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Wine and Spirits

Tequila drinking in Hong Kong moves upmarket from party animals to connoisseurs

Recent years have seen considerable growth in the international sales of premium tequila, and it’s now sipped like a serious drink by many

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 7:08pm

Until recently tequila was not a drink widely associated with connoisseurship. To most people it was party fuel, more likely to be downed as a shot than sipped as a serious drink.

There has always been more to it than that – and to mezcal, the Mexican agave-based spirit of which tequila is a regional subcategory. Recent years have seen considerable growth in the international sales of premium tequila, and the emergence of mezcal from outside the Tequila regions as a drink for export with premium expressions of its own.

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“Over the past five years, agave spirit-themed bars have picked up quite a lot,” says Jack Busta, one of the partners in Mezcalito, a Los Angeles-style lounge bar that opened in Hong Kong’s Central district late last year.

“New York, LA, San Francisco and even Charlottesville [in the US state of Virginia] have a lot of good choices for mezcal and tequila. Everyone’s effectively trying to take the Mexico City model and amend it to suit local tastes. We thought, ‘We haven’t seen an agave spirit-themed F&B outlet in Hong Kong, so let’s try and start the trend’.”

In fact, Hong Kong has had such an outlet since 2000, when the Epicurean Group’s Agave opened as a tequila bar in Lan Kwai Fong.

Agave – closed for renovation until early October – is still in business in Wan Chai, where it moved in 2005, and still has a fine collection of tequilas, including rarities imported 17 years ago and no longer commercially available. But with the relocation it morphed from bar to restaurant.

Mezcalito is, in Busta’s words more of an “LA-style lounge”. Just yesterday (September 28), another bar with a similar agenda, Los Sotano, opened a couple of minutes’ walk away on D’Aguilar Street.

“The concept here is a high-end tequila and mezcal lounge with a sexy feel to it – very much a South Beach Miami/LA feel. And it’s literally and figuratively underground,” says head bartender Rob Kariakin.

It is indeed. In line with the speakeasy trend, Los Sotano is concealed beneath and behind the Cali-Mex Bar & Grill.

You can also enter from Wo On Lane, by pressing the illuminated button on a skull attached to a replica tequila barrel, concealing the doorway. Skulls are a prominent motif in the decor of both Los Sotano and Mezcalito.

They also share with Agave an emphasis on high-quality 100 per cent agave spirits – blanco or “silver” unaged tequilas of superior quality; reposado (rested) tequilas with more character and complexity, and anejo (aged) tequilas that are among the great brown spirits of the world.

In Los Sotano you can pay HK$110 for a shot of some very nice blancos – Cazadores, Fortaleza and Casamigos among them – or between HK$180 and HK$200 for anejos such as Don Julio or Ocho Single Barrel. Some select specially imported rarities go for quite a lot more.

Then there are the mezcals – almost unknown in Hong Kong until recently. Mezcalito, Los Sotano and Agave all have carefully chosen mezcal lists. But in 2000, according to the Epicurean Group’s Luis Porras – a Mexican national who founded Agave – the original bar didn’t have a single mezcal to offer.

“Nobody knew about tequila, and mezcal was not even in the market,” he says. “The trend towards mezcal in Hong Kong started maybe two or three years ago. About then we started importing it. Up to then it was all tequila.”

Mezcal is the latest drink to catch on in Hong Kong with a growing number of shops and bars selling the spirit

All tequilas are mezcals – alcohol distilled in Mexico from the agave plant – but most mezcals are not tequilas. Mezcal can be made from any agave, but tequila has to be made at least 51 per cent from Blue Weber agave plants, grown in designated areas of the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Tequilas made from less than 100 per cent blue agave are called “mixto” and generally considered of inferior quality.

“By law it only has to be 51 per cent and the rest can be mixed with whatever you want – usually sugar, so essentially you are getting a half tequila, half rum hybrid,” says Kariakin. “If it doesn’t say 100 per cent blue agave on the label, it’s 100 per cent sure that it’s not.”

