A tequila from a man who always thought he was allergic to the stuff. Vivir Tequila is one of the latest quality British brands taking the category by storm. Sixteen years in the making but less than a year old, the company prides itself on transparency, sustainable practice and damn tasty products. If you haven’t come across them yet, you will soon…
We seat ourselves on our favourite couch at members’ club TRADE Soho, and await the arrival of Paul Hayes – one half of Vivir Tequila. It’s always an odd one meeting someone for the first time when neither of you have the faintest clue what the other looks like or how formal a meeting is like to be; however, we needn’t have worried. Sporting a Vivir branded black t-shirt and carrying an impressive Bond Villain style suitcase filled with tequila, Paul is thankfully an immediately recognisable figure who exudes a ready charm and geniality sure to put anyone at ease.
Vivir as a brand launched in March of this year. Since then, their rise has been astronomical bringing with it excitement, opportunity and what Paul calls “good challenges”.
How did Vivir Tequila come into being?
Myself and Nav started the process around three-and-a-half year ago but really the whole thing started sixteen years ago when I started a food company.
I’m a big snowboarder and our standard staple was always Bircher muesli that you make in the morning as it keeps you going. Back then, no one in the UK knew about it and I was the first to bring it over. I started making it here and before long was supplying it to people in my office and then local coffee shops and then Waitrose and so on. I’m a real stickler for knowing my ingredients so everything was sourced locally to me in Cheshire; I even knew the cows who’s milk we used. We never wanted to use refined sugar or even raw cane, and it was suggested to us to use agave syrup, which is where our relationship with tequila started. I didn’t know anything about agave at the time other than the fact that I couldn’t drink tequila – or so I thought!
When I went to Mexico to get the agave syrup from the distilleries, even the guys there found it a bit weird as we were buying it in vats to bring over to the UK. You can’t work with those guys and not drink your own bodyweight in tequila. I was a bit wary but started to drink what they produced and loved it! I then found out that what we mainly had in the UK was Mixto, which uses 51% Weber blue agave and 49% something else like non-matured agave or corn syrup that I was clearly allergic to. The 100% agave tequila was brilliant and I didn’t understand why we didn’t have it in the UK.
Fast-forward three-and-a-half years to when Nav and I were sitting in a bar, trying to drink tequila and were presented with Jose Cuevo, which I can’t drink. This begged the question, “Why is good tequila not readily available in the UK?” We both reached out to the market and heard the same thing over and over – that there were a lot of great independent tequilas in the US and of course in Mexico but you could only get these at speciality bars and shops in the UK. We asked our contacts whether they thought it would work if we were dedicated to creating our own tequila, and everyone was biting our hands off and saying “Well, yeah, obviously! That would be amazing!” And so, we started the journey.
Already having those connections with distilleries in Mexico must have been useful.
Yes, indeed! We knew what we wanted to make and how we wanted to do it. We were already credited over there with the CRT and we had the logistics in place to get products over here because we already did it with the agave syrup, so it was the perfect storm really. We spent three years developing it: one year developing the Blanco, then we waited two years for the Reposado and Añejo to age – we thought if we were going to do it, best do it properly. We launched around the start of the year and since then, it’s gone nuts! We’re house pours at great places like this [TRADE Soho] all around the country.
People sometimes think we’re just chancers coming into the market but then they try our tequilas and every time realise that they’re really good. We’ve been in the market for a long time and we know what we’re doing and always wanted to create something to be proud of.
Tell us about your distillery and why you chose it.
We’d previously worked with three or four distilleries out in Jalisco but, when doing our own tequila, we decided to stick with Casa Maestri – a fifth or sixth generation, family-run distillery that grows all its own Highland Weber blue agave, so we know literally everything about it. We know it’s gotten to full maturity (eight-nine years), that the Brix content is quite high so its sweet, therefore ensuring its palatable for the UK market with a fibre-y, peppery kick afterwards. We know the PH of the soil and that the jimadores are hired by the actual distillery as opposed to being contracted in for harvest, so are fully employed. Casa Maestri keep a certain amount of agave to one side so it grows to full maturity, flowers and seeds. Because of this, the flowering plant keeps a lot of the animal infrastructure there with the bug life feeding the plants and helping pollination etc.
Casa Maestri also the cooking techniques they adopt are traditional methods. We use hornos [traditionally heated masonry ovens] instead of autoclaves and cook the agave for four days. There are no diffusers on site, which was important to us. We only use natural volcanic spring water that comes up at our distillery, which is very unique and makes a massive difference to our end product.
Your knowledge of the process and attention to detail shows how hand’s-on you are.
Quality and consistency are super important to us. For example, it took about 100 iterations before we were happy with the Blanco. Our Reposado and Añejo are both aged in ex-Jack Daniels, standard size 200 litres barrels. We always use Jack Daniels barrels because they’re the best product and, when you’re our size, the barrels you use need to be consistent if you want a consistent product. We went through eight or nine different cask types from New American oak charred upwards and found that the Jack Daniels ones gave the strongest flavour, so that’s what we went for. However, using barrels straight from them gave us too much aroma and flavour so we use them after Casa Maestri have already aged two of its own Reposado’s in them. This way, we get those sweet vanilla, caramel notes that we want, without the heavy bourbon taste.
