Agave Squad!

While the name may suggest otherwise, Whisky Squad isn’t only about whisky. Granted, we do drink a lot of the stuff, but we also like to occasionally slip off piste and look at what other beverages the world has to offer.

The most requested non-whisky booze at the squad in recent times is Tequila, as 2012’s Tequila Squad! has passed in to legend. Fortunately, Ilegal Mezcal’s Stephen Myers was at the session and passed on a glowing recommendation to his UK chums, including Tom Bartram from Speciality Brands. Tom sought out the squad and asked if he could present a session. Like the man from Del Monte, we said yes.

Introducing Whisky Squad #129: Agave Squad.

There’s much more to Mexican spirit than Tequila, and as a devotee of agave – the plant used to make much of it – Tom decided to push the net wider, giving us a taste of not only Tequila and Mezcal, the two best known varieties, but also some Raicilla.

On the night, we tried:

Ignore all you think you know about Tequila and Mezcal – this wasn’t ‘shoot it with lime and salt’ fare, and there were no worms to be seen. There’s much more to agave spirits than the stories might have you believe.

Agave is not a cactus, as is often thought, and is more closely related to the lily, yucca and asparagus. They take years to grow and while Tequila famously only uses a single variety – Blue Weber – other agave spirits can use almost any of the more than a hundred other varieties that grow in Mexico. The makers of good spirit focus on flavour and distil to a low strength, preserving lots of the agave character, so the variety of plant and how it’s treated make a big difference.

Wild agave
Wild agaves growing in Mexico. Wild? I was absolutely livid…

Making agave spirits isn’t that much different to making most other distilled alcoholic drinks:

  1. Get some sugary liquid
  2. Introduce yeast to the mix
  3. Let it ferment into a beer/wine/etc
  4. Distil it
  5. Start the party

The first step for an agave spirit involves the harvesting, leaf removal, cooking and crushing of agave plants. Traditionally the cooking happened in pits using burning wood, which leads to the smoky flavour of many Mezcals, but these days a lot of producers, and almost all Tequila makers, use modern ovens. Once the agave is cooked, which can take days, it is crushed to extract the juice and then fermented in vats. The generally rustic nature of agave spirit production appears here, as high quality spirits normally use the wild yeasts that are naturally present in the surrounding area rather than adding cultured yeast. This gives a definite ‘terroir’ to each producer’s spirits, with the local yeast varieties adding their unique flavours to the already environmental and varietal variation present in the agave itself.

La Venenosa Distillation
These ain’t no whisky stills…

One the squished agaves have fermented for long enough to create an alcoholic drink – it’s known as pulque and unfortunately doesn’t travel well, so you’ll need to go to Mexico to try it – the result is distilled to produce spirit. While larger companies may have big stills, many producers are small and use tiny, traditional pots – on the night, along with those from more modern equipment, we tried spirits made in clay and wooden stills. This all helps to make really interesting drinks.

You can find out what happened on the night in the round-up below, and head over to the Speciality Brands website to find out more about the Tapatio, Ilegal, Derrumbes and La Venenosa ranges. However, keep an eye out for another agave squad sometime in the future – there are hundreds of distillers in Mexico and every year more great spirit makes its way to the UK…

Many thanks to the King & Queen for hosting us in their upstairs function room – it’s where Bob Dylan played his first London gig, don’t you know…

Island Hopping with Elise

One of the problems with running two tasting sessions a month is coming up with new ideas. We’re now at least 109 Whisky Squads down – our numbering is not necessarily as accurate as we might like, but we’re fairly certain that’s the minimum – and have done close to 100 unique sessions. Fortunately, Elise, the newest member of the so-called ‘management team’ has a bunch of ideas, and our first June session was one of hers – Island Hopping.

Continue reading Island Hopping with Elise

The Class of ’97 – the return of Mr Whitehead

Certain sessions have become fixtures in the Whisky Squad calendar. Our yearly birthday bash (our fifth hits in April – keep an eye out in March for details), the bring-a-bottle Whisky Surprise session at Christmas, something involving blends that’s always excellent but that people shy away from (come along next time – you’ve missed out if you’ve not been to one), and so on. One, however, stands out as a fast-seller at an unexpected time of year: our first session in January, starring Berry Brothers and Rudd’s Rob Whitehead. Since the Squad’s first January, session #10 back in 2011 (which I wrote up back in the days when I was a random Squad punter), Rob has been on hand to lead us through some of his employer’s tasty drams, with themes getting gradually more tricksy as time has moved along. This year: The Class of ’97.

