We Love Drinks continues our series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
When Ivan Iricanin first tells me his favorite drink is tequila, I don’t quite believe him. After all, as beverage manager for Masa 14 with its 100+ tequila collection, doesn’t he have to say that? But the care is evident as he lines up a flight showcasing some exquisite ultra-aged tequila. And once I sample his simple margarita, I definitely believe him.
Ivan’s originally from Serbia, spending the past five years in DC and previously working with Richard Sandoval at Zengo. When I ask how a Serbian came to love a Mexican liquor, he mentions rakija, a fruit brandy usually made with plums. The best varieties are homemade and difficult to get. Traveling to Mexico as part of his stint with Washington Wholesale, he was reminded of his national liquor when trying the micro-tequilas – and of course Sandoval’s Mexican heritage was a huge influence as well.
Most Americans never get past mixto tequila, artificially colored and only 50% or so of it actual agave – the remainder coming from other sugar sources. “You’ll get a headache if it’s mixto,” Ivan says strongly, “all our tequilas served here are 100% agave.” This is serious stuff, with a regulatory council and bottle identifiers similiar to wine regulation. Ivan suggests starting your exploration with a flight – and what better way to completely wipe all memory of previous bad tequila choices than to go with a micro-tequila flight. Masa has six on the menu, and you won’t find them anywhere else.
As he lines up the gorgeous bottles with a card explaining each one, I’m thinking this could be dangerous, even though Ivan says the quality is flawless. I’m still relieved that fellow WLDC author Max is also along for the ride to help me with the tasting!
The first thing I notice sipping the micro-tequilas – El Caudillo, El Llano, and Don Celso – is their similarity to whisky. Incredibly complex, these tequilas are aged in bourbon barrels from anywhere to a few months to several years, and the oak is definitely present. The finish is beautifully smooth. There’s a distinctive yet barely perceptible quality of sweetness from the agave. It completely changed my mind about drinking tequila, which was never a favorite. I’m hooked.
The flights, both micro and otherwise, are the perfect way to get educated about the varieties of tequila – terms like blanco, reposado, anejo refer to the length of aging – and Ivan’s staff is trained to make it accessible and non-threatening. He recommends trying the reposado (meaning “rested”) as a way to branch out, which is tequila aged for a minimum of two months but less than a year (most people are used to blanco, which is aged the least). Apparently this open friendliness is working – he says the flights are increasing in popularity and allowing patrons to branch out into more exclusive tequilas without having to commit to the expense of a full bottle. Judging from the constant crowds at that long bar, the tequila education of DC will be a success.
But we know they aren’t all drinking tequila straight! So Ivan rustles up the signature tequila cocktail for Max and I to try – the margarita.
As Ivan’s expertly crafting the drink, I ask him what he likes about living in DC. After all it’s been five years since he came here from Serbia, and I’m curious as always about what makes people stay. “It’s the perfect size,” he says, “you can go to New York City in three hours but you can come back the same day.” He’s proud of the vibe that he, Kaz and Sandoval have created for Masa – “cosy, not pretentious” – and eager for the rollout of Monday jazz nights to continue that sexy ambiance. Like so many who’ve come to the city, he’s helped create something that he might not have been able to elsewhere.
The Margarita Traditional (or “Margarita Naturale” as Ivan says with a wink) is on the bar. It’s a beautiful shade of delicate lime. There are only three ingredients – tequila, agave simple syrup, and fresh lime juice. The simplicity pays off – it’s delectably smooth, with the almost honey taste of the agave coming through. “I hate sweet drinks,” Ivan says, “and no triple sec! Too much sugar is bad for you.” We’re nodding in agreement, sip after sip proving that using the agave syrup is definitely the way to go. Clean, crisp and deliciously citrus-y, it makes us long for spring to hurry up and get here already!
It’s obvious Ivan’s dedicated to get people to be more adventurous, to enlighten patrons that there’s more to this complex liquor than they may think. He’s a consummate professional with a true passion – spreading the word about agave’s harvest.
“Slowly but surely, people are getting into tequila,” Ivan sums up. I wasn’t a believer before, but now, I’m eager to dive in and try more.
Many thanks to Ivan Iricanin for letting us sample his beverage program for our sixth We Love Drinks profile, and to Lindley Thornburg for making the introduction. A special thanks to Max Cook for joining in the fun.