Well here we are again, speaking from a United Kingdom point of view: we’re locked down and facing a long winter.
I really wish I had put money on the promise of a Christmas and New Year together with all our loved ones being cancelled, locking us down for a longer period than the celebrations. But there we go and here we are. So enough of the doom and gloom for now. I have said before in editor’s columns that there is still plenty to do as a whisky lover, and the sentiment still remains the same. There are lots of videos, virtual tastings and a myriad of other digital delights you can get your kicks from; and, of course, there are still home deliveries so no reason for you to miss out on the latest bottlings.
Most of the drinks companies and ambassadors are running various events on the internet, from guided tastings to new releases. Once you start to go down the rabbit hole that is the online world, it is amazing what you can find and how much you can stumble across. Looking for that killer Lagavulin cocktail? Bet you can find one. Fancy learning some tips from one of the world’s finest bartenders? Yeah, that’s all in there as well. So my advice, explore and have fun.
Speaking of exploring, I discovered the other day on a wander round my local town, that Newmarket (the biggest place near my little village) is twinned with Lexington, Kentucky. It makes sense given that Newmarket is the home of British horse racing, and the fact that my little hamlet is surrounded by race yards; Godolphin, the Queen’s stables, and Frankie Dettori are all nearby. It’s given me a good idea for a cocktail, but more about that later.
It’s clear not much has changed in the world, other than the massive shift in politics in the United States, and everything remains shaken up. I thought I would follow suit in this crazy mixed-up world and head off into the land of drinks.
Say Scotland to anyone and they think whisky; say Mexico, they think Tequila. But what happens when the two nations get together and collaborate? That’s right, Tequila aged in whisky casks; and Storywood, the company behind this, goes even further by throwing sherry casks into the mix too. Not an earth-shattering thought, but a real explosion of flavour.
So where, what and how? Well it all started when chef and whisky lover Michael Ballantyne decided to explore oak and flavours a little bit further, and a chance meeting with master distiller Luis Trejo led to this connecting of two cultures and traditions. As the brand strap line aptly states: “Born in Mexico, shaped in Scotland.”
The story began with Trejo creating the agave spirits from lowland agaves at La Cofradia Distillery in Mexico, then ageing them in sherry and Bourbon casks selected from the Scotch industry by Ballantyne and shipped over to the distillery where the spirit is matured.
To quote Ballantyne, his mission is, “to bring new flavours to Tequila through oak. We work with distilleries, wineries, and cooperages from around the world to hunt for the freshest casks that we can get our hands on.”
But enough of the rhetoric, marketing or otherwise – what are they like? Well, I have five samples ranging in age and strength, and in honesty the balance overall is impressive. The combination of Speyside casks and agaves in the añejo and reposado bottling has been quite successful with the two traditional elements complementing each other. With the reposado the cask is there giving wonderful hints of caramel, vanilla and dried fruit, which is then built on by the grassy, saline and slightly vegetal-tinged spirit. The añejo takes the flavours of both elements to a deeper and darker level, with the development of treacle toffee, dates and brown sugar coming from the cask.
Both of the previous spirits were at 40% ABV, however Ballantyne has pushed the boat out with three other expressions at cask strength of 53% ABV. Two are seven-month reposados: one aged in single malt Speyside casks, the other in Oloroso sherry barrels. The third is Double Oak, a 14-month añejo blend of Scotch and sherry Tequilas.
Frankly they are bonkers and packed with flavour. For the whisky drinker they are a must-try. The Speyside-aged variant is crammed full of those wonderful earthy, autumnal tones of sticky medjool dates and black treacle toffee, but cut through with the saline edge of the agave.
The other two do not disappoint either, but I think the star has to be for me the Oloroso-barrelled bottling. This hits you with all the joy of a sherry bomb, Christmas spices and roasted hazelnuts, again tempered with that agave DNA spike of salinity.
With a selection of liquids this spicy I thought the best musical pairing was something serene and a little more sedate as a contrast. I would suggest Bill Evans’ You Must Believe in Spring, a statement that I am sure in the depths of winter always rings true.
This was the 70th studio album from the American pianist and his trio, featuring the magnificent Eddie Gomez on bass and drummer Eliot Zigmund. It was recorded in 1977 but only released after Evans’ death in 1980. The piano playing and arrangements are stunning.
Gomez left the former Miles Davis collaborator after 11 years of low-end service to pursue other projects, including a stint with sax player Michael Brecker and another ivory-tinkling genius Chick Corea.
Despite the album’s sturdily optimistic title, many of the tracks are tinged with a deep sadness. The two original tunes by Evans, B minor Waltz and We Will Meet Again, are dedicated to his common-law wife Ellaine Schultz and his brother Harry, both of whom had taken their own lives. The album also features the Johnny Mandel theme song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless). But this is an album made for pouring some sipping Tequila, immersing yourself in it and appreciating it. Pure happiness.
I think with such a fine lineup of expressions from Storywood, there is only one cocktail that will do them justice and that is the uber simple (ish) margarita, where agave shines through. I have always preferred mine in the Tommy’s style, using agave juice and omitting the orange liqueur. The importance here is balance, so I tend to err on the side of two measures of Tequila to one of lime juice (use freshly squeeze juice, it is the only way). Then approximately half again of agave juice. Let’s say 60:30:15 as a guide. Shake with some ice and strain into a lovely glass rimmed with salt.
Finally let’s have a quick look at something delightful to smoke with this Tequila selection. For me, I have focussed more on the Oloroso variant.
A new stick on the market caught my eye recently. The Davidoff Winston Churchill Limited Edition 2019 “The Traveller” is the third instalment of the brand’s celebration with the man and his family – I have made a mental note to catch up with the first two parts.
The cigar features tobaccos grown in three different regions of the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Nicaragua, a wonderful new world mix going on here. The result is a smoke that, while playing a spicy hand to match the Tequila, balances out with earthy notes, fresh espresso and crystalised ginger, then moves to a lovely finish peppered with salted caramel and vanilla pods. What can I say, apart from enjoy.