Although tequila is not aged for long in the barrel by comparison with scotch whisky or cognac, some of the best anejos can develop considerable depth.

If you like scotch, the chances are good that you are going to like mezcal. If you don’t, it’s unlikely that you will
Rob Kariakin

“Clase Azul Ultra Anejo is aged for five years in sherry casks and that becomes almost cognac-like. It’s very thick. You get caramel, vanilla, a little pepperiness. All the things you talk about with an aged scotch or bourbon or rye that you’re getting from the oak,” says Kariakin.

Mezcal, which can be made from types of agave other than the Blue Weber anywhere in Mexico, was for many years regarded as tequila’s poor relation, but in recent years the tables have almost turned.

“Mezcal was relegated to the position of a poor man’s drink because it was made in villages and sold in plastic bottles,” says Busta.

“What happened over time is that tequila became more mainstream and more expensive, and mezcal, although it had less of a lustre, had more of interest to offer the drinker.”

An important difference is that while all agave spirits are made from the fermented juice of the baked cores of the agave plants, the tequila producers bake them in ovens, while the mezcal producers bury them to bake in the earth.

Many mezcals, accordingly, have a smoky quality, which makes them appealing to people who enjoy phenolic scotch whiskies, such as those from the island of Islay.

“If you like scotch, the chances are good that you are going to like mezcal. If you don’t, it’s unlikely that you will,” says Kariakin.

As Leo Gutkowski, another of Mezcalito’s founding partners, explains, the bar makes a point of offering its mezcals the Mexican way – in a ceramic copita with a slice of orange sprinkled with “sal de gusano” on the side to prepare the palate.

The salt is roasted, and mixed with Mexican spices and ground-up worms – the latter removed from the agave plants when they are harvested, as Gutkowski says before pouring three mezcals and explaining their characteristics.

“Sangremal is not what most people would expect of a mezcal. It has more of a peppermint tone than a smoky tone. Mezcal Rufian Joven, meaning young, is what most people would expect from a mezcal. It has the smokiness,” he says.

The third copita contains a mezcal aimed straight at the Hong Kong and China markets – 8 Viboras Anejo.

“The bouquet is like baijiu, but it still has the same smoky palate you get with something like the Rufian,” Gutkowski says.

There are as yet no household names in mezcal, but Jose Cuervo, Patron, and Don Julio tequilas are all widely known, and all feature on the Agave, Mezcalito and Los Sotanos lists, alongside lesser known, specially imported spirits.

There are connoisseurs who sneer at Patron and Cuervo for their mass production and marketing focus, but most concede that their premium grade spirits, Cuervo’s Reserva de la Familia in particular, are at least as good as anything from the boutique producers.

The problem at the moment with finding many of the better 100 per cent agave spirits from lesser known producers is that they have no Hong Kong importers, but Kariakin says he notices that changing.

“We’ve very carefully curated our tequilas and mezcals and I noticed that we couldn’t get some of the things I wanted, so we got an import licence and we’re bringing in some of them ourselves. But even in the time we’ve been here I’ve noticed some of those starting to come in,” he says, citing Fortaleza as an example.

Although Gutkowski says he and his staff encourage customers to try premium tequila neat and at room temperature, many prefer to consume them in the form of Margaritas or Palomas – now the two most popular tequila cocktails, the sun having long ago set on the tequila sunrise. Porras says that most of the tequila sold in Agave is mixed into Margaritas.

Kariakin is creating a range of new cocktails for the Los Sotano including the Bad Hombre, a beer, tequila, chilli and Cynar cocktail, served in a bottle concealed in a brown paper bag, and an Anejo Tequila Negroni.

However you choose to consume them, Hong Kong’s Agave spirit choices are expanding fast.

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“I’m very relieved to see somebody coming in and opening up in competition,” says Busta. “It will raise the profile for everybody, and the more interest we create the more purchasing power we as a city will have to bring over the alcohols that we need.”

Agave, 93 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2866 3228.

Los Sotano, Basement, 21 D’Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong, tel: 2970 3887.

Mezcalito, 27/F, 18 On Lan Street, Central, tel: 2668 8444.