The recently opened J.W. Marriott hadn’t even been in business and accepting guests for a full month when it took the top spot on the monthly list of Austin’s biggest alcohol sellers in February.
No word yet on where the downtown hotel places on the list for last month, but chances are, with South by Southwest in addition to its regular business, the J.W. Marriott has been moving through a lot of bottles of booze ever since.
Part of the reason it’s become such a boozy stronghold for both Austinites and tourists alike is that it’s a shiny new place with a trio of dining options — the hotel has a walk-up window Burger Bar, Italian-centric Osteria Pronto and the Texas-inspired outdoor spot Corner Bar — and it’s in an ideal location at Second Street and Congress Avenue.
But that explanation doesn’t quite give the J.W. Marriott bar program and staff enough credit. The bartenders (among them Carley Dunavant, one of the key players who helped to make Austin’s bar scene as good as it is today) have worked hard to ensure the J.W. Marriott can compete with some of Austin’s best cocktail meccas, bringing a special focus to the bar with a pair of spirits especially beloved by Corner bar general manager Brian Jaymont: tequila and the Mexican spirit’s more rustic cousin, mezcal.
Although he started out as a whiskey lover, he developed an affinity for tequila over the years, he said, adding that he likes the craftsmanship that goes into making it. Because it takes between 8 to 10 years to grow the agave from which tequila is distilled, “it’s far from a party spirit that you take in shots,” he said — you’ll want to savor each sip for the “complexity of flavor” that each one has.
Jaymont noted that many bar programs highlighting tequila try to be all-encompassing, with all the different styles available from every brand, but he and J.W. Marriott’s bar staff were more selective, especially wanting to highlight Texas-based tequila operations like Tequila 512.
Plus, he wants to showcase mezcal, also derived from the agave plant but often much smokier. Its distinctive taste means that it’s a favored spirit in bartenders’ arsenals, although if incorporated poorly into a cocktail, Jaymont said, it turns off potential fans. (The J.W. Marriott’s Forever Smoky, featuring Corralejo Reposado Tequila and Forever OAX Mezcal, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and serrano peppers, is a beautifully done example of how mezcal can add an extra dimension to a drink, breathing a hint of smoke into the spicy and sweet elements of the Marriott’s signature cocktail.)
Here, Jaymont offers a few of his favorite tequila and mezcal brands on the market today — all available at the hotel, located at 110 E. Second St., of course.
- Sierra Vieja: This small-batch tequila brought in from Mexico by San Antonio’s Harol Avila is named after the small town in Mexico where his parents met and fell in love, Jaymont said. As the J.W. Marriott’s house tequila, it’s “fantastic quality for the cost ($26),” he said, adding that since so few bottles of it are produced, the hotel is just about the only place in town where it’s distributed. And Jaymont is quite all right keeping it so exclusive.
- Qui Tequila: Although this extra añejo has been aged for more than three and a half years in a mix of white oak barrels that formerly aged American whiskey and French Bordeaux, it doesn’t exactly look the part of a matured spirit. It’s clear as a blanco tequila because after its time in barrels, it’s further distilled, Jaymont said, “to make it approachable” while still retaining its agave kick and butterscotch notes from the barrels.
- Tears of Llorona: An extra añejo like Qui, it could not be more different from its colorless counterpart. Master distiller German Gonzalez aged his hard-to-find tequila (which has been likened to “the Pappy of tequila” for its rarity) in old Scotch, sherry and brandy barrels for 54 months to impart a port finish, very round and rich, in the spirit that he named after an old Mexican ghost story. Gonzalez, who took over the boozy family business from his father, won’t disclose the details of his aging process, but suffice it to say, his secretive methods work.
- Alipus San Baltazar: Of all the mezcals in the J.W. Marriott collection, this one’s Jaymont’s favorite. It’s made from espadin agave (whereas all tequila comes from the blue agave plant) grown at a high altitude in a hilly area of Oaxaca with rocky soil, and it’s got an anise note at the front that he said makes the mezcal stand out from the others. It’s a “joven” mezcal, meaning it hasn’t been aged — but a mezcal that’s spent some time maturing might actually be best for someone new to the Mexican spirit, he said, since “oak mellows out a lot of that char.” For an aged mezcal, he recommends Agave de Cortes 1 year.