We cherish our visits to San Clemente, home to my wife’s best friend and what I think of as the last affordable Southern California beach town. As I write this, puffy clouds hover over the ocean on a brisk, chilly Memorial Day weekend. Upon arrival yesterday (in the rain!) we ducked into South of Nick’s (http://thenickco.com/southofnicks.php), the newest restaurant in town. Under an exposed-beam and truss ceiling, clean white walls and tile floors that evoke a little bit of La Quinta, we enjoyed fiery micheladas with Negra Modelo, margaritas and some light contemporary Mexican fare.
As we were leaving, my wife noticed a display case along one wall with some VERY nice tequilas in it. One in particular caught her eye: an exquisite apothecary bottle with a handwritten, numbered label and a flat-topped glass stopper. This was surrounded by bottles of all shapes and sizes: from the cut glass crystal of Gran Patron Platinum to the hand-painted Gran Mayan; from the classic Reserva de la Familias to the outrageous Asombroso “penis bottle.” So we all crowded around the case, chatted up regional manager Nick Cousins (a Nick but not the restaurant namesake) and resolved effusively, as people with a few drinks on board do, to come back and try them sometime. So, after a fortifying walk up and down Del Mar Avenue where I picked up a copy of The Ubiquitous Pig, a coffee table book honoring one of my favorite animals, we sidled back up to the bar in low chairs, pooled 450 quarters and ordered up three of the fanciest tequilas in the place.
An entirely new level of ultra premium tequilas have come on the market since Patron blew open the premium category twenty years ago. These, perhaps one or even two categories above the revered Patron, strain to top one another in price, packaging, formulation and character, and put sipping tequilas on par with single malt scotches and cognacs.
For our benchmark tequila we chose Peligroso Reposado ($10), a relatively new but very popular brand headquartered here. Peligroso’s a fine tequila, and tasted like, well, tequila, more so tequila-ey than any of the others we tasted. That was itself very satisfying, with traditional notes of agave, honeydew melon, patchouli and plaster. It’s pale gold, lightly aromatic, and wouldn’t disappear inside a margarita.
Casa Dragone ($30) was the apothecary bottle tequila and its intense flavors belied its clear hue. Pre-tasting aromas included citrus and white pepper. While light on the tongue, the finish at the back of the mouth was sharp, grappa-like and burned on the soft palate. It felt much like the distillation of essential tequila-ness, but wasn’t altogether pleasant.
The manager’s favorite (and at 160 quarters a glass why wouldn’t it be?) was Herradura Seleccion Suprema. This exists in a territory at the margins of tequila, with strong notes of honey and caramel on the nose, sweet, very much like cognac. It balances sweetness with woodsy, earthy bottom notes. Extremely smooth, there’s almost an umami to the feel on the tongue, and it fades away gently, like a dream upon waking. We thought it tasted really, really good.
Last came the Grand Mayan, which comes in a gorgeous hand-made ceramic bottle that’s delicate and sophisticated—not like the heavy Mexican crockery that looks like it needs a donkey or a serape. The darkest tequila we’ve seen, it was the color of walnut, smelled of dark tanned leather and came on strong, a sharp but not unpleasant attack on the tongue. We noticed spicy aromas on the nose and strong flavors of hazelnut, balsamic, lavender and coffee grounds. Complex but smooth, flavor lingers on the finish.
We had a little taste of Los Azulejos ($17), which comes in Picasso-inspired bottle. We didn’t get enough for a thorough evaluation, but we remember notes of plantain and banana.
For an amuse bouche, Nick’s served us a lovely house-made sangrita, a thick blend of tomato and orange juice and essentially Blood Mary spices that cleared our palates between tastes as best it could. Hard liquor tasting frankly bludgeons the palate, and I don’t know as we could have tasted too many more tequilas than the five we tried without dulling our perceptions somewhat. Well, a lot. As the weekend wore on, we indulged in some less carefully documented but equally enjoyable beverage sampling across the OC, from the St. Regis Monarch Beach “butterfly release ritual” to the Dana West Yacht Club. But that’s a story for another day.
Happy Memorial day, all. The drinking will continue until the economy improves. When it does, we’ll drink to celebrate.