The branding is very striking and different. What was the reasoning behind that?
I designed the branding and purposefully made it quite contemporary. We want to change the perception of tequila and start with the way the bottles look even before people taste the liquid. A lot of brands tend to go quite traditional with Mexican artwork, which is great but people have this perception of what tequila is and, if we keep reinforcing that, it’s going to be harder to change.
We really thought about it and wanted to be different whilst keeping something of tradition. For example, the Blanco bottle is the colour of the agave; it’s also meant to look like ceramics so that a nod to tradition. Our logo is Quetzalcóatl, the Aztec god who agave supposedly came from.
The branding has worked really well for us. We’ve kept the bottle stumpy as we wanted it to sit at the front of the bar and keep it present. It was also important to us to ensure that it the products together looked like a family but were very obviously different from one another.
Let’s talk money. Yours are premium products – what’s one of these beauties going to set us back?
Prices at retail range from around £35 to £45 across the portfolio.
That’s very reasonable!
It is. We wanted to benchmark ourselves against Patrón. We know that our quality is better but wanted our price-point to be just that little bit below them. One, because we aren’t hugely greedy on the margins; two because we want bars to consider us for premium house pours or cocktail menus and that’s what’s worked a treat for us! We’ve been kicking Patrón and Don Julio out of some bar pours, which is cool and unexpected, especially so soon!
Would you like to try some…?
Not needing a second invitation, we dive into a portfolio tasting of Vivir.
Tasting Notes: Vivir Tequila
Vivir Tequila Blanco
Made from 100% Weber blue agave, Vivir Tequila Blanco is double distilled and blended with local water from a volcanic spring close to the distillery in Jalisco.
Clean and fresh with caramelised agave sweetness and a touch of biscuit.
On the initial palate, very light salted caramel comes through, followed by a gentle pepper from the horno and lovely bright vegetal notes. These develop into coffee before coming back to a sweetness that is this time more vegetal. A truly rounded journey with a lingering nature.
The qualities of the sweet Weber blue agave are ever-present and the smoothness of the Blanco is very impressive.
An all-rounder, perfect in a Paloma or cocktail of your choosing, or equally good drunk neat (just PLEASE leave out the salt and lime).
£34.95. Buy it here from Master of Malt.
Vivir Tequila Reposado
Aged for a minimum of six-months in ex-Jack Daniels oak casks, that have previously held two other Reposado’s (making this a third-use barrel for tequila). Again, this is made using 100% Weber blue agave from Casa Maestri’s planting and (for the nerds amongst you) carries a Brix level of around 26-29 (pretty darn sweet, fully matured agave).
Strong agave presence. Very vegetal with green bell peppers, thyme honey, chargrilled courgettes, raw asparagus. There is a fuller caramel hinting at honeycomb and beeswax. Vanilla pods, ginger biscuits and something reminiscent of Custard Creams add to the sweetness.
Our first thought is “Stroopwafel”! Chewy caramel, nuttiness, butter, malty biscuit and huge amounts of vanilla swirl beautifully around the earthy backbone of agave. Custard, shortbread and creme brûlée notes should all make this an overly sweet Reposado however, whilst the flavours recall desserts, the liquid is surprisingly balanced and not overly sweet! A truly odd and complex Reposado that even someone without a sweet-tooth would enjoy!
Enjoy neat or in any tequila-based cocktail. We’ve yet to find one that it doesn’t work in but it’s particularly good with a not-too-sweet Ginger Ale such as Thomas Henry.
£35.95. Buy it from Master of Malt here.
Vivir Tequila Añejo
100% Weber blue agave, harvested at around 12 years old. This time, the liquid has been aged for 18-months in the same ex-Jack Daniels oak casks as the Reposado.
Lightly smoky on the nose with a rich, full caramel, vanilla and woody notes.
The gentle smoke comes through on the palate with a sweetness that is tempered by wood character. Something of Tunnock’s Milk Chocolate and Marshmallow Tea Cakes also shouts out from the recessives of our plate memory. The mouthfeel is creamy and caresses savoury elements and spice.
Highly complex but with a reserved delivery that takes its time opening up, this is the one that makes us wonder if Paul and Nav named their brand “To Live” (translation of Spanish word “Vivir”) as either an ode to or a challenge at whisky (commonly called “the water of life”). The similarities between a good sipping whisky or rum are palpable and both the impossibly smooth mouthfeel and longevity on the palate truly challenge what we think of as “tequila”.
Neat is definitely advised at first but, as the price-point is so reasonable, definitely use these in twists of your heartier cocktails such as an Espresso Martini, Negroni or Old Fashioned.