STOKED ON SMOKE
Mezcal is the Spirit of the Moment
As a younger generation of diners increasingly seek out authentic flavors and small batch spirits, it’s no wonder mezcal is riding high.
“The younger customer is more open to trying out new things, and mezcal is everywhere these days,” says Jennifer Schneider, bar manager at Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito, California. “It changes the people who try it. And it’s an easier sell because they’ve seen it before.”
The agave-derived liquor is still largely produced by traditional methods in Oaxaca, Mexico, with each distiller and region lending its own sense of place to the bottle. Telling the story of individual producers and their artisanal methods have helped bartenders combat the outdated notion that mezcal is bottom-tier swill with a dead worm in every bottle.
Sales of mezcal are expected to increase nearly 18% by the end of 2022, reaching $840 million globally, according to a study by Future Market Insights. Though it’s yet to equal the 17.2 million 9-liter cases of tequila sold in the U.S. last year, demand for mezcal is up and creating concerns about overharvesting agave.
Though mezcal has obvious applications in margaritas and palomas, bartenders are gaining new fans for the spirit by thinking beyond Mexican-inspired cocktails.
READ THE SMOKE SIGNALS
Because agave plants are roasted in pits, smokiness is often a dominant flavor. While that can attract scotch drinkers, mezcal offers more than smoke, such as earthy and floral notes or honey and toffee.
“When I create a cocktail with mezcal, either I really want to brighten up and bring out the smokiness for mezcal lovers...or if I want to bring new people closer to mezcal, I might try to tame the smoke,” Schneider says.
Depending on the brands available to you, using a base mezcal – a lighter version of the spirit – is a good place to start.
“There are really pretty floral mezcals, and there’s really rough and dirty mezcal,” says Mike Jones, head bartender at Chicago’s Sable Kitchen & Bar. While he prefers the latter, leaning toward floral and more delicate notes can lure in newbies. So, try using milder versions of the spirit, like Nuestra Soledad Zoquitlan, Alipus San Baltazar, and Del Maguey Iberico.
Combining the spirit with agave-based tequila also produces a good base.
“When we build a drink with equal parts mezcal and house blanco tequila, we found it mellows out the smokiness,” says Chris Michel, a manager at Minero in Charleston, South Carolina. “Mezcal is on the expensive side, so we find that by doing that we’re not watering it down. The combination also lowers the price point.”
For mezcal cocktails, most bartenders suggest reaching for espadin, which makes up the vast majority of production. It’s budget-friendly, and the variety of producers means you can find a brand that works in a wide array of drinks.
According to Michel, espadin hits most of the key notes – citrus, green tones, earthiness, smoke – so he’s been pleased with Minero’s choice of El Peloton de la Muerte as the house mezcal.
Traditionally served neat alongside a few slices of orange, mezcal obviously plays well with fresh orange and lime in cocktails. It’s a solid base for margaritas, too. At Minero, customers can sub mezcal for tequila in margaritas for a $2 upcharge. But mezcal also shines with bitter spirits.
“Mezcal and bitters is an amazing combination – with Campari, with Aperol, with amaro,” says Schneider. “Aperol is very smooth and complements the edges of the mezcal. Add some citrus and you have the perfect drink.”
Because new mezcal drinkers tend to fixate on the smokiness, Michel suggests mixing the spirit with ingredients that play up other flavors. He’s also a fan of the mezcal-Aperol combination, as well as mezcal cocktails that include mole bitters or Ancho Reyes chile liqueur to play up earthy, spicy notes.
CREATE A NEW CLASSIC
Updating a classic drink with mezcal can attract newer drinkers, says Mike Jones, who gets requests for a Last Word with mezcal, or an Oaxacan Old Fashioned (sub mezcal for whiskey). Jones’ Misunderstood cocktail – a mix of Mezcal Vida, tequila, spicy ginger ale, honey, lime juice and cucumber, with a pilsner sidecar – is a mule riff that’s been on Sable’s menu for years.
Because mezcal is relatively new to the American bar scene, new ideas abound.
“There are no rules; there’s not a whole book of classic cocktails with mezcal,” says Schneider. “That’s what is exciting to bartenders: They have the ability to advance the cocktail community, to create the new classics.”