Agave Agape

The essence of agape love is goodwill, benevolence, and willful delight in the object of love. The essence of agave is tequila.

Almost anyone can manage to ferment some sort of sugary fruit juice and produce a rudimentary hooch. A tad more sophistication is required to extract the alcohol through distillation and concentrate it into some semblance of moonshine. History proves that almost all cultures, from ancient to current, brewed up and consumed some kind of alcoholic beverages. The laborers that built the pyramids simultaneously nourished their bodies and dulled the pain of hard labor with a beer ration of a gallon and a half per day, per man. Archeologists tell us that this was likely a hearty starchy brew that could double as a meal, but ancient Greek brewers were not unknown to add a level of sophistication to their brews, using herbs like thyme, coriander, and chamomile.

The advent of distillation, though, opened an entirely new world to their craft and spawned a completely new branch of the alcoholic arts, of which, broadly speaking, there are today, three; brewers, winemakers, and distillers. These arts often intertwine in products such as fortified wines (Madeira, Marsala, Port, Sherry, and Vermouth are examples) or  Sake, often called “rice wine” when, in actuality, it is a brewed beverage. Additionally, the distilled alcohols are often flavored by aging in used wine barrels, or, as in the case of Brandy or Cognac, are essentially distilled wine.

It seems intuitive, then, to think that depending on what sugary mash is the base of the fermentation, the flavor of the end product will be subtly or significantly different. Original vodka, made from potatoes (starch / sugar, essentially the same thing as far as the yeast is concerned as enzymes are used to convert the starch into simple sugars, the favorite food of yeast) is said to have a completely different flavor and mouth feel than the much more common grain vodkas found in the West. (Unscrupulous producers of cheap grain vodka sometimes add a bit of glycerin to mimic the mouthfeel of an original potato vodka. Ugh. They also “brag” about distilling it “twenty times” as if it were a badge of honor, when in reality, they are just trying to literally distill the crap out of it.) In any case, Vodka is often referred to as a “neutral grain spirit” and as such, has very little natural flavor. Hence, the proliferation of “flavored” vodkas, of which there are, today, endless varieties.

Conversely, some base stocks do impart a distinct flavor to the resulting ferment, rum leaving the caramelized sugar cane or molasses flavor in the final product, and tequila, by law made from blue agave plants, retaining its very unique and identifiable vegetal “cactus juice” flavor and delightful sweetness. Technically, the Weber Blue Agave from which “real” tequila is made isn’t a cactus at all, but rather a succulent, which take approximately eight years to mature to harvest. And, unlike a grape vine, which can be picked clean and then will grow a new crop the following year, the agave plant is harvested whole and “used-up” in the process, so tequila producers have to plan ahead, way ahead.

Of course, as with any particular variety of “hard likker,” tequila comes in an endless range of honesty, quality, and enjoy-ability.  There are those who say that they never touch the stuff, because of a one-night stand that resulted in a violent hangover and a three-day headache. Likely, they were not victim to tequila, but rather to an adulterated swill made from as little as 10-15% cheap tequila, made potent by the addition of grain spirits, made golden by the addition of caramel, and made sweet by the addition of cane sugar. Fine tequila is no more likely to hurt you as is good scotch or any other unadulterated premium liquor. Enough of any of these will make you regret the sunrise, but that’s not the liquor’s fault, it’s your fault.

So, let’s pop a cork and sip some utterly delicious tequilas, shall we?

A Great Start

Recently, and fortuitously, I have come into possession of a number of terrific premium tequilas, some due to the immense generosity of my friends, and others because I somehow convinced myself I “deserved” them for the sheer terror of turning 65.

All of these are deliciously drinkable, premium quality, and immensely enjoyable. Two were recent gifts, and ones that I have never tasted, so I recorded my first impressions and share them with you below.

Like good scotch or bourbon, I like to drink tequila from a Double Old Fashioned glass (DOF) and add one crescent of ice for each finger of tequila. This is probably the main reason I don’t like doing “shots” of any good liquor. You miss all the complex aromas, and as the ice turns to water it combines with alcohol in a complex interwoven chemical matrix which completely changes the nature of the experience. Chemically, alcohol and water intertwine in an unusual way. If you mix 50ml of alcohol with 50ml of water, the resulting volume will only be 95ml. This is because some of the molecules fit so neatly “inside” one another that the total volume is less than the sum of its parts. This also explains why drinking a premium liquor “straight” may not extract the maximum flavor, feel, and enjoyment from the experience.

Alcohol and water have an almost natural affinity for each other. The inside of your mouth is wet. When you dump in a shot of 80 proof (40%) alcohol, the alcohol immediately tries to absorb and bond with the water in your mouth. This exposes your sensitive taste buds and the lining of your mouth to an intense and astringent drying agent. Of course it burns across the palate and tongue, and forces one to either spit it out or hastily swallow it. Neither is conducive to enjoyment.

A little bit of water, imparted by the melting ice, serves not only to reduce the astringency of the liquor, but also lowers the temperature, hence the amount of alcohol that would otherwise immediately flash to evaporate on the warm surfaces inside the mouth and overwhelm the sensitive nostrils, which if unmolested add more than half the taste sensation to whatever you put in your mouth. So, ice is imperative, in my opinion.  If the glass has a heavy base, pre-chill it a bit before you pour.

