It was standing room only in Rivera‘s “sangre,” a blood-red back room decorated with conquistador helmet lamps and walls crafted from backlit bottles of extra añejo tequila. Bartenders, bloggers, buyers and curiosity seekers paid rapt attention to “the Great Minds of Tequila.” Official de Tequila Tomas Estes and Partida Tequila brand ambassador Jacques Bezeuidenhout conducted a 13-pour clinic on tequila, including blanco, reposado, añejo and a single glass of rare extra añejo.
Estes and Bezeuidenhout began by laying the ground rules for tequila evaluation. Clearly the color of the liquor (and photography) wasn’t applicable since the sangre room was so dark. However, we could still get a sense of the nose, palate and viscosity. Even in low light, it’s possible to see how well the tequila clings to the side of a glass. Bezeuidenhout, a Johannesburg native, instructed us to “nose” the glass and wet the palate before taking a full sip. Estes added, “Allow it to wash across your receptors.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with Tequila Ocho, the Camarena family launched the brand on 8/8/08. Third generation tequilero Felipe Camarena sources agave from a single field in the Jalisco highlands. Partida Tequila is a larger brand dating to 2001, when San Francisco based marketer Gary Shansby started cultivating, cooking and distilling tequila in the “lowlands.”
Throughout the night, we learned assorted tequila tidbits, including the fact that A) Additives – 1% by volume – are allowed by Mexican government. B) Since distillates are dead, as long as there’s no oxidation, you can keep your bottle of tequila indefinitely. C) The reason distilled agave can now be called “tequila” in areas other than Tequila is due to the Mexican government’s efforts to meet rising demand. D) The “highlands” are 6500 feet above sea level, but the “Tequila valley” is still 1600 meters above sea level, so it’s a misnomer.
Each round of tequila started with two blind tastes, followed by two pours of Tequila Ocho. We started with a quartet of blancos, which are the truest representation of the agave since they don’t touch wood or experience aging.
Blind añejo #1 had a caramel body and a fairly smooth but short finish. When Estes and Bezeuidenhout took guesses, some seasoned tequila drinkers were able to nail the brand straight away. It took seconds before we learned that sample #1 was produced by Don Julio. Very impressive.
Blind añejo #2 was almost peppery, with a spicy body and a longer finish. This turned out to be Partida.
Tequila Ocho is a highlands tequila. In general, highlands tequilas are softer, rounder and fruitier. Valley tequila is more aggressive. The 2008 Tequila Ocho blanco originated in their Carrizal field.
2009 Tequila Ocho blanco originated from their Las Pomez field, where the agave was apparently beyond ripe. This variety enjoyed pine fermentation, as opposed to the typical stainless steel. This pour had high acidity, with a flavor close to fresh roasted, unfermented agave – sweet potato. This was one of my favorite tequilas of the night.
Blind Reposado #1 was the spiciest tequila yet, with vanilla notes from fermentation in “American whiskey” barrels. Unfortunately, this tequila had an off-putting aroma. This turned out to be La Fortaleza, made by fifth-generation tequileros in the town of Tequila.
Blind Reposado #2 was honey smooth, with a cleaner aroma.
The 2008 Tequila Ocho reposado came from their Carrizal field and was aged in neutralized American whiskey barrels. It was viscous, had high acidity and Estes described a “briny olive” flavor. This was a descriptor I never expected, but it seemed strangely appropriate.
2009 Tequila Ocho reposado came from their Los Pomez field and featured a nice cinnamon flavor. It was unfiltered, so the tequila was especially viscous.
Añejos are aged for 1-3 years in oak barrels that hold under 600 liters.
Blind Añejo #1 was very smooth, with butterscotch notes. Copa d’Oro bartender Vincenzo Marianella pinpointed the tequila as Chinaco.
Blind Añejo #2 had an anise flavor and a long finish. This turned out to be Partida.
2007 Tequila Ocho yielded only 5000 bottles, which were aged for exactly 12 months. This was viscous tequila, but a fairly light sip, with a short finish and more olive brininess.
2009 Tequila Ocho anejo was buttery, with a long finish.
Our final pour was an extra añejo, aged for five years: Partida Elegante. Extra añejo is a category that just appeared 1.5 years ago. Industry belief is that tequila doesn’t improve much after five years.
Overall, the quarters may have been cramped, but the event was a good learning opportunity, and I did discover a few new quality tequilas.
In case you’re interested, you’re welcome to “drink the architecture” at Rivera. Designer/co-owner Eddie Sotto said that people can buy bottles of 10-year tequila that line the shelves of the “sangre” room. On one of his many trips to Mexico, chef-owner John Rivera Sedlar discovered the tequila, which was held in American oak. Eddie Sotto designed the bottles with hand-milled walnut and your name will be engraved in gold on the bottle. It’s $2500 for lock-and-key access to two bottles. The fee includes Rivera discounts, anytime reservations and upcoming access to The Doheny. Rivera bartender Julian Cox will also name a cocktail for you on the list.
Finally, Cox debuts his autumn cocktail list on Thursday, October 29. To honor the occasion, Rivera is offering $5 cocktails beginning at 10 PM. At the tasting, he previewed one of his new cocktails, the Autumn Sour, featuring Partida añejo tequila and a cinnamon dusting.