Aguardiente de Agave is Liquid Riot Bottling Company’s latest spirit offering, releasing this Friday, November 20th, 2015 at the brewery/distillery/restaurant on Commercial Street in Portland. Roughly translated as “Agave Firewater,” this is an 80 proof spirit made from 100% organic blue agave syrup. So, it’s pretty much tequila.
Except you can’t call it tequila.
Distiller Ian Michaud invited me down to the distillery (their building also houses the brewery and restaurant space, a very unique setup) to have a taste of his newly-bottled creation, Aguardiente de Agave (ah-gwar-dee-EN-tay day ah-GAH-vay). The name translates as “Firewater of Agave” and takes the title from a style of distilled beverage found throughout Central and South America. An aguardiente refers to an alcoholic beverage produced from whatever ingredients happen to be handy. It’s kind of a blanket term, like brandy, and specific types are denoted through the specific names. For example, aguardiente de cereales is made from grains, where aguardiente de fruta starts with fruit. Individual countries also have individual names for their various aguardiente spirits; Brazil’s cachaça (cah-sha-sah), a sugar cane based spirit, is an aguardiente. Liquid Riot’s is made from agave, which is a type of cactus-like succulent plant. The blue agave is specifically used in the production of tequila, by roasting the heart of the plant (called the piña), mashing it up to extract the sugary sap, and distilling it.
Michaud’s version starts with 100% organic blue agave syrup, rather than roasting and mashing his own agave piñas. A less-refined grade of syrup is used to carry over more of the agave character; like rum production, the more processed and refined your base ingredient is, the more neutral the flavor will be. Blackstrap, the lowest grade of molasses, is great for rum because of the flavors that carry through the distillation. The same technique is applied here for the agave syrup, though as a high-demand product, it costs twice as much as the molasses used in Liquid Riot’s rum production. Once fermented, the agave wort is distilled to about 130 proof and barrel aged. This batch sat for about seven months in used whiskey barrels (bourbon and single malt) to impart even more smoke to the final product. If this were a tequila, it would be equivalent to a reposado, or rested, variety.
So why isn’t it tequila? Well, the name “tequila” is applied specifically to a protected designation of origin product made from blue agave in the state of Jalisco, Mexico (and a few other limited locations in Mexico). This basically means to officially call it tequila, you have to make it in Mexico. It’s a protected term that guarentees that the product is what it claims to be. Bourbon, Champagne, Calvados, and Cognac are all protected terms for certain products. A Champagne-style wine from California is “sparkling wine” because it wasn’t produced in the Champagne region of France. There’s no such thing as an Irish Bourbon, because bourbon must be produced in the United States. Aguardiente de Agave is basically a tequila, but Maine isn’t quite in Mexico, so you can’t legally call it that.
Ok. History and legal stuff done. Let’s taste it.
Aguardiente de Agave
Aged 7 months in used whiskey barrels (bourbon and single malt)
Nose: Sweet, as you would expect from a syrup-based product. Smooth honey and butterscotch, floral, with an acetone sting. Very slight smoke/spice. Opened up after the first sip.
Taste: Starts spicy and peppery with a smoke char. Some decent heat, but not unpleasant burning. Eases to a sweet syrup, with dry vanilla barrel flavorings.
Very nicely done. I got a lot more flavor and aroma after taking my first sip. For some reason, the initial taste was fairly neutral and sugary sweet. The second sip really brought forth more of the expected tequila-like flavors of smoke, spice, and agave sweetness. I was also able to compare with the unaged (blanco) version. The aroma was much more neutral, honey/agave sweet, but without burning the nose, despite the 120 proof. Flavor was initially sugary and gritty, as if there were sugar granules in it. Very hot, but doesn’t burn your mouth off, again surprising for the high proof level. Excellent flavors of smoke, spice, honey syrup. Balanced well and upsettingly drinkable at high strength.
Tequila is not my preferred spirit. I can appreciate a good one, but given the choice, I’m reaching for whiskey. However, Aguardiente de Agave isn’t technically tequila, and I thought it was very tasty. It dials down the rough smokey char and medicinal boozy qualities of many other tequilas, and winds up as a refined sipping spirit, with some sweet rum-like qualities. Because of the high cost of agave (it’s the most expensive raw ingredient the distillery uses), the price point on the bottle is a little higher, solidifying the spirit’s status as a sipper, rather than a mixer. Take it neat, over ice, or in a spirit-forward cocktail, like a Tequila Manhattan. For a sipper, you’re going to want something enjoyable to relax with, smooth, and with plenty of flavor. This one delivers.
Aguardiente de Agave’s release party is Friday, November 20th, 2015, coinciding with Mexican Revolution Day, a holiday of which I was Americanly unaware. Find further details on the event page here. Bottles are available for sale at the distillery and retail for $42.99 for 375ml.
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