Casa Maestri Reserva de MFM

Take one Eastern European lead crystal double old fashioned glass. Set glass onto a bed of crushed ice to chill the heavy glass bottom. Remove the cork from the beautifully etched stoneware bottle and pour out one finger of the golden liquid into the pre-chilled glass.

Add one crescent of freshly made ice and swirl gently until the ice is half gone. Bring the glass to your nose and inhale slowly to 1/2 your lung capacity. You will notice the initial overwhelming presence of vaporized alcohol. Exhale. Now that the cloud of intense vapor is out of the glass, draw in another slow sniff. Now notice the distinct aroma of Madagascar vanilla from the charred oak barrel. Additionally, enjoy the slight green agave notes from the mashed leaf remnants that are inadvertently boiled in the mash.

Swirl the glass again, and take about a tablespoon sized sip. Instantly feel the unusual viscosity, smoothness, and total lack of bite on the tongue.  Roll the smooth marble of nectar around in the mouth like a sweet gumball flavor bomb, and begin to taste the smoke from the fire that heated the mash kettle.

Despite your desire to never let it go, let the smooth melted pearl roll across the back of your tongue and let those last back few taste buds get a little liquid love too as you swallow your first sip. Now, wait! Enjoy the finish, the aftertaste that lingers and makes your mind scream for another, bigger swig. But resist, wait, and enjoy the evolving finish that evokes toasted marshmallows, cotton candy, and finally back to the vanilla. Now, repeat the joy with each additional sniff and swig until the glass is empty. Lick the bottom of the empty glass. Go back into the kitchen, wash and dry the glass, and set it onto a bed of crushed ice. Repeat from step one. Incredible!!

 

Casamigos

Right after the pour into a lead crystal DOF, the vapors that rise out of the glass are more intense than most premium tequilas. Slipping in a single crescent of ice and a quick swirl lowers the temperature enough to reduce evaporation to the temperature at which you must bring the glass to your nose to experience the aroma.

As with most good aged tequila, the primary and strongest first impression is vanilla caramel. But a deeper gentle draw of the nose shows a rather strong smell of green vegetation. I attribute it to some of the green agave leaves left on the trimmed “pineapples” combined with the shorter resting period of a Reposado that allows the leafiness to still show.

Next, and related to the same source, a hint of tobacco leaf is also evident. It’s as if the green leaf was allowed to dry and then toast in the sun. Perhaps it comes from some of the smoke from the wood fires under the mash kettles getting trapped in the boiling liquid.

Initial sip; immediate and shocking smoothness on the tongue. Other tequilas feel more viscous than this, but there is a classic agave sweetness that is usually found only in tequilas that are more syrupy than this one. To reap their sweet reward, one has to pay the price of an almost sticky finish. Not so with this Casamigos Reposado.

Here the only lingering aftertaste is a clean, almost crisp smoky vanilla flavor that is not accompanied by any sensation of a coated tongue, as with Clase Azul for instance.

So, it isn’t as complex as some of the other players in the premium “cactus juice” world, especially those that go out of their way to flavor their tequila, like Herradura aged in Port Wine casks for instance. But, it doesn’t try to be gimmicky, relying instead on showing a very pure, traditional flavor with exceptional smoothness and an incredibly clean finish.

Unpretentious, textbook, pure, clean, and smooth. What you’d expect to only find if you travel to Jalisco and find a premium local producer.

Clase Azul

A while ago, someone who knows my weakness for tequila all too well, gifted me a bottle of Clase Azul, a tequila that comes in that beautiful blue and white porcelain bottle. I texted him my first impressions;

OK, this is insane… first sniff… hints of petrochemicals… seriously…. gasoline…. not today’s crappy ethanol-polluted weasel pee, but the good old 70’s high test. That blew off within moments, leaving a distinct odor of damp desert dirt that the agave plant matured in. Then it bloomed with caramel, evidence of the burned oak barrel it was aged in. (Many if not most tequilas that are aged at all, are aged in used American bourbon barrels.)

First sip… viscous, thick and sweet smoked candy. Tequila fools the palate into thinking it is sweet, when in reality, it contains little or no actual added sugar. (Although many producers add sugar and / or agave syrup in order to please the American penchant for sweeter liquor.) It’s the agave that does (is supposed to do) that. Lastly, it shows such unbelievable smoothness that it shows just what can be done with money. Every step of the process has to be perfect and that’s expensive, but oh, so worth it. Truly world class special!! Many thanks my friend.

He asked me to compare it to the Don Julio 1942, which has since become one of my favorites, and which he too was responsible for spoiling me with.

Ok, direct side by side comparison between the Julio 1942 and the Azul. The 42 is way more subtle than the Azul. You have to dig to find the typical agave, vanilla, and oak, where as the Azul has all of those clearly displayed in the front window for all to see. I would drink the 42 as a meal appetizer and the Azul for desert. Between the two…. Azul by a nose, but much sweeter than most Tequilas. No food? Azul all the way. It’s a meal!

Now that I have had more time to experience both, often side-by-side, I find the Azul to be “dessert sweet” compared to the “42”. I will write a full impression of the 42, as I have just acquired a new bottle, but it is yet unopened. My memory of the last bottle is one of exceptional smoothness and complex flavors. More to follow.

Now I will go and pour a glass and enjoy it with “willful delight.”