What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

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Entries in tequila/mezcal (8)


Press releases I didn't finish reading

“Peligroso Tequila, known for its dangerously exceptional juice, is heating up the market yet again with the launch of the newest member of its premium tequila family—Peligroso Cinnamon. The world’s first 84 proof cinnamon-flavored tequila is infused with 100% pure cinnamon and a blend of secret ingredients...”


New & notable: Iconic Brands 

Like goofy liquor packaging? You should come to the WSWA convention! Why do Russians keep trying to sell vodka in gun-shaped bottles? What's up with all the strange tequila bottles? A number of bottle manufacturers also hawk their services here, each promising to craft a unique bottle that will cause whatever new vodka it is you’re touting to fly off the shelves. It's hard to not get a little jaded.

Yet... I liked Iconic Brands, and purely for its marketing verve. They were rolling out three products in three very different bottles, all cool. And they’ve got some experience in innovative packaging — one of the Iconic principals was involved in the launch of Kah Tequila, which comes in colorfullly painted Day of the Dead skulls. (And is also embroiled in a longstanding lawsuit with Crystal Head Vodka over that packaging.)     

Iconic had three new spirit lines: Apocalypto Tequila (below left), playing nicely off the Mayan-end-of-the-world meme (um, maybe look for unsold bottles at a deep discount at Costco in early 2013). Three variations of Deadhead rum (above, left, spiced, three-year, and seven-year; evidently sourced from the Foursquare Distillery on Barbados). And Flashbang (at right), a quartet of similarly bottled liquors: tequila, whiskey, vodka, and an herbal liqueur. I only tried one spirit — the Flashbang herbal liqueur, which is a more refined Jägermeister.

The Iconic line somehow manages to walk the fine line between understated and over-the-top. The Apocaplyto was in a well-crafted bottle that looked like an ancient terra cotta Mayan head sculpture. The Deadhead rums were in wonderfully produced shrunken heads bottles. What do shrunken heads have to do with rum. Nothing! But I’d still love to have one of these on my back bar.

The most intriguing was the Flashbang line. The bottles look like hand-grenades. But not nasty combat hand grenades — rather, the civill unrest kind. The sort of greandes that produce noise and a bright flash to allow riot troops to move in and break up crowds. “They aren’t meant to kill,” said Neil Harris, the president of Flashbang. “Just to disorient. Which is pretty much what alcohol does.”

Harris said the idea didn’t so much come from street protests as from video games, which he said commonly employ these stun grenades. (I’ll take him at his word, not being a video game guy.) Doesn’t that put him at risk of charges that he’s targeting the underage market? He quickly pointed out that the majority of video game users are between the ages of 22 and 29 (something else I’m taking at his word). Which, as it happens, is exactly the market he’s trying to reach.

I can’t speak to the qualito of all the products (although the herbal liqueur was perfectly fine), but I can speak to the packaging: pretty damn great. 

[Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


New & notable: 123 Tequila

This lovely, well-balanced, fresh-tasting tequila is made by an artisinal distillery about a half-hour north of Guadalajara. It's disitlled using certified organic techniques, both on the agave and production sides. (This includes the use of only natural, airborne yeast in the fermentation.) “We’re trying to bring out the true beauty of agave,” the producer told me, which struck me as not overly hyperbolic in this case. It's available in silver, aged and anjeo (hence 1, 2, 3) in limited U.S. markets since late 2011, but is looking to expand.

[Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


No lime, no salt: Steve Olson on tequila & mezcal

Steve Olson calisthenically blew in and out of New Orleans yesterday amid Vesuvial thunderheads and torrential rains to present a talk on "The Magical Elixirs of Mexico." His 90-minute talk was packed —both house-wise, with scarcely a seat available at the Museum of the American Cocktail, and with detailed information about some of the 280 species of agave known, and the varied, arcane processes of making these distinctive distilled spirits.

The short version: the spirits industry in Mexico is incredibly old — very likely predating any known distillation in India or China. But it's also incredibly vibrant and new: some 42 different species of agave are used today in tequila and mezcal production, up from about 28 just a few years ago. And that's resulting in a whole new range of flavors as terroir — or the geography of taste, once the province of wine — continues its steady encroachment into the spirits world.

Olson — a noted spirits expert and one of the brains behind Viktor & Spoils, a new tequila bar in New York  — ran us through a marathon of varied tastes. We sampled some 10 different types of Mexican spirits, plus two cocktails showcasing how these might be deployed. (The biggest cup at every seat last night? The spit cup.)

