Tequila versus mezcal
Neil Pendock delves into the mysteries of the cactus
Could Rui Esteves be the hottest entrepreneur in town? From the red leather seats of his white 1971 vintage Mercedes 280SE to the flattering cut of his jeans as he shakes Tabasco onto his huevos rancheros at Clarke's Bar in Bree Street, Cape Town, Esteves has more moves than a surfer from Oaxaca, the Mexican state with the unpronounceable name, from whence he sources barrel-aged mezcal.
To paraphrase Bob Dylan, he started out on coffee (Esteves founded Vida e Caffè) but soon hit the harder stuff, in the shape of craft beer from Germany (Brewers & Union), before ending up with La Muerte tequila and now mezcal. His first mezcal landed in December; the next venture has got to be illegal.
Choosing "death" as a brand name must have sounded grimly ironic when his distiller was killed in a car wreck in Mexico. But it was actually inspired by the festival Día de los Muertos - the day of the dead. Which, if the Mayan prediction for the end of the world on December 22 comes to pass, will prove to be a posthumous good career move, as Gore Vidal called the demise of Truman Capote.
Oaxaca is the poorest Mexican state, with a Blue Lagoon Pacific coastline. No surprise, then, that it is the hot new holiday destination for brus too busy to take a gap year, like Nic Haarhoff, owner of El Burro Mexican restaurant in Green Point. El Burro is popular on at least two counts: its spicy food cooked by Paul van't Hoff, formerly of Societi Bistro in Gardens, and its unbeatable selection of tequila and mezcal. Mezcal is the fermented juice of the agave plant, an aloe. If the agave happens to belong to a particular species (Agave tequiliana weber) and is grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco, it may be called tequila. So all tequila is mezcal, but not vice versa.
Tequila sales are on a roll, with more than 200million litres distilled each year. Over half is consumed north of the Mexican border by yanquis. But SA, along with Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic, are also important markets, although Greece is likely to revert to ouzo, given recent financial meltdowns.
Haarhoff reports that Patrón and Olmeca are in the top three tequilas and there is even a coffee-flavoured one called Patrón XO Café. But the top seller at El Burro is La Muerte.
And now there is a brand extension of two mezcals: one aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels for five years, and the double-distilled, aged for eight months, which is my pick for Valentine's Day. For starters, it's 40% cheaper (R300 as against R500) and the pale green tinge just looks hallucinogenic.
But the real killer is the gusano, the worm bouncing around the bottom of the bottle like one of the devil's internal parasites. I was convinced by the bouquet, like some mouldy old cathedral; the smell of delicious decay.