Kombucha vs. Mezcal tasting evening, at O5 Rare Tea Bar (February 23, 2014)

The world of drinks and mixology always has a new surprise up its sleeve; after all, cocktails are just mixtures of various ingredients, one of which has to include alcohol. By now, we should not be surprised when some seemingly random combination that sounds like an incomplete shopping list for folk remedies is passed off as a genius potent potable.

But kombucha and mezcal? One’s a fermented black tea that’s supposed to be an ancient cure-all elixir, the new hipster food to take its rightful place with, ironically enough, bacon and crème brulee beignets. The other is the bastard cousin of tequila, the basement grappa to the Bordeaux of agave. Aside from words that you’d only dream of playing in a game of Scrabble, how could they possibly fit together in the same evening?

O5 Rare Tea Bar

O5 Rare Tea Bar

Very well, actually, as O5 Rare Tea Bar showed us on Sunday evening. O5 routinely puts on interesting events – from various sushi nights or Japanese cultural events to chocolate appreciation to movie nights. Done in their lounge, they have teas on hand to offer to guests, which is perfect to get people to loosen up, relax and just have fun for the night.

A look inside O5's lounge...

A look inside O5’s lounge…

The tea lounge has a homey, casual feel with hand-made porcelain tea cups and a beautiful, long wooden counter, as well as modern conveniences such as induction ranges to quickly heat water. It has both a classic and ultra-modern feel, which, combined with the friendliness and good cheer of the proprietors, Pedro and Rosie, give guests a warm feeling, almost as if you’re visiting a friend’s new loft.

As we sat down, Rosie poured out a cup of hot tea for each of us from their varied selection. One of the great pluses about O5 is that Pedro, being the buyer, makes a point of visiting each of the estates that he buys tea from, and can give you a greater sense of the growers, the region, and the conditions in which the teas were grown and cultivated. As such, drinks of tea (and the flights they also offer) are more than just a simple hot drink but also a genuine point of conversation. The teas themselves are also great – a matcha had a lovely scent of pine needles, slight grassiness and a pleasant, slightly sweet aftertaste without any graininess, indicating a perfect brewing and preparing technique. Balyocha saebyok, a Korean oolong tea, was poured out at three different intervals, allowing us to appreciate the deepening aromas of smoke and nuts, and the slightly caramel taste of the tea that was contrasted by the growing presence of tannins as the tea steeped.

Our program for the night!

Our program for the night!

Along with our introductory tea came a cup of jun, a distant relative of kombucha. Put simply, kombucha is black tea that is fermented with a complementary combination of yeast and bacteria, yielding a product that has slight carbonation and a bit of acidity. It’s also seen as a health food as it has a probiotic culture, and is thought to be high in antioxidants. In contrast, jun uses green tea and honey for the fermentation, and the product is lighter. Our jun was clear and slightly pale in the glass, with a slight caramel sweetness. A citrus-like accent was present as well as a very pleasant effervescence. I’ve heard jun described as the champagne-like counterpart to kombucha before, and in many ways I find such description to be quite apt.

Julia Diakow and Jon Smolensky waxing poetic about mezcal

Julia Diakow and Jon Smolensky waxing poetic about mezcal

We were then introduced to the representatives from Sovereign Wine and Spirits, Jon Smolensky and Julia Diakow. Both bartenders, Jon heading the counter at Hawksworth and Julia at Cuchillo, they were here to walk us through an introduction to mezcal. And they did a great job, by both giving us a lot to learn but still leaving us wanting more.

Mezcal is a liquor that is prepared from the agave cactus. However, unlike its cousin tequila, mezcal can be prepared from any variant of agave. It also is not a protected designation like tequila (the official brands of which must come from Mexican city of the same name or the areas surrounding it), and so anyone is free to produce it, anywhere.

Mezcal los Siete Misterios

Mezcal los Siete Misterios

Much like other great alcohols of the world, mezcal preparation sounds like something only a drunk person could have conceived. Traditionally, agave was peeled to yield the hearts, upon which a donkey would walk on to soften them up. Then, the hearts are roasted in a fire pit, which is also buried with vegetation to give a smoking effect. They are then fermented to produce agave beer, which is then distilled to prepare mezcal. The result is a clear, high-proof alcohol (as agave has a good deal of sugar to ferment) that carries a lot of characteristics of the terroir in which the agave was grown.

