Monday, October 5, 2009

Sip it, Don't Slam it

Posted By on Mon, Oct 5, 2009 at 1:09 PM

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Last month, the Wandering Wino told you about the opportunity to attend a Herradura Tequila tasting dinner at The Palm Restaurant downtown. Luckily I took my own advice and grabbed a bus downtown on a Friday night. (Yes, I'm too cheap to valet park, even for free, and I don't like to drive my car after "sampling" several glasses of tequila.) I was intrigued by both the opportunity to try the various product offerings of Herradura as well as the accompanying menu promised by The Palm.

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This was the second year for The Palm/Herradura event which is rotating between many of the steakhouse's locations around the country. Diners were greeted at the front door of a private dining room by a festive mariachi band and bottomless margaritas for a half hour reception which served to put everyone in a convivial mood. Representatives of Herraudura and their importer Brown-Forman circulated around the room introducing themselves and answering questions from the crowd.

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Each table was set with a tasting mat and an assortment of instructional materials and swag. I was lucky enough to be sitting between the two best educational materials in the house, Luis Guy Ricaud and David Page from Brown-Forman in Louisville. They patiently answered my questions and regaled the other twenty-five or so tasters with stories and the history of the nectar of the Blue Agave which has flowed from Casa Herradura since 1870.

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A tequila tasting dinner is surprisingly very similar to a wine dinner. Attention is paid to details such as proper stemware, appropriate menu pairings and comparing the changing flavors of the tequilas as they interact with food. If you're planning to really taste your tequila, go ahead and throw that shot glass over your shoulder with the salt. A wide-bottomed snifter helps to evaporate the tequila aroma as it warms introducing it into your nose before you ever think about actually tasting it. Just like with wine, a gentle swirling of the glass magnifies this effect and allows you to consider the appearance and "legs" of the tequila. The first quick whiff of a fine tequila usually has hints of floral notes which if followed by a deep snifter sniff will give way to the spicier fruits. Try hard to block memories of the smells of a college frat house or the floor of Señor Frog's in Cancun if you really want to experience the best that Jalisco has to offer.

We tasted three tequilas which retailed in the $35-50 range for a standard bottle and one offering which costs as much as ten times as much. Unlike fine wines, the difference between these price points is not varietal or vintage or even production methods. Instead, all four premium Herradura products start their lives as the same base liquor. The difference comes from the amount of time you have to wait for them, which they spend cozily mellowing in oak.

There are 136 types of agave plants. You can make alcohol from all of them, but you might not want to drink them all. Only the Blue Agave produces what can legally be called "tequila." The rest are fermented and distilled into "mezcal," which is the type of liquor that marketers can actually drop the larva of an agave snout weevil into and convince American tourists to pay extra for it. No thanks.

With a true tequila, the heart of the Blue Agave is baked in clay ovens and then fermented naturally using only the yeast which is present in the air of the tiny Mexican town of Amatitan. After fermentation and distillation is complete, the raw tequila is moved into American oak barrels for aging. One benefit that Herradura has over many other brands is access the the huge cooperage owned by Brown-Forman to ensure the availability and quality of their barrels.

White tequilas, or "Blancos" legally require no time in oak. These are generally what most people use for making margaitas, and they are great for this purpose. Herradura Blanco spends 45 days aging which imparts a very light straw color and just a hint of vanilla aroma to the tequila. We tasted it matched with a crab and cantaloupe cocktail with a hint of lime juice and the effect was quite pleasant. Admittedly the young tequila had a bit of a burn going down, but the sweet acidity of the appetizer offset any unpleasantness.

The next grade up the continuum was Reposado, literally "rested." The Reposado's eleven months in oak barrels is five times the legal minimum, and it was evident in the copper color of the tequila. This is not to be confused with "Gold" tequilas which sometimes carry an upcharge over the cheapest white hooch. The color of a Gold tequila comes from adding caramel to Blanco solely for the sake of appearance. You can tell the difference between a Gold and a Reposado by rubbing a bit in your palm with your finger. If it's sticky, then as Tom Shane says, "you paid too much." Luckily you've now got a friend in the tequila business.

The Herradura Reposado was served with a pineapple, lime and cilantro marinated lobster salad. Tequila with salad? Wouldn't have occurred to me. But with a concentrated effort to distinguish the interplay between the drink and the dish, I could detect a vanilla butter overtone that complemented the lobster quite nicely. Would I recommend this sort of pairing for a Tuesday dinner at home with the in-laws? Not likely, but it was an experience.

Third on our Hit Parade was the Herradura Añejo. Two years in oak may explain the "old" part of this liquor's name, but it sure did get better with age. Finally I could really smell and taste the difference that time in the barrel made from the original Blanco. Herradura describes their products as "four different expressions" of the same base liquor. The Añejo was certainly expressive. Dark copper in color, the snifter was redolent with spicy, nutty aromas of toasted oak. Unlike the previous two tastings it had a long, complex finish. The intense vanilla that was present on the first taste gave way to a smooth sweet aftertaste, not unlike a good Cognac. When paired with a New York Strip topped with a peppercorn sauce there were no complaints from our table. As a matter of fact, there was very little noise at all coming from our table other than contented sighs and the sound of rending steak knives.

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Finally with dessert came the Padre Grande, the Herradura Seleccion Suprema. Aged for a full forty-nine months in white oak, this tequila took more time to become exceedingly well-rounded than I did in college. And I'm not talking about "the freshman fifteen."

Like a fine single malt, the extra exposure to the toasted oak barrels imparts a dark coffee color and complex flavors that frankly overpower the agave. I did not consider this to me detrimental, because there are plenty of other products to try if you're looking for agave. This was something else entirely. The vanilla aromas of the Reposado and Añejo had apparently mellowed in the Seleccion Suprema, giving way to delicate florals. If my girlfriend put a drop on the nape of her neck, I would swear she'd been showering in rosewater. Then I would lick it off.

The consistency of the Suprema was much creamier than its younger brothers. It coated the tongue rather than shocking the palate with the burn normally associated with spirits. Served with a passion fruit and mango crème brûlée, the experience bordered on decadence. And at over $300 per bottle, that's exactly what it should be. As an option to a glass of Courvoisier VSOP or single malt, the chance to try Herradura Seleccion Suprema was probably a very rare event. But if you've just closed that big deal and want something different to toast your success and complement a nice cigar, it might make for a spectacular alternative.

So don't be afraid to try something new the next time you're out enjoying a good meal. Expand your horizons and ask the sommelier to look south for your drink pairing. You might be surprised.

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