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Words: Chris Zacharia
Tequila slammer: a bad shot, or the worst?
Either way, don’t expect to find one here at El Bandito. With a glittering cast of Mexico’s most authentic fine tequilas and mescals, it’s a very different kind of drinking experience. You won’t need salt or lime to disguise the flavours, either.
Touring London as a pop-up bar, El Bandito is currently hosted by Victory Mansion in Stoke Newington. It quickly makes sense. Just as Victory Mansion oozes passion and creativity for their food, so too do El Bandito enthuse over Mexican spirits. Ben, the Liverpudlian barman, knows more about mescal and tequila than you know about your brother and sister.
Seated at the bar, we take a few moments to adjust. Coffee-coloured ponchos, neon signs and Debbie Harry dominate the basement. After all, authenticity only takes you so far – and Rush Rush Get the Yayo is a great song.
After talking us through our options and drinking preferences, Ben serves us a couple of cocktails, completely unalike but equally impressive.
The first is a short, sharp blast of smokiness, appropriately named Smoke in Your Eyes. Centred around a splash of Del Magy Vida mescal, it’s a sharp and sour riot of chartreuse, Kings ginger, lime juice and orange bitters.
“If you want to really taste the flavour of mescal, this one’s ideal” Ben tells us.
Every sip is a shock of smoke and spice, the flavours complementing and commanding. I love it.
“And here’s an entry-level mescal cocktail, just in case you’re not too keen on the smoke” winks Ben, sliding a bubblegum-pink concoction towards us. “It’s called Blood, Sand and Suspicious Parents”.
Dubiously I take a sip. Instantly, candyfloss. I’m five again. Another sip: the fairground, merry-go-rounds, amber neon against the night sky, a hint of barbecue smoke in the crisp air. Candyfloss, with a deep bass note of charcoal and leather, served in a double rocks glass adorned with a juicy slab of grapefruit. It’s uncanny.
“It tastes just like candyfloss!” I say.
“Really? It’s actually cherry herring, aperol and pineapple juice, with Del Maguey Crema Mescal” Ben explains.
“Yeah! Just like candyfloss!” I repeat.
Delusion, excitement, memories – that’s the power of a good cocktail. It also demonstrates mescal’s versatility: two very different cocktails, both delicious.
Soon after Ben places a ‘Land and Sea’ tasting flight between us: mescal on the left, tequila on the right. Sitting in order of ascending quality, we sip the wide-brimmed saucers as Ben talks us through the craft.
“This one’s Ocho tequila – the first single-estate tequila. The name of the field that the agave’s grown in is written on the lid” says Ben. “They cook the agave in the oven, and then crush them in a traditional stone mill driven by donkeys”
Whereas tequila must be from a certain type and class of agave, mescal is much less regimented. Like moonshine, it’s often home-brewed. The smokiness brings a complexity and depth to the flavour, delicious over ice or as a formidable base note to a cocktail. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s a damn good drink.
Tequila is smoother, especially as we ascend to the very top. The Fortaleza tequila goes down very easily, a completely different drink to the tequila slammers of hen-do, tacky-theme-bar fame. A more traditional, slower process is much gentler on the plant, resulting in an earthier, more vegetal flavour. It’s the tequila equivalent of the first press in olive oil, Ben explains.
The final and finest mescal is another Del Maguey – except this one is made with jamón,
“At first people thought it was a gimmick” Ben starts, “but then they tasted it”
There are two things to admire here. First, having the idea and the balls to dunk a whole jamon into your barrell of mescal. And then there’s the taste. A saltiness elevates the smoky flavour, creating an unbelievably complex mouthful. Ham and agave – the reckless man’s eggs and avocado.
Passionate bar staff, a fascinating selection of spirits, eye-popping cocktails – you can see why El Bandito has been such a smash hit in Liverpool. They’re only the fourth European bar to get official ‘tequila and mescaleria’ status from the Mexican government; so sombreros off to them.
A great bar is about atmosphere and drinks, for sure – but it’s also about craftsmanship and knowledge. If you’re interested in the craft behind the spirits, El Bandito is perfect. Rarely does getting drunk bring so much learning. And not a tequila slammer in sight.
El Bandito will be at various sites in London for the rest of the summer. They’re at Victory Mansions until 30th June.