The Tahona Society Cocktail Competition

Words by Daniela Valdez, Difford's Guide Mexican editor

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We all ended up with México, it’s flavors and colors, under our skin. Some were here for the first time, while others, like myself, were seeing their country through the eyes of the world for the first time. Others even took it quite literally: with an agave tattooed on their arm.

We travelled to Jalisco for the annual Tahona Society Experience. This was the seventh year of this programme and over four days, we met the 25 competitors from around the world, who created their best cocktails using Altos tequila.

We arrived at Los Altos de Jalisco in Arandas. Please don't be misguided by the word "altos", which should be literally translated as "highlands". The land here is a meseta, not really a mountain. There, along with the Tequila region, agave is planted, harvested, distilled and consumed with pride. But that is also beyond the point: what use would it be to drink tequila for five days without getting to know what's behind it?

You walk into a bar and you see a Mexican, an Italian, and two English sitting in a table. What are they drinking? This is not a joke. They are drinking a Tommy's Margarita, not only in honor of, but next to, Julio Bermejo, the global ambassador of tequila, who invented this drink in 1990. The Italian is the one and only, bartender extraordinaire, Simone Caporale, and the English duo is made up of Kelsey Ramage (winner for The Tahona Society Cocktail Competition 2016) and Iain Griffiths, creators of the anti-waste pop-up and concept Trash Tiki. The Mexican only holds this nationality in his heart. "Mexico changed my life", he declared in an interview before the competition. I am talking about Dré Masso, author of 'Margarita on the Rocks' and founder of Altos tequila along with the late Henry Besant. Dré, Simone, Iain and Kelsey are here to judge the competition, and Mr. Bermejo is present -mariachis included-, to share a meal and a chat with the contestants.

We took a workshop with Alberto Navarro, a well-respected authority on our subject for the week. Alberto is the author of what's called the tequila bible, "Larousse del tequila". He used to be in charge of the education branch for all Pernod Ricard brands, and more than a decade ago he realized that in most parts of the world tequila was regarded as a low-quality distillate, mostly because the products exported were actually that. So along with Dré and Henry, he decided to create a program to change our conception of tequila, which includes education for bartenders and people within the industry. And that is for sure what we got: every question the contestants had about the spirit was solved. Today, The Tahona Society comprises more than 1,300 people.

The seminars also included what's trending in the industry with Mr. Dré Masso himself; waste reduction with the Trash Tiki team; Mexican ingredients by Jorge Fitz, expert on this and many other subjects; and fermentation techniques with Simone Caporale. The contestants could -or should- use this knowledge in their drink for the finals.

But no spirit education is complete without walking around the land where plants are harvested and learning how the final product is made. The experience was quite different for us: we got to see the agave fields from above, from a hot air balloon. And not only that: we got to try the 3 wonderful variations (plata, reposado and añejo) created by the Master Distiller Jesús Hernández, who gave us a tour around the distillery and explained the process and his inspiration for making this wonderful beverage. Let's not forget Altos was created by bartenders for bartenders. It is a liquid that you can sip without mixing and tastes great, but it is also intended as a high-quality tequila.

During the week, we sat and talked and laughed and imbibed as a family, no matter where you came from or what your background was. In this spirit, you got to see all the competitors helping each other, because in this industry the more you share, the more you learn. We got to visit Mercado Alcalde, where we smelled, tasted and saw fruits, herbs, spices and everything the bartenders needed for the competition -that afternoon they had to create their cocktail with what they bought, whatever they brought from home and Altos-. This was a really special moment for me, because all of a sudden, what is part of my routine became a whole different thing. I witnessed what it is like to see a Mexican market for the first time: one prickly fruit here, an hoja santa there, some jicama and every kind of chile you can possible think of. The reds and the yellows fused into oranges, citrus becoming fantastic garnishes, vegetables turned into bitters, and even the trash, as the leaf from the corn cob or whatever pulp the vendors had left to toss away were used to try and find the perfect balance. The smells of mole, meat, cereals, fresh tortillas were engraved in our memories, great memories which usually are part of even better friendships. And I would be lying if I don't mention the stress this kind of excitement brings: if you just waited, silent, in a corridor, you could see 25 bartenders and their ambassadors with a curious look on their faces running around trying to get the one piece of fruit that would probably change their lives, because winning an international competition like the Tahona Society can literally skyrocket the career of a bartender.

That afternoon the contestants were given three hours to prepare their cocktail. Can you possibly imagine the wonderful -and not so wonderful- creations taking place in that kitchen? And coming back to my point in the last paragraph, I was really amazed by all the judgemental declarations my brain was suddenly making: prickly pear and cinnamon? No way! Mole and citrus? Impossible. That herb with Altos reposado? You've got to be kidding me. I was blown away by this whole new possibility: Mexican cuisine as I, my mother and my grandmother before her knew it could actually be completely different. Yes, you can actually mix all the aforementioned and much more, and it actually tastes good. So I want to thank all 25 bartenders for reinventing these ingredients for me and teaching me that valuable lesson.

