It was thanks to Tariq Ali that I first tasted mezcal, out of a plain bottle with (from what I recall) no branding, in the Venezuelan Consulate on Goodge Street. That was in the olden days of 2005, and things have changed.
El Bandito first sprouted in Liverpool, the product of much research, exploratory trips to Mexico, and a long career in the drinks industry. Now John Ennis is delivering his mezcaleria in pop-up form to a bigger market in the capital.
How long El Bandito remains in the bowels of the Drunken Monkey off Great Eastern Street is unknown. I like that there’s only a cardboard sign in the window indicating it’s open. In truth, a bar as interesting as this should be more at home in the E8 or E5 neighbourhoods, with Brahms & Liszt already leading things on Chatsworth Road. (Anyone with space going, get in touch…)
So, I said interesting. When Ocho is your house tequila, the rest of the line-up needs to be just that. If you do a tasting, Ennis aims to give you different expressions of agave with each sample, leading you from lightest to heaviest style. All the mezcals (tequila being a form of mezcal, or agave spirit) on the list are from small producers, some using methods that marketers would call organic, simply because that is how things have always been done. Agave hearts are cooked slowly over days or roasted in pits and ground with the aid of donkey power to produce distillable sugars. From here it gets crazy.
Del Maguey Iberico takes inspiration from a local speciality, Pechuga. A quantity of mezcal is readied, to which one adds a chicken breast, rice, wild fruits and nuts. Del Maguey tone it down a bit and just add a leg of Spain’s finest corn-fed jamón. There’s barely a hint of savoury on the nose, while the palate’s dominated by fresh pear, hay and dates. The meat arrives, all smoky and salty, on the finish, which stretches to Farringdon. Apparently there’s a waiting list to buy it.
Of the tequilas, the Fortaleza was certainly the most complex (although perhaps less suited to cocktails – on which more later). Fortaleza was started by a descendant of the Sauza drinks empire, who created a cult product using old-fashioned production methods. The agaves are grown on volcanic soil, adding richness of flavour: hay, roasted corn, fresh almonds and grilled peppers to name a few.
The photo here of what looks like liquefied emeralds is, in fact, a Kale Mezcalerita. It’s a cocktail to represent the agave leaf (rather than the heart, which is white), a bright, gingery, smoky number to cleanse the palate, so to speak.
Ennis, once one of the UK’s foremost rum collectors, admits to falling for the purity of mezcal. Ancient methods are still the order of the day (at least, for now), and the small-scale nature of production means chemicals and additives are unnecessary. There’s no hiding behind caramel here. Thing is, he’s still partial to a Miami Vice on holiday. That’s half a piña colada and half a strawberry daiquiri, poured into a tall glass so the colours stay separate. Purity itself.