The two most memorable samples of the night: The rough-edged, complexly smoky Del Maguey Single Village Santa Caterina Minas (from Oaxaca, and made in a crude ceramic and bamboo still), and the Don Julio 1942, a representative of a new class of tequila — the extra anjeo, aged for three or more years. Sipping one then the other was like bouncing down a rutted, rocky road whooping and hollering, then suddenly finding yourself quietly barrelling down a newly paved highway with the windows up. Both different. Both full of charm.

Olson also offered up a engagingly discursive history of the margarita/tequila daisy, which we enjoyed while sipping a drink called a Smoky Daisy, essentially a margarita with mezcal to add smoke. I'm sorry you couldn't be there. But here: make one up and pretend.

Smoky Daisy

1-1/2 oz Siete Leguas Blanco Tequila
1/4 oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz agave nectar

Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into coupe (or serve over ice in rocks glass) and garnish with a lime wheel.


Field trip: Drink, Boston

Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly designed houses with the front door slightly hidden so visitors would have to pause and study the house before walking up to it. That’s the same sort of trick at Drink, a spacious and curiously bright basement bar in Boston's Fort Point neighborhood — there’s no cocktail list, and the bottles are hidden from sight. The idea is to get people out of their well-worn ruts — of pointing to something on the menu and grunting, or pointing to a bottle of Maker’s Mark and saying, “on the rocks.” You talk to your bartender, who will coax you toward something both familiar and a bit unfamiliar  — to goad you gently out of your comfort zone, that is, if you’re open to it. (Of course, you can also say, “Makers on the rocks.”)

I wangled a spot right in front of Misty Kalkofen, which required some sacrifice on my part. (A bunch of New Jersey-based big pharma reps had taken over her end of the bar with their scarily outsized bonhomie, but then after an hour suddenly left en masse to go terrorize Jasper White’s Summer Shack.) 

I started off with a remarkable variation of the mezcal drink called the Zocolo  — made with Del Maguey Vida and nicely animated with apricot liqueur, vermouth, and a vibrant cinnamon syrup. Then I had a hankering for brown and stirred — and Misty served me as-yet nameless drink she made up with Rittenhouse rye, Amontillado sherry, Gailaiano Ristretto, Benedictine, and Angostura.

Seriously. It. Completed. Me.

A couple of my friends then joined me one after another, and both named Amy. Amy the first took a sip of mine, and said, I’ll have that. (So much for talking to the bartender.) Amy the second came in had a sip of hers, and said, essentially, I’ll have that, but maybe a little more bitter. Then a while later, Amy the first took of sip of Amy the second’s drink, and said I’ll have that, but slightly different and a touch more sweet. So the original new creation went through three variations, each remarkable. 

I met Misty at Tales of the Cocktail a few years ago, and every time we cross paths she finds new ways to impress me. I love watching her work: she listens, she tweaks, she tinkers, and she produces, all the while cranking out other drinks for other customers on a busy Thursday evening.

It struck me at one point — and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the alcohol talking just yet — as if she were directing an orchestra, gently bringing up the  bitter here, or other subtle notes there, while making sure the timpani didn’t get out of control. It was a wonder to behold — each drink playing in the same key, but with slightly different arpeggios and hidden riffs. 

So, thanks, Misty. And, really, you don’t need to file for a temporary restraining order. I’m already across the country in Portland.

Drink, 348 Congress Street, Boston, 617.695.1806,


Cooper Brothers make nice, in a glass 

Tad Carducci did a guest turn behind the stick at Cure in New Orleans last night in advance of his presentation at the Museum of the American Cocktail this evening. Carducci is the guy behind Apo in Philadelphia, and through his Tippling Brothers bar consultancy (with Paul Tanguay) is making his mark among drinkers in Chicago and New York.

Among the many excellent drinks he mixed up last night was what might be the ultimate bar insider cocktail, which he called the Tres Coops. It’s a frothy mezcal-based cocktail, with lots of layers and a handful of little secret doors that open as you sip, each ushering in a little surprise. Carducci created it for the Chicago branch of Mercadito, the hip, upscale Mexican-fare chain based in New York, and which is now expanding to Miami. (It’s pioneered what one writer has called “sex-mex” cuisine, which sounds pretty cool but, seriously, what the hell does that mean?)

