Tequila has suffered from bad press and when you look at why, it’s simply no wonder. There’s the dodgy tee-shirts with blurred writing, the fancy looking bottle with the worm inside – we’ve all seen it – some are stupid enough to try it (my brother for one) – allegedly for its hallucinogenic properties. In fact, it’s a caterpillar in a bottle of not-even-tequila – but Mezcal, which leaves you feeling less butterfly, more moth, which it is. Then the sucking on a dried out wedge of lime, the banging of a shot glass on a table filled with cheap booze from a bottle which has a plastic sombrero for a cap, followed by a lick of your hand covered in salt. Probably to mask the flavour which kicks you in the back of the throat like an agitated Mexican mule and what I’m sure medical hand wash tastes like. My days of Tequila abuse are over, and I would never had tried the stuff again had I not been introduced to Herradura – quite simply, in my opinion, the best Tequila.
Herradura has made Tequila in San Jose del Refugio – their Hacienda – since 1870. Casa Herradura can be found in the small town of Amatitán, just 60 kilometres from Guadalajara. This is the only 100% hacienda-made tequila in the world and they begin their process using only 100% blue Weber agave. For the uninitiated, agave is that spiky plant you so often see in westerns, it takes seven to ten years to mature and when it’s at its full size the spiky leaves can spread up to 2 metres in every direction. The central core or piña can weigh up to 120 kilogrammes. It’s here that they cultivate 25 million blue Weber agaves at every stage to guarantee production for many years to come. A little like the growing and bottling of champagne, it’s a legal requirement that tequila is made from blue Weber agave grown and harvested in the Mexican state of Jalisco and the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit or Tamaulipas. It has to be no less than 35% alcohol by volume and the label must read ‘hecho en Mexico’. For the real Tequila connoisseurs, the company offers a Buy-the-Barrel opportunity where a double barrel reposado is on offer. Each barrel yields about 240 bottles of the reposado which has been aged for an extra month. The blue Weber agave is propagated by offshoots of the mother plant and their tequila is made from descendants of the original agave they began their business within 1870. The plant expert is called el Jimador (yes there’s a brand of tequila of the same name) and it’s their job to decide when the plants are ready for harvesting. They slice off the green outer leaves with a sharp cutter called a ‘coa’ which leaves behind the large agave ‘piñas’. From the fields, the piñas are cut in half, piled near the traditional ovens made of bricks and stones. They are stacked in the ovens by hand which each hold 45 tonnes of agave.
The ovens are sealed with iron windows and steamed for up to 26 hours. The colour changes from white to a deep orange-brown and they take on an incredible sweetness in the pulp caught between the stringy fibres. Chunks of cooked agave are often sold as sweets in the street markets in Jalisco. The cooked piñas are then crushed in industrial mills and the rich juice left is known as ‘mosto’. This is then poured into giant open tanks. The company has 59 tanks which each hold 64,000 litres and 3 tanks which hold 200,000 litres. The juice remains in the tanks for between 4 and 7 days and the natural wild airborne yeasts which grow on nearby agave plants and citrus trees in the immediate area provides the tequila with a unique flavour during this fermentation process. At the start, the juice churns and swirls in waves and towards the end of the process, the movement is more subtle with large bubbles rising to the surface and popping. When there is no movement, the mosto is distilled. A slow distillation occurs by heating the mosto at slightly lower temperatures. The first takes 3 1/2 hours and the second 5. The liquid is distilled to a lower proof to keep the complex flavours. After each distillation, the “heads” and the “tails” are cut to keep only the best alcohol. Natural compounds, known as congeners, add flowery and spicy notes. Tasting, in the early days, meant sampling the tequila undertaken by an experienced tester using a drinking horn. Now, this done by a panel of experts, overseen by stringent Quality Control standards – oh how times have changed. The team at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon created a menu to equally match the flavours of the Tequila’s – Herradura Plata, Herradura Reposado, Herradura Anejo and Herradura Seleccion Suprema.
We start with a delicious, light and refreshing cocktail in the upstairs terrace bar and move downstairs to the dining room.
The Herradura Plata is a very pale straw colour. It smells slightly wood with a slightly citric taste. It’s so very smooth on the palate and leaves a warming finish. It’s aged for 45 days to add a tinge of colouring and oak to its character, bringing out the agave flavouring. Perfect for a long cocktail or a Margarita.
The first dish is a Yellow Tail Carpaccio with Sea Urchin which brings out the subtle spiciness of the Plata as well as allow the natural flavour of the Yellow Tail to shine without being too overpowering. The dish and the Tequila worked well as the lemon and chilli dressing on the Carpaccio matched perfectly the citrus notes of the Tequila.
Next up we’re treating to a Spicy Tomato Gazpacho – an homage to the traditional Sangrita pairing of Tequila and spicy tomato juice. Cold, refreshing tomato Gazpacho worked very well with the spicy herbal tones of the Plata.
Herradura’s own Gabriela Romo de la Peña introduced the world to reposado tequila in 1974. Reposado means “Rested” or aged for 11 months which gives this tequila its deep copper colour and exceptionally smooth taste. It leaves a smooth, sweet hint of spice on the palate.
The vanilla notes and a slight increase in sweetness in the Reposado allow the soft flavours of the Sea Bass to develop. The Spicy Malabar Pepper Sauce and Lemongrass Foam was the contrast between the fish and the salty spinach. Baking spice and soft floral and citrus flavours in the Tequila worked perfectly with the fish.
Next up a different Tequila, this time it’s Herradura Anejo barreled for two years in Oak which gives it a deep amber colour which has a complex taste of cooked agave and dried fruit. It has an intense toasted oak flavour and a hint of nuttiness. Herradura has made Anejo since 1962. This was served with a Seared Foie Gras with Mango, Orange and Basil dish.
Foie Gras is one of my favourite things and the fatty nature of seared Foie Gras lends the dish to the oak characters and sweet finish in the Anejo. The increase in Vanilla and Toffee notes matched perfectly with the glaze on the Foie Gras, whilst the more dominant orange and citrus flavours blended well with the Mango, Orange and Basil Chutney.
The Herradura Seleccion Suprema is Tequila for the true connoisseur and they’ve made it since 1995. It’s aged for 4 years which give it the amber colour. It has a rich vanilla taste with toasted oak and dried fruit making an appearance. It smells wonderful, vanilla, cinnamon and rose petals.
So, paired with the Selecion Suprema I opted for Pork Belly, caramelised and sweet, this brought out the aged oak notes and the glaze livened the citrus flavours. For those who chose the duck dish, the fattiness allowed the Tequila to cut through and lift the herbal notes.
Finally, two soufflés displayed how well Tequila can be used in cooking, especially desserts. The Duo of Plata and Anejo Soufflé with Lime Sorbet was stunningly good. The Lime Sorbet providing the refreshment in comparison to the Agave flavour which really punched through in the warm soufflé.
I’d love to be able to begin to reproduce the excellent work of the chefs at Joel Robuchon but sadly I doubt I have the time, nor the patience. What I do have is a bottle of the Plata and some very willing friends – Tequila party anyone?