Friday, 13 November 2009

Ocho Tequila Tutored Tasting

The Porterhouse, Covent Garden.
It's a legendary pub, but it's fair to say, not a venue noted for its tequila heritage.
Today's events will probably not change that notion: except in the minds of a select group of bartenders in the inner circle of tequila aficionados.
For today, under the watchful eye of the European Tequila Ambassador (a title annointed upon him not once, but twice, by the Mexican Government) Tomas Estes would invite all present to "change their perception" of this often misunderstood spirit.
That perception, perhaps more obvious to those not present, is that of tequila as some kind of devil spirit. That which leads to bouts of irrational drunkenness, lost memories, and at it's worst long conversations on the porcelain telephone.
Perhaps then, this is why Tomas introduces himself, tongue in cheek, as "the guilty one".
The group present, however, had no such preconceptions - which in itself was an interesting subject for the man at the helm.
"It's tequila's time" he announced with conviction. None present argued. But why? Well, one of the main reasons seems to be the very preconception which so often works against tequila as a category.
People are afraid of tequila. They don't know about it. Unless, of course, you have the inside knowledge. And let's be honest : we all enjoy knowing something our immediate peers don't. Which, of course, is why we're all here.
On his long, and often diverging exploration of the category (but all credit to him, he'd hosted the class awards the previous night and showed no other signs of the hangover which would've reduced any other man to tears) Tomas explains that since 1983, when a 100% agave tequila was released under the name Chinaco, the world of tequila changed.
Suddenly its potential as a serious spirit became obvious. The  World's largest brand owners (Pernod Ricard, Diageo, Beam Global etc) became interested. The consumer saw the change, and started to demand the best.
Of course, this is in no small way down to our host: opening his first venue in Amsterdam back in 1976, he literally introduced Europe to the distilled agave himself.

I should mention at this point that it was Tomas, in collaboration with the Camereńa family (of Los Altos distillery) who first gave credit to the notion of terroir within tequila production. For those unfamiliar with this term, it is one (of many) borrowed from the wine world. In short, it refers to the immediate environment of the growing agave: soil type, precipitation, orientation, temperature etc) This led to the conception of Ocho Tequila; a range of geographically defined, vintage dated tequila, which we would have the pleasure of tasting today.
Why "Ocho" (eight)?  Well, there are a string of coincidences too significant to ignore: there are 8 brothers and sisters in the Camereña family, which has been producing tequila for eight decades, using eight kg of agave per litre of tequila, which each take an average of eight years to grow, then a further eight days to be turned into tequila when they arrive at the distillery.
So on to the task at hand; a tutored tasting of five tequilas in the more than capable hands of Mr Estes, and his infallibly reliable right hand man, Carlos Londono of Cafe Pacifico.
Our first venture was the 2008 Ocho Blanco, made entirely of agave from Los Pomaz Ranchos (field - a single vinyard tequila, if you will) in the same year, the cystal clear liquid shimmers at us from the glass, almost begging to be freed.
On the nose, light, floral sugars are obvious, together with a gentle minerality, menthol, and a light whisp of smoke.
Upon tasting, the overwhelming comparison is of citrus. Personally, I found a strong lime flavour, followed almost immediately by cracked black pepper. Tomas also pointed out a tangerine note, together with red stone fruit.
This tequila enjoyed a long, sweet finish.
For comparison, we then moved to the Ocho Blanco 2009, hailing from El Cerrito dé San Agustin. Proof, if it were needed, that terroir plays such an important role in the production of the Mexican national spirit was now staring us squarely in the face. A far saltier nose carries through to the palette, with a drying acidity which one can feel constricting the roof of the mouth.
Chamomile tea was spotted by one of the group, and I found the bitterness of dark chocolate to be particularly moreish.
The length of the latter, it must be said, was very different to the former, with the initial sweetness closing off much faster.
Moving into the Reposados, each rested for eight weeks and eight days (naturally) gave us a real treat. Starting with the El Vergel 2008 was a rare opportunity to get involved with a true collectors item. The double edged sword of producing vintage tequila is that they will inevitably run out; which is exactly what has happened here. Rumours abound of bottles of the El Vergel exchanging hands for prices well above their initial value as the supply / demand wheels crank into action.
It's also a very special spirit in it's own right. Grassy, green and herbaceous on the nose, there's a definite whisky smoke in the background, though more Speyside than Islay.
A rasping acidity carries a far longer finish, along with a distinct olive brine characteristic. Pronounced agave nuances abound, mingling with flinty, earthy tones. It's easy to see why these bottles have become so highly coveted.
The current Ocho Reposado vintage is the El Carrizal 2008, which provided our next subject.
Prominent here is a buttery, creamy style. There are hints of toffee, perhaps even butterscotch in the mix, but the true character can only be appreciated on the palette. For me, this tequila almost felt like tasting upside-down. It zipped past the tongue and to the back of the throat effortlessly, at which point it warms, and the evaporating particles making their way up to the olfactory nerve from the back provides a quite bizarre sensation. Perhaps due to the area of the mouth in which this occurs, a very salty, olive briney style is achieved. It's oiliness gives great length, sitting on the palette long enough to be able to really chew all the flavours.
Finishing off the day, we were presented with Ocho's 2008 Anejo, another product for El Vergel, this time aged for 12 months. The use of fatigued oak allows the agave to express itself, rather than just wood, and this is obvious in the burnt butter and nuttiness on the nose. Complex layers on the palette reveal themselves one after the other; caramel, dark chocolate, vanilla, and again the olive style we're used to from the previous expressions.
Wrapping up with a delicious avacado, tequila and chili mouse brought the afternoon to a close all too soon.
I would like to express my deepest thanks for Tomas and his team putting on such a great event, and encourage all of those reading this to put their preconceptions aside and venture into this wonderful world. And if you get the chance to be present when Tomas is talking, make sure you do so. Truly an inspirational figure.

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