Citrus and smoke

The Alchemist tasting panel discusses their favourite tequila and mezcal

Blue Weber agave plants grow in Jalisco, Mexico. Also known as agave azul, the plant takes up to a decade to reach maturity, and contributes citrus and pepper notes to the tequila.Getty Images photo

For years, we’ve been reading that tequila is about to become the “it” spirit. This year, it seems, it’s finally happened. Mind you, some of us have been enjoying this Mexican agave-based spirit, along with its smoky cousin mezcal, all along. Agave spirits have increasingly become luxury products savoured by connoisseurs, which may surprise those who’ve only had a disastrous brush with cheap mixto and are still feeling the hangover. A good tequila is made from 100 per cent farmed blue agave, while mezcal can be made from any number of wild agaves. Mezcal is also typically enjoyed unaged, while tequila can be unaged (also known as plata or silver), “rested” in oak for up to a year (reposado) or aged (añejo or extra añejo). Agave spirits are complex, fascinating and delicious, so we asked our tasting panel to share their favourite and what cocktail they’d make with it. This issue, our team comprises bartenders Sabrine Dhaliwal, Adam Domet, Robyn Gray, Jay Jones, Trevor Kallies, Jeff Savage and Kaitlyn Stewart. ¡Salud!

Sabrine Dhaliwal:
Volcan de mi Tierra Blanco Tequila

40% ABV, $75 (750 mL)

“The amount of attention to detail in the production of this spirit captured me from my first taste,” says Dhaliwal, the bar manager at the Chickadee Room. “It is a blend of three separate fermentations and distillations, using agave from both the highland and lowlands. Each fermentation uses a different yeast to bring out different nuances of terroir of the agave.”

Cocktail: “It’s a beautiful tequila to casually sip on the patio or enjoy in a Paloma,” Dhaliwal says.

Adam Domet:
Gran Patrón Piedra Extra Añejo

40% ABV, $676 (750 mL)

“This exquisite Bordeaux-finished añejo tequila immediately takes me back to sitting around the fire at Hacienda Patrón sharing stories with bartenders from around Canada and the United States,” says Domet, the bar manager at Pourhouse. “Rich oak, vanilla and raisins on the palate, dreams and well wishes in the heart. Pairs best with cigars, dark chocolate, friends and legends.”

Cocktail: A deconstructed Old Fashioned.

Robyn Gray:
Los Siete Misterios Mezcal Doba-Yej

44% ABV, $64 (750 mL)

This is a high-quality mezcal that is copper pot stilled yet still relatively inexpensive; it is made from the agave (maguey) plant called “espadin,” which in Zapoteca is “Doba-Yej,” thus its unique name. “These mezcal bottlings are sourced from different mezcaleros, so there will be slight variations from batch to batch. Check your bottle for details,” says Gray, who can be found behind the bar at Homer St. Café. “Generally its character has a light smoky note, and a beautiful Angustifolia agave characteristic of pear and cucumber.”

Cocktail: “I find it to be perfect for a myriad of mezcal cocktails,” Gray says, “but drinking it neat is always my first choice!”

Try this mezcal in a Division Bell.

Jay Jones:
Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Extra Añejo

40% ABV, $199 (750 mL)

“Many years ago I met tequila, and was promptly knocked on my ass,” says Jones, the bar development leader for JOEY Restaurants. “For many years, I could not even hear the words ‘Jose Cuervo’ without a shudder reflex. It wasn’t until my life in bartending began that I saw opportunity to revisit tequila, albeit trepidatiously.”

That said, the infamous Jose Cuervo Gold is only one product from a legendary hacienda. Jones first discovered Cuervo’s ‘Tradicional’ Reposado, something of a bar industry secret, “demonstrating pure agave character and smoothness, with just enough swagger to let you know it’s still tequila.” And then he found the super-premium Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Extra Añejo.

“This was a revelation, one that over 20 years later remains high on my list of favourite spirits, all-time,” Jones says. “While the spryness of premium unaged tequila scintillates with bright and spicy purity, the rewards of its extra aged iterations are robust with lavish complexity. What makes this special is the exquisite balance woven between roguishness and elegance. Aromas of vanilla and oak make whispers of whisky and Cognac, underscored by heady agave. Truly luxurious mouthfeel coats with the decadence of brown sugar-baked pineapple, more vanilla and the deep soul of roasted agave. A medium-long finish of honey, oak and earthy agave leaves you eager for the next sip.”

Cocktail: “While designed as a stylish sipper. I would certainly explore the application to classic whisky- and Cognac-driven cocktails, and versions thereof,” Jones says. Those include the Sazerac, Manhattan and Old Fashioned.

Trevor Kallies:
Olmeca Altos Plata

40% ABV, $44 (750 mL)

When asked about his favourite tequila, the bar and beverage director at Donnelly Group and president of the CPBA didn’t have to look far: The Olmeca Altos Plata (silver or unaged) is always on his home bar shelf and found in all the Donnelly Group programs.

Kallies notes that the Altos Plata is distilled at almost 7,000 feet above sea level. “Highland tequilas are typically found to have slightly more fruit-forward flavours than their lowland counterparts, which are found to be earthier,” he says.

“The tequila itself was a collaboration between two respected and acclaimed UK bartenders, the late Henry Besant and Dre Masso, and master distiller Jesus Hernandez,” Kallies says, noting that Vancouver bartenders might remember Masso from a World Cocktail Club class he taught here in 2007.

“The Altos Plata has a nice kick of agave—you can smell that agave sweetness right on the nose—along with citrus and pepper. On the palate you can taste some lime zest, roasted agave and spice with some lovely grassy note that round it out. The long finish lingers with more agave, fruit and pepper. Competitively priced and well suited for mixing in citrus and fruit-based cocktails.”

Cocktail: “It is my go-to tequila for a classic Margarita,” Kallies says. “I also find myself reaching for Olmeca Altos Plata when working out new cocktails, such as the
Brass Fish’s Stray Bullets.”

Jeff Savage:
Don Julio 1942

40% ABV, $216.99 (750 mL)

“For me, I often prefer blanco tequila, but there is something so special about this expression,” says Savage, the head bartender at Botanist Bar at the Fairmont Pacific Rim. “It’s gained a lot of notoriety with guests in the last few years, and rightly so. The first notes that come across are warm vanilla, salted caramel and something akin to bread pudding. Those give way to a complex array of spices, such as black pepper, allspice, black cardamom and star anise. The finish has that classic rich implied sweetness of agave, with a subtle saline finish.

“It’s a celebration tequila through and through,” he adds, “and it always reminds me of doing exactly that with people I love.”

Cocktail: “Of course served neat is usually the option, but it does work well in simple cocktails,” Savage says. “I love mixing two parts of this tequila to one part fino sherry, half a part Bénédictine, and a small pinch of salt all stirred together and served with a lemon twist.”

Kaitlyn Stewart:
Mezcal Union Uno

40% ABV, $94 (750 mL)

Stewart, the consultant, educator and 2017 Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year, loves this unique blend of espadin and cirial agaves that are aged eight to14 years.

“On the nose it is classically smoky with a really nice hit of citrus,” she says. “On the palate, black pepper, key lime pie and beef jerky. The finish is quite short, which makes it a really great introductory mezcal. Enjoyed neat or in citrus-forward cocktails. But what makes me really love this mezcal is the story behind it. Mezcal Union is an artisanal brand and co-op built to unite Indigenous farmers and family producers from different communities of Oaxaca.”

Cocktail: Stewart recommends using this in a Charred Grapefruit Mezcal Paloma: Mezcal Union Uno, charred grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave syrup, soda, Tajin-spiced rim.

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