. It’s a beach, a party, and a party on a beach (in the best Brazilian style), all inside the confines of nine ounce rocks glass. Perhaps the most interesting aspect to cachaça and a hint to its one-of-a-kind flavour profile is that it’s matured in a variety of woods, including the exotic sounding amendoim, jequitibá and umburana, unlike other fine spirits which employ oak exclusively. It’s thin on the ground in South Africa, but the excellent Germana, an artisanal, pot distilled cachaça in a distinctive banana leaf wrapped bottle, can be found here and there.
Primed and ready for action. PATRICK LECLEZIO gets to grips with stocking the right spirituous gear.
First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).
I don’t consider myself to be a materialistic. I don’t covet for the sake of it. I’m not a shiny new toy type of person. I do subscribe though to the philosophy that I must have what I need for what I want to do. There is a certain comfort, a fulfilment, a confidence in being properly equipped. Maybe it’s a lingering impetus from Boy Scout times – Be prepared! – or maybe it’s a harking back to that first-day-of-school, new-uniform-and-stationery (full set!), ready-to-face-the-world feeling that made such a deep impression, or maybe it’s just an innate striving for completeness. It just is – and if attended to it makes the endeavour more enjoyable. When I’m out running on a cold and wet Cape winter morning, I find that it’s more agreeable if I’m wearing my dedicated rain jacket, rather than trying to get by with something makeshift. If you’re going to do something, be ready to do it properly – this goes for drinking and entertaining, like anything else. Here’s how you go about it.
Your personal repertoire will dictate what you need, but I’m going to steer a course suited to the well-rounded, gregarious bon vivant.
You’ll want to be able to serve beers and ciders, wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, a range of spirits, and a few cocktails. Our focus here will be on what you need for spirits, but I mention the others because there’s no point in being well fortified (no pun intended…well maybe a little bit) over here, and leaving your defences gaping over there. Your equipment requirements will need to cover bar tools and glassware, and, whilst not equipment in the strict sense of it, the drinks and their ingredients shouldn’t be overlooked.
Even if you’re a free pour type of person you’ll need this for controlling proportions when mixing up a cocktail. You might also find that the occasional guest will want regulated portions, especially in these days of heightened awareness about drink driving. I recommend the version with both single and double measure combined – it’ll save time and hassle with continued use. In bar speak these things are known as jiggers.
There are two common types: the regular three-part Cobbler shaker and the two-part Boston shaker. The latter is more theatrical but also more messy and difficult to use – especially as intended without a strainer. The third option for cocktail preparations is a mixer, where you would use a large, robust glass (effectively one half of the Boston shaker), a spoon, and a strainer. I favour the latter option, the stirred-not-shaken style of cocktail execution, particularly for my favoured drinks: there’s less risk of over-dilution or aeration (i.e. lots of bubbles on the surface).
The typical bar spoon is of an extended length, to enable you to easily reach to the bottom of a cocktail shaker or a tall glass. This can make it cumbersome to wash and store. I would recommend a telescopic spoon, which can be extended to the desired length for any conceivable purpose, and then contracted to store easily.
If you like ice with your spirits then this is an essential bit of kit. One of the problems with ice is that it introduces uncontrolled dilution into a drink, which is stronger when the ice is added, and gradually weaker as the ice melts. Crushed ice allows the addition of a measured volume of ice (conveniently using a measuring spoon), and it melts far quicker than cubed ice, giving a more consistent drinking experience.
Optional, depending on what cocktails you’ll be making. I’m contracting myself (as far as the use of makeshift equipment goes), but for occasional use you can get away with a heavy spoon in its absence.
Also optional, if your concoctions call for lemon or lime juice in particular, the former being better fresh, the latter being almost impossible to find.
You’ll need two sizes: a small one for dispensing ice, and a large one for chilling a bottle (wine of course, but also useful for vodka and tequila).
Two sizes also needed here: a small one for dispensing water for spirits, and a large one to mix cocktails in party batches.
These are the basic requirements: tumbler, highball or zombie (tall glass), and nosing, balloon, and shot glasses, and optionally martini and margarita glasses. It’s all in the mind of course but it just feels better to be drinking the right drink from the right glass. If you’re a GnT fan you may also want to consider copa de balon glasses (the Spanish style balloon glass on a long stem).
I have two sets of martini glasses: one that’s from one of the local homeware stores, undoubtedly of Chinese provenance, perfectly serviceable but uninspiring, and one that’s made by the German manufacturer Schott Zwiesel. I remarked the other day than unless I’m hosting a large gathering the former remains unused. I just unconsciously gravitate towards the other. The shape, the balance, the surface texture and the general glass quality are all superior, and it makes a difference to my enjoyment of the drinking experience. I’ve subsequently bought their wine and whisky glasses, with similar results in satisfaction. You don’t need labour-intensive crystal necessarily, unless that’s your thing, but it’s worth investing in quality glassware.
Drinks and ingredients
The stocking principle which I’d advise is to achieve a good balance between choice and excess. You should try to have at least two options of all the major spirits, but a depth of selection for at least two types, specifically those where flavour diversity is expected – such as whisky and gin. Over and above I’d also suggest you also have a few exotic spirits available – cassis, amaretto, calvados, and cachaça for instance are both intriguing and delicious.
