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The Hennchata: How Hennessy-spiked Horchata Became a Drink Sensation

In Culture

Every decade has its cocktail fashions. The ’50s brought Irish coffees to the U.S., and, in the’60s, pink squirrels ran wild. Harvey Wallbangers and tequila sunrises raged in the ’70s and in the ’80s we had sex on the beach. The ’90s brought mojitos stateside and helped kick off the labor-intensive craft cocktail craze. The Moscow Mule returned to claim signature drink status in the present era.

While many drink pandemics originate in foreign lands, in decades past or in the ambitious, calculating minds of corporate brand marketers, every once in a while a humble entrepreneur contributes a libation to contemporary cocktail culture. Jorge Sanchez was recovering from a partnership implosion in Campbell when he took over Chacho’s, a dive on downtown San Jose’s San Fernando Street.

His luck turned with the creation of the Hennchata, a simple mix of traditional Latin American rice drink with Hennessy. And lest anyone question the addition of brandy from the Cognac region to an Aztec agua fresca, just remember that many people think mariachi music came from the French too, though no one would ever hire a guy named Pierre to play trumpet at a bar mitzvah.

Not only did Mexico save uniformed horn bands from extinction after the Maximilian Affair, its national drink has rescued French brandy from becoming a Coke mixer promoted in bad hip-hop songs. The enabling technology that makes a Hennchata more than just another mixed drink is an L-shaped plastic clip that clamps onto the rim of a thick-walled, stemmed chavela glass. The patented device holds an upside-down airline bottle of liquor in place, with the alcohol suspended by gravity-defying laws of physics.

The bottle is loaded into the plastic aperture and dropped inside the horchata without emptying its contents. There’s no fancy technique, like tilting the glass diagonally or sealing the bottle’s mouth. “You just do it quick,” explains bartender David Sizemore, demonstrating with a flick of the wrist how Monsieur Hennessy dives into the milky mix at a 90-degree vertical angle.

Drawn through a straw, it starts off as a plain horchata, with a sweet, full mouth and just a hint of alcohol.  A few sips in, the grape brandy gurgles slowly at first and the horchata turns amber. The remaining distillate evacuates its glass holding cell, creating a high alcohol mix. It’s the reverse of most cocktail experiences, where the drinks get weaker and less tasty as ice melts and dilutes the beverage.

Sanchez says he’s number one in Hennessy bottle sales in Northern California and sold 17,266 Hennchatas in a single year. LVMH Moët Hennessy executives have arrived by the busload to deconstruct the phenomenon and invite the restaurateur, a native of Gilroy, to red carpet movie premieres in Hollywood.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Sanchez was standing on a ladder Tuesday evening with a cordless drill in his hand, affixing sheet rock to steel studs. He was handed the keys to the former gourmet cupcake bakery location next door and will break down the wall to expand his now-cramped eatery.

Sanchez is also trying to invent the next bar hit, mixing Don Julio tequila with mango base to create the “mangolada,” another upside-down drink garnished with a tamarind chili dusted straw.

He’s hoping that lightning in a bottle will strike twice. Even if the laws of chance prevail, there’s still the Hennchata, a new drink classic invented in Silicon Valley whose popularity shows no signs of letting gravity get in its way.


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