Moved by Spirits

Tips from cocktail class: Brennan's Spirit Roundtables take the mystery out of great drinks

Tips from cocktail class: Brennan's Spirit Roundtables take the mystery out of great drinks

Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, cocktails
First tequila tipple of the evening: Fresh blackberry margaritas Photo by Davon Hatchett
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, Lindsey Lasky, Erin Carter
Lindsey Lasky, Deleon Tequila representative, left, and Erin Carter with Pepe Z Tequila  Photo by Davon Hatchett
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, tequila bottles
Deleon Tequila and Casa Noble Tequila Photo by Davon Hatchett
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, dessert cocktail
A dessert cocktail nightcap to end the evening Photo by Davon Hatchett
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, tequila bottles
Deleon tequilas Photo by Davon Hatchett
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, tequila shots
Uno, dos, tres: Blanco, Reposado and Añejo Photo by Davon Hatchett
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, shrimp
A heaping tray of cold, poached shrimp Photo by Davon Hatchett
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, cocktails
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, Lindsey Lasky, Erin Carter
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, tequila bottles
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, dessert cocktail
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, tequila bottles
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, tequila shots
Brennan's, tequila tasting, August 2012, shrimp

I'm one of those people who is always in search of the next adventure or interested in learning something new. In fact, I'm like Deputy Dawg when it comes to discovering fun and fascinating things to do in the city because I have a knack for sniffing them out.

It was on one of my recent "sniffing-out" expeditions that I discovered Brennan’s hosts a monthly event known as the “Spirit Roundtable.” Before you get concerned, while Brennan’s is indeed steeped in the essence of  New Orleanian traditions, voodoo is not one of them. Therefore, the Spirit Roundtable does not refer to a seance-type event held for the purposes of conjuring up ethereal beings from the great beyond, and the restaurant will not be featured on any future episodes of Ghost Adventures.

Sipping cocktails while learning? Definitely sounds like my kind of educational experience.

In actuality, the Spirit Roundtable is a monthly event where Brennan’s breaks down “the difference in [alcoholic] spirits” while the participants “learn the history and taste what makes each of [the spirits] special.”

This means tasting the different brands and/or types of a designated spirit, sipping a couple of cocktails made with that spirit, and noshing on complementary nibbles from the chef while getting schooled about the drink in the spotlight.

Sipping cocktails while learning? Definitely sounds like my kind of educational experience.

I did a quick Internet search and a look at the Brennan’s events calendar showed that one roundtable would be on tequila. It took me 0.7 seconds to decide that I would sign-up.

Meet the Spirits

I arrived at the tasting four minutes late (curse you, Houston traffic!) and the room was already in full swing with lively chatter (side note: if you have not been to Brennan’s since the post-fire rebuild, you are truly missing out! The space is simply gorgeous. It’s warm, welcoming and charming, just like the staff).

A survey of the room revealed that it was comprised of a good mix of people: Brennan's regulars, newbies, couples, singles, co-workers, young, old and everything in between. It was a fun and friendly group.

 It was one of the few times in life that the quality of the packaging matched the quality of the product.  

I found a table near a window and settled into one of the comfortable pear-green leather chairs, which were coincidentally reminiscent of the agave plants we’d soon be discussing. It didn’t take long for the first cocktail of the evening to arrive: A fresh, blackberry margarita made with Z Blanco silver tequila, lime juice and blackberry liqueur.

The verdict? Refreshing and delicious. The night’s first bites soon followed with offerings of chilled and plump poached shrimp, and mini oyster BLTs composed of bacon-onion mousse, deftly fried and seasoned oysters, tomato, and greens, drizzled with a Creole mustard glaze.

Then time for the business at hand. The Roundtable started with a general overview from the tequila representatives in attendance, detailing what tequila is, where it’s made, and the process of making it. While this might seem arcane on the surface, actually there was some really good knowledge to be had.

Oh, so you think you’re so smart, Mr./Ms. Know-it-all? Well here are three things you probably didn’t know about tequila:

1) Although 99 percent of tequila comes from the state of Jalisco, there are actually four additional states in Mexico that are legally sanctioned to make authentic tequila: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
2) Tequila is similar to wine in that terroir matters. Different regions will produce distinctive and different flavors.
3) The agave plant (from which tequila is made) is not a relative of the cactus or aloe plant, though it has some physical resemblance. It is actually a distant cousin of the lily family.

Now it was time to do the actual tasting. First up: Pepe Z Blanco Tequila which is made in Mexico (so it’s authentic tequila) for a company based in Austin. The tequila is crafted from mature agave plants that are 7 to 9 years old. The Blanco had a slightly “fresh cut lawn” smell and a nice, peppery flavor that mellowed out with some sweetness. The brand has been around for about four years, and it would definitely make a nice addition to your bar inventory.