After three hours, they had to leave their tools and ingredients prepared for the next day, which happened to be September 15th. That meant that at midnight, after announcing the competitors, we got to celebrate Independence Day where, of course, tequila -which according to Simone Caporale, and we couldn't possibly agree more, makes you happy- flows around the country.

And so the competition began. We were received by Simon Kistenfeger, a warm and welcoming host, and some classic tequila cocktails. The thrill of the competition floated in the air, along with great music and wonderful weather. This year's edition of the Tahona Society challenged bartenders to craft a new and innovative cocktail that championed Altos Tequila's sustainable values while appealing to fans of the growing Mexican culinary and street food revolution.

Representing Mexico there were two bartenders: Mario Mena (who made a delicious ceviche to accompany his cocktail) and Elizabeth Gordillo (who worked with pre-Hispanic ingredients to create a contemporary concept of her country).

That night, Aj Snetler from South Africa and Ana Milena from Colombia were about to be crowned with the third position and Egor Kozlovsky from Belarus with the second. Representing Denmark Jeppe Nothlev from Helium bar was the winner, and not only for his fantastic Sweet Effort, crafted from Altos Plata Tequila, which represents a balance between the history, culture and ingredients of Denmark and Mexico -see the recipe below-, but for the way he conducted himself among the other bartenders, always giving a helping hand.

"The inspiration for my drink came from my love for tequila combined with rhubarb, two ingredients from completely different places, but a perfect match for each other. With that at heart and Altos Plata in hand I came up with 'Sweet Effort', a cocktail meant to celebrate perfect symbiosis between cultures as different as Denmark and Mexico. Furthermore, I wanted to incorporate tendencies I believe to be important for the future of bartending and cocktails. Here I'm thinking of reducing waste, and therefore I tried to reduce our waste in the bar when serving the drink by utilizing the otherwise leftover fruit pulp from the rhubarb in the salt used for garnish in the serving of the drink and the lime husks in the 'Spent Scent' I finish the drink off with", declared Nothlev, who feels both honored and humbled to be part of the The Tahona Society and to win the Competition "an initiative I in general admire for its hard work to improve a style of spirit I hold much dear. Looking at past winners I see people I hold great admiration for, and to be part of that seems almost surreal. We recently (October 2016) opened a bar in Copenhagen called Helium Cocktail Bar, and of course it has taken lots of hard work. To win a competition like this and have your work approved in sorts really warms my heart and encourages me to go on".

As a prize, Jeppe Nothlev became The Tahona Society Global Ambassador and will be given the opportunity to host educational The Tahona Society programmes for fellow bartenders around the world in the coming year. Kozlovsky, Milena Alzate and Snetler, along with Nothlev will return to Mexico next year to craft a limited edition Altos Tequila bottling with Maestro Tequilero.

Then the fireworks came, along with live music and Mexican food. The week was finally over, and it was time to go home with a smile and a bottle of Altos decorated with Huichol motifs - an ethnic group which has worked this artistic technique for more hundreds of years. Let's drink to that.

Sweet Effort - Winning cocktail

By Jeppe Nothlev from bar Helium in Copenhagen, Denmark
Glass: Collins
Garnish: Rhubarb salt rim & spent half lime husk
Method: SHAKE first 5 ingredients with ice and strain into ice-filled glass. TOP with grapefruit lemonade
Bringing to life the sustainable values at the heart of Altos Tequila, Nothlev reduced wastage by drying and crushing the spent rhubarb and mixing it with salt to craft a garnish and then sprayed an infusion of Altos Plata and used lime husks on top to pack an additional Tequila punch.

  • 50 ml Altos Plata tequila
  • 10 ml Pedro Ximénez sherry
  • 30 ml Rhubarb syrup
  • 30 ml Freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 dash Egg white
  • Top with Grapefruit lemonade

The Tahona Society Cocktail Competition competitors and their recipes

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Austria - Attila Szelhoffer

Bar: Darwins Bar, Salzburg
Cocktail: El Diablo Old Fashioned
60 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
30 ml Ginger, cardamom & nutmeg syrup
2 dash Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Cabernet Sauvignon

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Austria - Thomas Hausknecht

Bar: Darwins Bar, Salzburg
Cocktail: Es el momento (It's the moment)
Fresh Grapes
60 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
25 ml Grape shrub
10 ml Raisin syrup
10 ml Lemon juice
Becherovka Espuma

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Belarus - Egor Kozlovsky

Bar: Peresmeshnik
Cocktail: Pure Gold
60 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
20 ml Fresh mandarine juice
125 ml Fermented sparkling kvass (water, rosehip, elderflower, lemon, yeast, honey)
1 dash Rhubarb bitters

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Canada - Mike Birdsey

Bar: Miss Thing's, Toronto, Cananda
Cocktail: Hive Five
45 ml Olmeca Altos tequila
30 ml Grapefruit juice
20 ml Rhubarb/Thai chilli syrup
15 ml Salted Red pepper purée

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Colombia - Ana Milena

Bar: Gato Dumas
Cocktail: Mayahuel
Recipe: Faisty Past
60 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
30 ml Passion fruit and rosemary syrup
15 ml Freshly squeezed lime juice
Mole earth on the rim
Spicy caramel sphere