The distillation can also add some characteristics of its own. Traditionally, clay pots were used, but nowadays copper stills are also employed by larger operations. In one case, a piece of raw turkey breast is even hung above the distilling alcohol in the hopes of adding something further to the mezcal. It should be noted that the biggest operations of mezcal turn out yearly runs of approximately 5,000 cases – in contrast, a large tequila producer churns out over 160,000 cases in the same time!

The stars of the show!

The stars of the show!

Then came the first pouring of mezcal, the label tasted tonight being Mezcal los Siete Misterios (Seven Mysteries). Prepared from espadin agave (which ninety percent of all mezcal is made from), our first taste was distilled through copper stills. Smooth and clean, it reminded me of good vodka, with a particularly heady alcohol overtone. However, in addition to that, there was an undertone of smoke and burnt, almost caramelized sugar and a slightly medicinal taste. What was quite noticeable, though, was that somehow the alcohol taste seemed to float on top of the other characteristics – on the palate, it translated to two distinct taste experiences rather than one harmonized effort.

The second mezcal was prepared from barril agave, and went through clay pot distillation. As such, earthy notes were more prominent, having a deeper taste than with the espadin. Because of such a strong characteristic, a smokier aftertaste was present, with a bitterness that curbed the sugar finish that we had encountered in the first tasting. These characteristics also harmonized better with the alcohol – unlike the espadin, the barril gave a unified taste that was deeper and more complex than the two described above. Having tasted the two types of mezcal back to back, we got a sense of the added character a clay pot distillation gave to the end product. Whereas the espadin felt almost like a clean, straightforward vodka a touch of character, the barril almost told a story within our mouths, like a good single-malt scotch.

Elixir cocktail, by Julia Diakow

Elixir cocktail, by Julia Diakow

After this walkthrough of both mezcal and kombucha, it was now time to see how they could be paired together. Julia’s cocktail, Elixir, was then introduced, the basis of it being a copper still mezcal and O5’s house kombucha, made with a touch of raw sugar to give it effervescence. When combined with agave nectar and some of Scrappy’s bitters, the result was a rather intriguing drink. An aroma of various citrus fruits including lime, grapefruit and orange wafted from the drink, but rather than competing with one another they stood out clearly with a vividness that invigorated the senses. On the tongue, it came across with a vegetal taste with hints of nuttiness and caramel. As such, it felt full and lush, like a bloody Mary, but it also was a touch boozy, citrus and sweet, like a mojito. Rounded out with some bubbles, the drink made for the highlight of the evening.

Hors d'oeuvres for the night

Hors d’oeuvres for the night

Hors d’oeuvres were also provided in the form of tortilla chips with a guacamole and salsa that were respectively seasoned with lime and chili bitters. These foods really accented the Elixir well, as the lime and tomato flavors, coupled with the thickness of avocado, were complimented and accented by both the effervescence of the kombucha and the clean alcohol taste of the mezcal.

What's a night without chocolate to end it?

What’s a night without chocolate to end it?

Rounding out the night was some dark chocolate from Riadh Falvo, with a tropical flavor added by Bitterman’s Tiki bitter. The chocolate was slightly grainy, with slight dark fruit accents. The bitter, being citrus-based, accented well with the slightly coarse, rough texture of the chocolate, invigorating the palate. When matched with mezcal, both the sensations of alcohol and the chocolate were heightened on the tongue, making for a very pleasant closing experience.

The night was one of the best combinations of fun and education we’ve been to. Random discussions popped up, where Jon went even further in teaching us about the history and nature of bitters, the original medicinal nature of cocktails, and even about how the Dutch sold a colony to the British for nutmeg. That colony you may have heard of… New York, I think it’s called?

Many thanks to O5 Rare Tea Bar and Sovereign Wine and Spirits for hosting this event!

O5 Rare Tea Bar’s webpage can be found at http://o5tea.com/

Sovereign Wine and Spirits webpage can be found at http://www.sovereignwineandspirits.com/

Hawksworth’s webpage can be found at http://www.hawksworthrestaurant.com/

Cuchillo’s webpage can be found at http://www.cuchillo.ca/

If you’re interested in Mezcal los Siete Misterios, you can find its webpage at http://www.sietemisterios.com/en/.

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