Next, Casa Noble presented their Blanco (also known as “Silver”), Reposado and Añejo Single Barrel tequila. Sampling three types of tequila from the same maker is awesome in that you get to discover and explore the different flavors that are brought out in each of the tequilas. The tequilas, served in shot glasses, had been slightly cooled to serve at "real" room temperature, which is optimally around 72 degrees (experts frown on serving it ice cold; it masks the subtle flavors).

The Blanco had a soft and flowery nose and smooth flavor with an herbaceous finish. Good stuff.

The Reposado had a bit more sweetness than the Blanco and it seemed to be creamy somehow, which was a pleasant surprise. It ended with a soft, mellow and slightly smoky finish. The Añejo Single Barrel fragrance was wonderful: warm, woody and sweet. The taste beautifully echoed the smell and had flavors of vanilla, spice, toasted nuts, and dark chocolate, which really hit the back of the throat.

The last tasting was from Deleon and we sampled the Añejo. The first thing that intrigued me about Deleon Tequila was the amount of care and thought put into the packaging. The gorgeous, doorknob sized metal tops are hand-carved and designed by a famed jewelry designer, and weigh almost a pound. As if that weren't enough, the bottles are made by one of the finest glassmakers in the world, the same company that makes the bottle for Chanel perfume.

I admit that I was thinking that with so much effort put in to the packaging, the tequila had better not disappoint. It didn’t.

The nose of the tequila was very rich and intoxicating with notes of caramel, wood and slightly butterscotch-ish. It was extremely smooth and balanced with a slightly sweet and spicy finish. Deleon Añejo tequila gets its flavors naturally from aging in 150 to 200-year-old French Oak wine barrels and French sauternes barrels, creating a distinctive flavor profile.

It was one of the few times in life that the quality of the packaging matched the quality of the product (feel free to make any personal relationship analogies here as well). Another element I enjoyed was the actual presentation of the tequila, which was served to us in small, elegant brandy snifters. Tequila enthusiasts (and more than a few experts) suggest these glasses concentrate the aromas of the liquor, giving the sipper the full experience and flavor of the tequila. I am inclined to agree.

The final delectable morsel from the Brennan’s chef for the evening was a goat cheese and onion tartlet with a honey demi-glace that was the perfect, tiny bite of rich and savory goodness. We were also offered up one final drink for the evening, a dessert cocktail made with Noble Tequila Reposado, heavy cream, Godiva Liqueur and a splash of a product I hadn't yet heard of called Adult Chocolate Milk.

It was a splendid way to end a splendid evening.

Drink Smart

Still looking to glean some additional knowledge? Here are a couple of additional tidbits:

• “Mixto” = No-No! Seeing Mixto on the label means that your tequila is 51 percent agave and 49 percent grain spirits with caramel coloring added. Can you say hangover?
• Got a bottle of vanilla vodka? Take a deep whiff. Now smell your silver tequila. Repeat. Repeat again. If they smell the same, your tequila quality es no bueno. While tequila may have some soft vanilla notes, it should not smell like you poured a bottle of artificial vanilla extract into it.
• The recipe for the best margarita should be simple and use good quality ingredients. A great recipe as recited to me at the event follows at the end of the article.

The tasting was the most fun I’ve had learning in a long time and to top it all off, the event only set me back $15. Are there any seasoned or budding Scotch fans out there?

Then you'll be very happy about the next two Roundtables. This Thursday, Brennan's is highlighting Speyside single malts, which are whiskies distilled in Strathspey, the area around the River Spey in northeastern Scotland. If you’re wondering what makes Speyside single malts special enough to single out, you should know that the area is responsible for giving the world the two best-selling single malt whiskies on the planet, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.

The October Roundtable will focus on single malt Scotch whiskies produced on the islands around the perimeter of the Scottish mainland. After that, the restaurant takes a well-deserved respite for the holidays, kicking off a new series next year. The 2013 calendar isn't out yet, but you can bet that I am up for any whatever Brennan's has in store. 

Interested in having a night at the roundtable? Visit the Brennan's website for more details. Here's to the spirits: ¡Salud!

Do It Yourself

La Más Perfecta Margarita (The Most Perfect Margarita)

Juice of ½ to 1 lime
2 ounces Blanco or Silver 100 percent agave tequila
1-1 ½ ounces of orange liqueur**
Agave nectar to taste

Get your room temperature lime nice and juicy by placing it in the microwave for 15-20 seconds. This helps extract more of juice. Place a few cubes of ice in a glass, squeeze in your lime juice and add the rest of your ingredients. Gently stir a few times to blend and chill. Then take a sip, close your eyes, smile to yourself, and enjoy while quietly repeating “Viva Mexico!” in your head.

**If you’re like me and you love to enhance your cocktail experience by crafting a distinctive drink of elevated quality, forget the traditional brands and try one of the high quality, slightly more avant-garde options like Agavero Orange (a blend of 100 percent blue agave tequila and agave nectar that has the flavor of “ripe Mexican oranges”) or  Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao (which will add complexity with the flavors of bitter orange and cognac).