Tucked discreely off Davigdor Road in Hove, and a mere pebble’s throw from my seaside residence, is Mixology Group HQ. At this bespoke bartending school, Director Myles Cunliffe entertains liquor connoisseurs with Mixology Guided tastings; that, of course, is when he’s not running cocktail master classes, training bartenders or demonstrating at events.
It was Friday night, and I had spent a long day on an underwater modelling job, so possibly wasn’t in the best energised physical state to imbibe strong spirits. However, ever mindful of my duties to BBB I called upon the Aztec agave goddess, Mayahuel, to guide me through. I had satisfyingly managed to charm Tall Dark and Handsome into accompanying me to the ‘Guided Tequila Tasting’, where the supping of this infamous spirit was to be accompanied by some light education on the culture of tequila, its history and folklore.
I like tequila. I really like tequila. TDH, on the other hand, does not like tequila, so I was doubly pleased that he had consented to join me on this little foray. We were greeted most warmly by Myles at Mixology HQ, seated at the slick chrome bar and introduced to our tasting companions, who run a Mexican restaurant in Brighton’s famous Lanes. The room holds an incredible array of exotic bottles, hardback (and thus important) books and cocktail paraphernalia. There were shelves full of magnificent objects: stylish bitters, mysterious syrups, unusual bottles, a set of brass scales for weighing the iconic black Hendricks gin bottle and a mesmerizing life-size crystal skull containing a magnum of vodka.
I feel should admit at this juncture that I have a history with tequila. It was not the kind of messy never-to-be repeated history that all too many seem to be able to claim, but rather a brief(ish) affair during my heady university days, mainly limited to a Monday night flirtation (for what better night of the week could there be to establish a select and informal tequila club, I ask you?). I shared this flirtation, and the associated soft-focus memories, with a long-legged deep-drinking friend of mine and a plastic tub of cheap table salt.
Now, by contrast, I was looking along a line of beautiful bottles of tequila displayed atop the bar, with nary a tub of salt in sight and a growing sense of eager anticipation.
Directly in front of me was the bottle with a worm in it. Of course it was. Each time I moved the bottle around to an angle where I couldn’t see the offending grub it would bob gently around in the golden liquid and once more into my line of vision. I avoided making eye contact with it and focused on Myles’s relaxed and wonderfully informal patter. As he elegantly mixed us our first drink he told us a little about the history of tequila and indeed his own career. Mixology has been running for two years now and is built on 16 years of experience in the events industry - working at venues such as Harvey Nichols and Soho House. The company offers talented consultants, mixologists, bartenders, and waiting staff for events, and every cocktail-related service you can think of!
Myles made us a Tommy’s Margarita with El Jimador Blanco. It was decorated with salt foam - fitting given our proximity to the brine of Brighton beach - and it was sublime.
All the while we were being treated to little snippets of anecdote and information from our welcoming host. We learned, for example, that tequila is made from a desert plant called Agave which is a form of lily, with huge spines and waxy leaves. The centre of the plant is harvested by El Jimador with a long stick with a sort of spade on the end. This central part or piña is what is cooked and mashed and the liquid produced is then transferred to wooden or steel vats and left to produce the potent liquor. The length of time it is left to age marks it colour and flavour. All of this delivered in calm and casual tones, more chat than a lecture, adding welcome depth to a growing atmosphere of frivolity.
Shots of Verdita – ‘little green’ – were distributed, to knock back before our shot of Blanco tequila. This bright green concoction was incredible! It’s a blend of coriander, chilli, pineapple juice and fresh mint was truly delicious. How could I have wasted those precious years polluting my palate with the barbaric salt and lemon method? The El Jimador Blanco is bottled straight off the still, hence its colourless clarity.
It tasted very clean and smelt like a Grappa – which pleased Italophile TDH no end and appeared to make the dreaded tequila initiation far easier for him to bear. Our second tasting swiftly followed, the El Jimador – Reposado which is bottled after between 60 days to a year in oak barrels. The golden colour is indicative of a more flavoursome tequila, and there was a smoothness to it that was lacking in the Blanco.
The third taster was Tequila Gran Centenario Anejo. This is aged for 18 months in American oak barrels. It is light-bodied with toasted wood overtones that contribute to a complex and warm flavour. The pretty label on the bottle illustrates a tequila legend in which Lazaro Gallardo calls for an angel to keep a watchful eye on his still growing agaves. Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol came next. Sotol is a distilled spirit made from the Dasylirion wheeleri (commonly known as Desert Spoon or, in Spanish, sotol), a plant that grows in the wilds of Northern Mexico and West Texas. This spirit is triple distilled to achieve a high degree of purity and the Reposado is aged for six months in white oak for a unique smooth taste to achieve the extraordinary aroma, richness and fine taste. It was a smooth drink with a natural, vegetal taste.
Our final tasting was La Penca Mezcal. Mezcal means ‘oven cooked agave’. In this instance, however, the agave is roasted or grilled over hot rocks in covered conical pits rather than slow baked. This roasting caramelizes the maguey sugars, giving the mescal its smokiness. In the 19th Century, aristocrats had a special preference for Mezcal; and it was known among them as "The Cognac of Mexico", because of its unique flavour and exquisite softness. This particular Mezcal is distilled from Salmaina, which is said to be an outstanding form of agave. It is stored in white oak to age and packaged in a hand-blown Artisan bottles along with the infamous Agave grub.
Through the amber mists of a tequila-induced haze we finished up the master class by mixing our own tequila-based cocktails under Myles’s expert guidance. Mojitos, margaritas and all manner of other tequila-laced drinks were shaken, poured and imbibed. TDH in typically maverick and nonconformist style shunned the tequila and requested instead an Italian classic - the Negroni – but by that stage Myles seemed happy to cater to any and all requests. The Master Class was gently informative but most of all a whole heap of increasingly tiddly fun, and we are currently mustering troops for another mission to Mixology Group HQ for round two. This time it’ll be whisky – let the good times roll…