What makes Tres Coops so insiderish? Because it’s made with all three products from the famously fractious Cooper brothers: Rob (who’s behind St. Germain), John (Domaine de Canton), and Ron (Del Maguey mezcals). Eric Felten suggested a Cooper Brothers cocktail about a year ago with St. Germain and Canton, but Tres Coops ups the ante, adding one of Ron Cooper’s superb mezcals to the mix. At long last, we learn the answer to the question, can’t we all just get along?

Why, yes, we can. 

Here’s the recipe from the Del Maguey website:

Tres Coops
1 oz. Chichicapa mezcal
.5 oz. Averna Amaro
.5 oz. St. Germain
.5 oz. Domaine de Canton
.75 oz. fresh lime
.25 oz. fresh egg white
Pinch of freshly ground chile powder. (Guajillo recommended.)

Shake all ingredients very vigorously. Strain into chilled "coupe", of course. Twist a fat swath of grapefruit peel over the top.


Basking in the shadow of mezcal

I spent last Sunday kicked back on a neighbor’s couch watching the New Orleans Saints blow a 17-point lead and lose their second game in as many weeks. As I did this I sipped Sombra mezcal. I had brought a bottle to enhance my enjoyment of watching what I assumed would be a lively Saints beatdown of the pitiful Bucs; I thought the Sombra would make a fine celebratory drink.

As it turns out, Sombra works pretty well for numbing pain. One shot, two shot, three shot, more!

And it’s also very tasty. Mezcal has joined the parade of low-status spirits that have been lent renewed respect over the past few years (grappa, cachaça, Zima…. just kidding about the Zima). Much of this is thanks to Rob Cooper and his Del Maguey line of single-village mezcals, including his legendary pechuga, which you might know as The Mezcal That’s Made With A Dead Chicken. Or sometimes, The Mezcal That Costs $200 a Bottle If You Can Find It.

At any rate, mezcal has come a long way since I was in college, when holding up a bottle with a worm in it and lording it over my friends was a sign of worldly sophistication.

I got a bottle of Sombra to evaluate for an end-of-year review that ran in the December issue of Men’s Journal. (It's not online.) That assignment ran to all of 50 words. I can scarcely sneeze in 50 words. So let me add a bit more here.

Despite its unique appearance and lack of a prominent Del Maguey mark (look at the small print along the bottom of the label), Sombra is, in fact, another Rob Cooper product. His Mexican mezcal magicians make it; it’s then imported and marketed by a trio of entrepreneurs, including Richard Betts, a master sommelier best known for his tenure at Little Nell’s in Aspen. (The other two are Dennis Scholl and Charles Bieler.) They’ve decanted their mezcal into recycled glass bottles that are more rounded and elegant than the no-frills Del Maguey vessels, but what’s inside is of equally outstanding quality, the result of organic Espadin agave grown at high altitude in Oaxaca, and traditional methods of roasting, crushing, and distilling.

As for taste, two words will carry the freight: Big Smoke. It’s got an amazingly redolent smokiness, but one that doesn't overwhelm in the least — it’s like comfort food for anyone who’s spent time around a campfire. The smoke fades fairly swiftly, though, and it leaves you with a smooth, dry finish It’s without doubt among the smoothest, most sippable mezcals I’ve ever enjoyed — or at least among those not involving the unconscionable death of innocent poultry.

I recently pedaled my bottle up to Cure, one of my favorite New Orleans bars, where owner Neal Bodenheimer brought out a few Del Magueys for taste comparisons. We put the Sombra up against the San Luis del Rio, Chichicapa, Santo Domingo Albarradas, and Minero. And the results were encouraging. None who sampled Sombra thought it was out of its league or dumbed down. It actually came out in the top two of my favorites — neck and neck with the long-finishing Santo Domingo. I’d happily drink either in any circumstances, although preferably when the Saints are winning.

The good news? Sombra sells for about $50 a bottle vs. about $70 for the Del Maguey Santo Domingo. I’m looking forward to celebrating with it next month.

Sombra is part of the Classic and Vintage Artisinal Spirits Portfolio, created earlier this year by Domaine Select Wine Estates and representing other fine products like Averna, Tuthilltown, and Rhum J.M.  


Press releases I didn't finish reading (# 2)

 “El Jimador Tequila is breaking new ground in the U.S. spirits industry by offering the first authentic tequila cocktail in a can.”