You’ll almost certainly need tonic, soda and cola, and obviously others may be required depending on your particular taste and that of your guests. I’d recommend keeping a supply of tomato juice (bloody mary / virgin mary), ginger ale (versatile for brown spirits), lemonade (rock shandy), and bottled water (unchlorinated water for adding to brown spirits) at hand.
The last considerations are garnishes and cocktail ingredients. The most versatile garnishes are lemon and lime, which can be used in drinks ranging from a GnT and a martini to a cuba libre and a tequila shooter. So they’re critical. The rest will be driven by the cocktails that you intend to mix and offer. You should specialise in a few cocktails, which will come to represent your own particular signature style. My personal favourites are the martini (vermouth and olives or lemon needed) and the margarita (triple sec, sea salt and lime), but I’m also partial to the odd caiparinha (sugar and lime) and mohito (mint, lime and sugar). Let the fun begin.
An everlasting youth. PATRICK LECLEZIO touches base with an old friend.
First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).
In the movie Betty Blue, there’s a memorable scene in which Zorg, one of the principal characters, mixes shots of alcohol with a carbonated beverage in a glass, that he then wraps in a napkin and pounds on the table, inducing an explosion of fizziness, before downing the mixture. It was a slammer of course, one of the many epically, vigorously festive drinks which tequila has bestowed upon us, and at the time it struck a deep chord; I had to get out there and give it a try at the soonest opportunity. And so began my tempestuous friendship with tequila. Twenty odd years later I feel that I’ve grown up (somewhat), but that tequila hasn’t – all dressed up it can look the part, but at heart it’s still stuck in its twenties, ready to tear it up given the faintest nudge. We’re still friends, we still indulge in the occasional big night (and still there’s no-one who’s more fun in these instances!), but I’m reluctant to invite tequila to an elegant adult gathering for fear of intimidating my other friends or for risk of trashing the event? Its illustrious, outrageous exploits may just have pigeonholed it for life.
The success of tequila is hinged in my opinion on three factors. Firstly, the incipience of the mythical “tequila buzz”, a widely believed-in phenomenon despite having with no scientific basis –alcohol is alcohol, differing only in flavour so this can only be explained psychosomatically, as a self-fulfilling prophecy – has been a powerful influence on the cult of the drink. Secondly, tequila has cornered the market on ritualised drinking. Shots with lemon, lime and salt, body shots, shots with oranges segments, “no hands no faces”, slammers, and all manner of other customised practices – I’ve even participated in some involving raw eggs and physical abuse (don’t ask). These all form a largely universal party language that everyone wants to speak and can only be understood with tequila. Thirdly, tequila is the base of one of the world’s most popular cocktail: the margarita, an incredibly tasty, versatile drink, made with tequila, lime juice, triple sec and salt, that seems to suit just about every moment – lunch, dinner, smart, casual, summer, winter, and everything in between.
These forces have propelled tequila into our consciousness, where it lives a large but limited life. It is a party drink, a carousing, revelling, raucous, rioting drink. Yet, the older tequila, that friend who never quite grew up, has all the potential, the proven potential, to be a responsible, sophisticated member of society. Tequila is made using the heart of the blue agave plant, an unusual medium for alcohol, which tends to be made from grains or fruits, and then distilled primarily in alembic stills made from copper or with copper components. There are five basic types of tequila which result: Blanco, unmatured or minimally matured tequila – which is what is mostly used for margaritas; Gold, effectively Blanco with some colouring, the stuff that created the legend; Reposado, aged a minimum of two months (in oak barrels); Anejo, aged a minimum of a year (in small oak barrels), and Extra Anejo, aged a minimum of three years. These latter categories, the Extra in particular (added in 2006 for this very purpose), are the face of respectable tequila. The guy who has trimmed his hair, put on a good suit, and gets to work on time in the morning, and whose rough edges have been smoothed away (in multiple senses). I like him, I like that he’s trying, I can’t fault his efforts, but somehow I just can’t take him seriously enough in this alternative guise.
I recently took two tequilas out for a spin. I relived some youthful moments with Sauza Blanco, a couple of slammers for old time’s sake, and a margarita, to which I’m still partial. This is the tequila I know and love. There’s a certain magic to the flavour, general to tequila, and faithfully represented by the Sauza – it’s repulsively attractive on its own (after you get to know it better), and outright delicious in thoughtful combinations, as in a margarita. There’s a uniqueness to it that you just won’t come close to finding with any other spirit. My second outing was with Patron Anejo – from the cleverly crafted range Patron Spirits, which you may or may not know was founded by shampoo-guy Paul Mitchell. Yes, you can sip it. You can see that this is the direction in which it’s going. The richness and mellowness of the cask maturation is apparent, but I still found myself shooting it, albeit without the need for any kind of fruit to follow. The Anejo is still a bit on the young side, but it shows enough to validate tequila’s claim to the status of fine spirit. Habits are habits though, and this is the nub of it: whilst the fundamentals may be in place the perception will take longer to shift.
Given enough time you can reinvent yourself. I’m not sure though that I want my friend tequila to change though. In fact I think I need this friend to stay true to what I know it to be as a connection to that part of myself that might otherwise get lost. We may not hang out as often as we used to but it’s good to know that we can if we want to. Everyone has to have a friend like tequila. Adios for now amigos.