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Agave Affection

The rise and rise of agave spirits, and the basic understanding most people have around Mexican food, makes the match of spirit and cuisine an easy win at the bar.

Bar owner Deano Moncrieffe knows this better than anyone, having opened his own agave spirits and food bar chain Hacha in London. Deano has worked in the drinks industry for decades, and is a renowned expert when it comes to agave spirits, so proves the perfect person to bring pairings with tequila and mezcal to the masses.

Last year we were lucky enough to travel to Mexico and sample outstanding tequila with legendary distiller Carlos Camarena in Jalisco, before a trip to Oaxaca where we enjoyed the awesome mezcals of QuiQuiRiQui. One takeaway from the trip, in case there had been any doubt before we travelled, was that agave spirits work brilliantly with food, particularly the native cuisines. Take a blanco, for example: the spice and fresh quality of the spirit are obvious, but with 100% agave tequila you’ll also find a sweet quality. This combination of flavours makes it a perfect pair with seafood, vegetable dishes, but particularly ceviches or crudos. A rich reposado, meanwhile, works brilliantly with fattier meat dishes, the modest oak aging amplifying the sweet notes of agave to pair with spicy pork or beer dishes. Drinking neat tequila in the best Mexican restaurants was a true highlight of the trip.

This relationship between Mexican spirit and cuisine has been part of the British consciousness for a while, but only a handful of quality bar owners or agave aficionados have managed to honour the culture. The iconic Cafe Pacifico in London’s Covent Garden always springs to mind, and more recently the work of Stuart McCluskey in Edinburgh, whose El Cartel sites are fantastic.

Now we can add Deano Moncrieffe and his London bar Hacha to the list. Based in Dalston, this is a venue that presents agave spirits in all their glory and pairs them with innovative and authentic flavours along the way.

‘The main inspiration behind opening Hacha was to make agave spirits more approachable in a simple yet new way,’ says Deano. ‘My idea was “less is more”, which is why there are only 25 spirits on my back bar, we call this the agave list. The list constantly changes: whenever I feel like I want to freshen it up, I bring in new bottles.’

Hacha is the name of the rather hefty axe used to split the agave piña in half before it is cooked. It’s a brutal tool, as it needs to be, because agave piñas are massive and this is a tough job, but when it comes to Deano’s bar, the aligning of food and drink flavours is far more subtle and innovative. To this end, Deano presents the tequila with flavour enhancers – small edible tasters that pair with the flavours of a designated agave spirit.

‘I wanted to make agave approachable in a unique way, so I pair each spirit with a specific flavour enhancer that brings out the characteristics of that particular spirit. Think anything from a mezcal being served with milky bars, garlic and chilli olives, to even beef-flavoured Monster Munch crisps! We have a raicilla, served with 3 drops of CBD oil which brings out incredible earthy and grassy notes and is a stunning enhancer that has proved really popular. We have tequilas paired with anything from Seedlip Garden to chargrilled pineapple soaked in rum.’

There’s a lot of prep, experimentation and the occasional bit of science behind the idea, but in essence, it’s really simple. Deano knows his agave spirits inside out, has selected an eclectic rotating mix of styles, and then found some familiar or unfamiliar flavour companions to make it an education for the customer. And it’s a fascinating talking point in the bar, that has proved incredibly popular with customers. Hacha has a food menu, and we’ll get to that, but these flavour enhancers have been a big win.

‘I would say the biggest surprise has been how many customers are trying the agave spirits for the first time, and how they love the idea of the different flavour enhancer. In just over six weeks we’ve sold around 50 bottles of different agave spirits, which is an incredible achievement. This has probably been the most pleasing thing for me, because it backs up my theory that if you have fewer options then customers are more likely to experiment. I’m 100% convinced that if I had 150 different agave spirits on the list, I would’ve sold a lot fewer different bottles, because too many choices can be slightly bewildering for a casual consumer.’

Another win for bringing new people to agave spirits has been the cocktail menu. Designed to be approachable but interesting, the drinks are also recognisable in name but different in appearance and ingredients.

‘The mirror margarita is a number-one- selling serve and it’s fair to say that everyone absolutely loves it. It took about three months for me to perfect it, and it’s an absolutely crystal-clear margarita served on the rocks and has all the characteristics and flavours you would find in a regular margarita. It’s tequila-based but I’ve just finally managed to create a mezcal version, which is being launched very soon.

‘I think it’s fair to say that most of our local customers are not coming because they are fans of agave spirits; they are coming because they are fans of good cocktails and they love the ambience and space we have created. The vast majority have been pleasantly surprised by how versatile agave spirits are.’

It helps that the bar also looks stunning. ‘My partner and business partner Emma Murphy is the creative director, and she did everything from the interior design to all of the marketing and branding, so she deserves enormous credit for how Hacha looks and feels as a bar.’

The flavour enhancers alone earn Hacha a place in this supplement dedicated to food, but Deano has also ensured the wider food menu plays to the strengths of the spirits. ‘The food was massively important and

we wanted it to be Mexican-inspired with a Latin twist,’ he explains. ‘The kitchen is a resident kitchen by Conga and they are amazing. During our development stages we worked closely on the flavours I was trying to create in the cocktails, and how they would work well with the food; even though we don’t call it a direct pairing it was important that there was synergy between the two. The food is amazing and has been so well received. My main focus was to make everything small plates and shareable, because I think that is that the essence of Mexican community; it’s about people coming together and having a great time – the food and drink.

‘We have dishes like a Mexican ceviche served on fried breadfruit, yuca chips, pulled pork tostadas, Mexican prawns on green plantain tostadas; but our most popular dishes are also vegan and vegetarian, like the spicy black bean tacos and spiced aubergine tostadas.’

Such an offering means Hacha is far from a novelty. Deano is drawing customers in with the concept, he’s convincing them agave spirits are worth a try with the serves and enhancers, but then he’s encouraging them to stay for the evening with a food menu that enables them to make a night of it.

The success is perhaps emphasised by the popularity of mezcal here. Once a bartender secret, thought to be too assertive and challenging for the customers, the stories and intrigue behind this rustic spirit are now genuinely having an impact. Deano is proving that if you can get the punters to the bar and offer an interesting experience, they will be encouraged to try something new.

‘So far, the most popular spirit has been mezcal, by a country mile,’ he says. ‘Our customers are fascinated by the artisanal, small-batch, traditional story behind the category. I think there’s an element of romanticism around it. On average we do around 16 mezcal flights a week and 10 tequila flights a week, which has been a big success considering we are 48 covers (including outside). This doesn’t include people just buying a single serve, which is very often.’

On one hand, Hacha is a simple, neighbourhood bar in Dalston; others might even imagine it to be like a ‘theme bar’; but Deano and the team have put so much energy and thought into the experience that it is much more than either of these things. It’s a genuine spirits experience. People are coming from all over the country to see what he’s achieved, and perhaps more importantly than that, he’s proving agave spirits can be a real asset behind any bar.

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