Continue reading The Class of ’97 – the return of Mr Whitehead

If you say “Bruichladdich” 3 times in a row it sort of sounds like a trumpet fanfare

Just thought we’d share a picture of the rather attractive bottle lineup from last night’s Bruichladdich-centric tasting session, led by Billy and Jason.

laddie_lineupIf you’d like to know more about these whiskies, or indeed any of the other tastings we’ve done since we started Whisky Squad, it’s all in the Drams So Far archive.

And if you’re keen to see a list of all the Bruichladdichs we’ve tasted in total (and which sessions we tasted ’em in), we’ve got that too!

In fact, last night’s session rockets Bruichladdich into the lead, as distillery we’ve tasted the most whisky from!

Catching up on the guest bloggage

It’s been a while since we mentioned the guest-bloggage, which is a bit of an oversight as there’s been plenty of it going on!

Doing an absolutely sterling job of writing up our January “Sippin’ Global” tasting we’ve got boozy wordsmith (that is to say, he’s a wordsmith of booze-related events – rather than any other connotation) Billy over at Billy’s Booze Blog. It’s doubly impressive, given that he presented the evening. Presenting AND taking notes simultaneously. Wow. The theme for the evening was trying whisky from various countries around the world that weren’t Scotland, Ireland, Japan, America or India.

Proving he’s the hardest working blogger in the ‘Squad, Billy’s also written up our first February tasting (“Hi, Society!“), in which we were formally introduced to the ethos and liquid joy provided by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and their high quality & diversely flavour-profiled single-cask bottlings.

Not content with just those two, Billy ALSO wrote up our 2nd February session – “The Management Present” – which can’t have been easy, because not only did he present 2 of the whiskies, but Andy’s presentation included special audio effects. 6 whiskies – 2 each selected by Billy, Jason and Andy. With an X-Factor-style voting process at the end.

Jason steps into the breach to write up the Compass Box Blending School afternoon near the end of February, with a largely nonsensory piece that nonetheless captures the essential mix of the day.

And, most recently, we’re delighted to have the writing talents of Miss Whisky chiselling into the indelible slate of the World Wide Web her take on what we tried at our first ever Irish Whiskey tasting session – somewhat cryptically called “Irish Whiskey #1“.

Finally – because we’re not all about singlemindedly glorifying the first person who gets around to writing up a tasting (although we do tend to use them as the session link on our “Drams we’ve tasted so far” pages), it was lovely in January to see relative newcomer Whisky Squaddie Mooley publish a writeup of her experience at our Movember tasting back in November.

Similarly, Billy wrote up the Irish Whiskey #1 tasting, but wasn’t quite as quick off the mark as Miss Whisky was.

So, that lot ought to keep you busy!

Whisky Squad 23 already guestblogged!

Some of this blogging about Whisky Squad sessions is happening impressively quickly – while I’ve only recently gotten around to writing up my snowboarding trip from February (and we might as well kiss the report of my trip to the USA in October 2009 goodbye), people like Pooja over at Table For One are cranking out reports within a single-figure number of hours of having left the premises!  Read here as she describes Whisky Squad #23: “The Smoking Section”.

Addendum: Billy’s also written a great blogpost about our smoky tasting, which you can read by clicking on this bit of text that you are currently reading.  It’s how the Web works.  Nice one Mr Berners-Lee.

Whisky Squad #19 guestblogged

Charly must’ve been suffering a bout of insomnia following the last Whisky Squad session – “Grain and Grape” – because her excellent blogpost on it was published the very next day!  Splendid work there.  As usual, the prize for being first guestblog out is the adulation of your peers and the prestige of being mentioned in a post here on – as well as being linked to as the definitive account of the evening from our “The Drams So Far” archive.

In fact, the only person slacking off in the chain is me, really, because I didn’t mention that she’d blogged it until nearly a week later.  Big smacks.

(Billy also said to mention that he’d written it up, on his eponymous & Dionysian web thing)