There is something lovely about this time of the year in the United Kingdom. Why is this lovely, I hear you ask? Well, it’s because you can get a decent fire going, wood or coal depending on your preference, and settle in for a long smoke and a whisky, preferably with friends. Although at the time of writing this England (and I do mean England and not the rest of the United Kingdom) is facing another month or so of lockdown, so having friends over might be a little difficult for now. No matter though; always wanted to tackle one of those great Russian novels? War and Peace beckons.
The change in the northern hemisphere doesn’t mean that your drink choice need be austere – there are still some spirits that can bring in the flavour of sunshine. Rum and tequila spring to mind, and I will come back to the latter in the next issue with the launch of a Speyside tequila. Thanks to the growing love of whisky, your taste buds can head to Mexico for a dram.
Of course, Mexico is more associated with tequila, but whisky is an increasingly popular drink in the country, currently sitting at number two in the sales charts. Fresh from Mexico comes the first whisky to be imported into the UK, Abasolo.
While having no age statement – frankly does it really matter as long as the liquid is good? – this latest kid on the block is made from 100 per cent Mexican-grown corn. As anyone familiar with the recent explosion in taco restaurants will know, corn is the backbone of the Mexican culinary tradition. So I would say this whisky is ripe for some interesting food pairings. Alongside its whisky, the distillery has also launched an intriguing corn liqueur called Nixta.
The lovely people that sent the sample of whisky tell me that the company behind the brand has built the country’s first purpose-built whisky distillery. Destilería y Bodega Abasolo also ranks as one of the highest in the world at some 7,800ft; Breckenridge, the highest, sits about 9,600ft.
The new distillery was brought on stream to produce Abasolo. Master distiller Dr Iván Saldaña trialled several corn varieties before settling on a locally grown heritage called Cacahuazintle. The corn is treated in a centuries-old preparation method, which reaches back into Mesoamerican history, before it is distilled.
Nixtamalization sees it soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution before it is washed and hulled. Dr Saldaña says that this method draws out ‘bold flavours’ from the corn before it is double distilled.
So, what to pair these new spirits with? So many tunes go through my head when tasting both of these, but given the time of year there is only one jazz standard we can really go to: Autumn Leaves. How apt.
The tune itself goes back to the mid-1940s, composed by Joseph Kosma with the original French lyrics by Jacques Prévert, and later by Johnny Mercer in English. The tune has clocked up more than a thousand commercial recordings from the likes of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Miles Davis. It even had the honour of being the first piano instrumental to reach number one in the US, played by Roger Williams in 1955. Edith Piaf sang the lyrics in both French and English back in the ‘50s and Eva Cassidy brought the tune into the 1990s with a stripped back acoustic and vocal version.
For the budding jazz musician it is one of those tunes you have to learn as it certainly sits in the top 10 jazz tunes. Usually it is one you work at during the beginning of your journey as it is a near-perfect wander through the circle of fifths, moving through a iv7–VII7–IIImaj7–VImaj7–iiø7–V7–i chord progression. For those not musically minded, this is almost every popular jazz tune you have ever heard, put into the shade by the ii–V–I and ii–V sequences. Try singing Fly Me to the Moon over it and you will get the idea.
Drink and music sorted, all we need now is food, and given our whisky is Mexican there’s nothing wrong with firing up the BBQ and attempting to replicate the flavours. For me this has to be tuna taquitos – one of my favourite restaurants in Dublin, 777, does these to perfection. But at home I tend to throw some corn cobs on the grill so they’re over-done, then strip the kernels off and coat them in lime-infused mayonnaise. Just before they are ready to go, get the BBQ nice and hot and sear the tuna. It doesn’t need very long at all, just enough to seal the outside, you want the insides pink and lovely. I would add the taquitos to the BBQ quickly to toast them, then put everything together on those gorgeous, crunchy golden discs.
The slices of seared tuna and chargrilled corn, with that creamy zesty hit go perfectly with the roasted corn and toffee notes from the whisky.
The Nixta is a different proposition, this I have been saving for my cigar afterwards. The liqueur is really interesting, and a little left-field. It is, as you might expect, very corn forward, but manages to straddle both sweet and savoury elements. Perfect for taking on one of my favourite smokes, the H. Upmann Connoisseurs No.1. This is a good hour’s smoke so a great accompaniment to that novel you were thinking about.
The cigar is a medium-bodied Cuban classic. The smoke is packed with plenty of aromatic cedar wood at first, but as it gets up to temperature there’s dark cherry jam, leather and smouldering charcoal. A hint of cracked black pepper emerges, that asserts itself more as you go on. Throughout there are also little spicy notes that come through.
All of these savoury notes are complemented in the liqueur’s more herbal and toasted corn side. However, this is also offset with the perfect foil of the Nixta’s sweeter side, full of roasted corn, melting brown sugar and vanilla pod sweetness. No need for a cocktail with this combination for me, but if you were to venture down that route, for me I would head to Cuba with something like a Daiquiri or even Mojito with the Nixta as the base. Next edition I promise to bring you the Speyside tequila. The samples arrived recently and I am looking forward to putting them through their paces; I think I have a smoke in mind too.