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Colombia - Laura Barbosa

Bar: La Guera Urbana
Cocktail: Latino Power
60 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
20 ml Agave syrup
30 ml Lime juice
6 tsp Natural lulo pulp

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Denmark - Jeppe Nothlev

Bar: Helium, Copenhagen
Cocktail: Tahona Fizz
50 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
10 ml PX Sherry
30 ml Lime juice
30 ml Rhubarb syrup
1 dash Egg white
Top with Grapefruit soda

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England - Oliver Crush

Bar: Happiness Forgets, London
Cocktail: Community Spirit
40 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
40 ml Pineapple Guadillo Tonic
15 ml Lime cordial
4 Coriander leaves

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France - Samuel Dedieu

Bar: Casa Jaguar
Cocktail: Shamanic Supanova
50 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
10 ml Grilled lime juice
10 ml Amontillado wine
7.5 ml Lime & others cordial (homemade)
7.5 ml Smoked syrup (homemade)

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Ireland - Johnathan Callaghan

Bar: Skeff Bar
Cocktail: The Shapeshifter
50 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
45 ml Aloe vera juice
25 ml Falernum style simple syrup
Dysphania Ambrosioides (Mexican tea) infused crushed ice

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Lithuania - Karolis Jakelevicius

Bar: Alchemikas, Vilnius
Cocktail: Hey Moon. Harvest Joy
60 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
20 ml Apple cordial infusion (apple juice, sugar, tartic acid, rosemary, thyme)
30 ml Honey and bread syrup
10 ml Lemon juice
5 ml Samane (moonshine)

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Mexico - Elizabeth Gordillo

Bar: Xaman, CDMX
Cocktail: Corazón Verde de Agave
60 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
60 ml Green prickly pear juice
15 ml Key lime juice
15 ml Cucumber syrup
15 ml Ancho Reyes Verde liquor

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Mexico - Mario Mena

Bar: Sonora Grill, CD, MX
Cocktail: Tahona Spirit
45 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
40 ml Citrus & hibiscus cordial
20 ml Aperol
15 ml Vanilla syrup

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Norway - Evan Rage

Bar: Fyr Bistronomi & Bar, Oslo
Cocktail: Reposita
50 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
20 ml Chocolate & mezcal reduction
10 ml Ancho Reyes chili liqueur
1 spoon Fernet Branca
1 pinch Sea salt

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Poland - Oscar Wereza

Bar: Eliksir, Gdansk
Cocktail: La Polona
40 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
20 ml Cider Gastrique with rhubarb and kaffir leaves (homemade)
10 ml Rhubarb syrup (homemade)
10 ml Lime juice
1 drop Saline solution
Top with soda

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Portugal - Alain Branco

Bar: Pistola y Corazón Taquerîa
Cocktail: La Leana De La Sombra
70 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
10 ml Fresh lemon juice
20 ml Homemade Nopal shrub
80 ml Homemade Tomatillo jam
1 slice Jalapeño
2 pinches Cilantro
Top with Jarritos Lime Soda

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Russia - Adil Zhelnov

Bar: 15 Kitchen + Bar
Cocktail: El Sol De La Rosa
45 ml Olmeca Altos Plata fat washed with homemade Basil Oil
10 ml Sherry wine
20 ml Homemade lime - Dogwood Cordial
20 ml Tea Rose Jam
40 ml Pineapple juice

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Russia - Mikhail Melnik

Bar: Must Have Bar
Cocktail: Arandas Sour
40 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
15 ml Agave syrup
25 ml Lime juice
10 ml Egg-white (smoked Silver Birch tree sliver, mint & pear)
15 ml Mixture of chokeberry juice & red wine

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Scotland - Kaiko Tulloch

Bar: Lucky Liquor, Edinburgh
Cocktail: De Sol a Sol
50 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
35 ml Pickled carrot and orange cordial
15 ml Citric lime oleo saccharum
10 ml Oxidised red wine float

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South Africa - AJ Snetler

Bar: The Twanky Bar, Cape Town
Cocktail: Ubualu Basintu
50 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
25 ml Spiced Agave syrup
20 ml Whey
20 ml Lemon juice
50 ml Pineapple, celery and cucumber mix

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USA East Coast - Anthony Bohlinger

Bar: Maison Premier, Brooklyn, New York City
Cocktail: Franco Mexican War
50 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
15 ml Olmeca Altos Reposado
22.5 ml Lemon cordial
7.5 ml Lemon juice
15 ml Grapefruit juice
7.5 ml Suze
4 dash Pernod absinthe
3 dash Angostura bitters

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USA West Coast - Karen Grill

Bar: No Name, Los Angeles
Cocktail: Elote en Vaso
30 ml Olmeca Altos Plata
25 ml Freshly squeezed lemon Juice
15 ml Nixtamal Amontillado Sherry
25 ml Corn silk & husk syrup
30 ml Corn milk washed Olmeca Altos Plata
2 dash Regans Orange bitters
Shaken and fine strained into a cocktail glass, finished with a pinch of salt.

Inspired by my love for Los Angeles and our vibrant Mexican culture.

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