FOOD AND DRINK
Where to Explore Tequila and Mezcal in New York
If you can't make it to Mexico to sample agave spirits, New York's probably the next best thing
For anyone who still believes the shot is the be-all and end-all experience when it comes to Mexican booze, it’s probably time to explore the diverse world of agave-based spirits with a fresh outlook. The explosion of international interest in craft tequila, mezcal and their lesser known relatives (raicilla, bacanora and sotol) has changed agave’s reputation from a college campus mistake to a mark of sophistication. In terms of spirit selection and the quality of the food you’re pairing them with, there’s probably no better place than New York to do your exploring.
In the last few years there has been an eruption of bars and restaurants here that highlight agave in every way possible: as the star of a cocktail program, featured in flights, paired with both traditional and modern cuisines. While some are simply riding a trend in a city that runs on rapidly changing fads, there are more establishments than ever that are genuinely invested in the culture of agave, where it is passionately served by people who can help further your understanding of these magical and often mysterious beverages. These are the spots in New York City – some old, some new – where you can help quench your thirst for all things agave.
The dark, cosy space has overstuffed banquettes and wooden pew booths for seating, decorated with Mexican tiled tables and church-like stained glass windows it feels like the perfect place for a secret meeting. The specialties here are the exuberant cocktails, at times effusive with their laundry list of ingredients, but always spot on in terms of balance, flavour and intrigue. Tried-and-true house classics like the Oaxacan old fashioned are nestled in between seasonally changing libations that are categorized by fresh, stirred and spicy. For those who are hip to the magic that happens when combining sherry and agave, there is an entire section dedicated to that very trick. The impressive list of spirits to enjoy neat and in flights (including sotol, raicilla and bacanora in addition to tequila and mezcal) may be the most extensive in the city, with the major bonus being that everyone who works there seems to be well versed in agave culture. The food menu is one of the safest bets for good Mexican in the city, highlights include indulgently cheesy chilaquiles, popcorn seasoned with lime, chili and cotija cheese and an array of authentic tacos.
304 East 6th St., 212-253-5888
The look here is chic and casual, an open expanse with Mexico City inspired graffiti murals from floor to (high) ceilings and wall to wall. Another wall, this one filled with tequila and mezcal, decorates the back bar, featuring the creative array of labels that have become fashionable among craft agave spirits. Temerario’s cocktail list offers well-made margaritas and other classics with a twist; the “Chelsea affair,” for example, mixes mezcal with Lillet, pine syrup, blueberries and Angostura bitters. The cocktails work, but those seeking an authentic experience will skip them in favour of sampling the thorough selection of mezcal on display. Pair neat pours with the house’s upgraded version of tacos arabes, a specialty of the Mexican state of Puebla; it’s marinated pork on za’atar flatbread and piloncillo salsa.
198 8th Ave., 212-645-2100
Hecho En Dumbo
The warm glow of low lighting provides a sexy backdrop for fashionistas, young models and beverage industry professionals. Hecho En Dumbo’s modern interpretation of Mexican food and drink relies heavily on locally sourced sustainable ingredients, much to the delight of the contemporary crowd. And it’s no gimmick: The house-made vegan green chorizo tacos on handmade tortillas rival the best pork based versions in all of Manhattan. A medium-sized list of agave spirits is passionately curated rather than impressively large, with plenty of rare bottles for even the geekiest tastes. The cocktails are approachable, built around trusty flavour combinations such as pineapple with chili, and serve as an easy introduction to the more aggressive flavors of mezcal for those who are just getting into it.
354 Bowery, 212-937-4245
Hecho En Dumbo
The main level and mezcaleria area of this three-tiered bar is decked out with traditional Mexican decorations, complete with colourful paper flags and festive string lights. Scattered around are artifacts that look like they belong in a museum (think stone figurines and old glass tequila and mezcal jugs), creating an authentically Mexican atmosphere. It’s one of the few places you can sample traditional agave spirits alongside the foods it is typically served with in Oaxaca. Go with friends and order a tasting of neat pours alongside their tlayuda, an oversized crisp tortilla topped with beans, cheese and all the fixins (kind of like a Mexican pizza), or pour an ounce of mezcal into a traditional clay mug of cafe de olla, rich coffee sweetened with piloncillo and cinnamon.
86 Orchard St., 212-777-2661
The airy and vast space is ultra modern, on par with the most elegant and stylish restaurants anywhere in New York. The wide and long wooden bar is home to a team of eager mixologists who strike a comfortable balance between professional and friendly toward the upscale clientele. The cuisine has gone a long way to redefine Mexican fine dining in a city that can be guilty of getting trapped in the Tex-Mex style, offering delicate ceviches, house-made heirloom corn tortillas, and the not-to-be-missed duck carnitas. Cocktails integrate tequila and mezcal seamlessly, proving that agave can go beyond flavoured margaritas and work nicely in tandem with other spirits and housemade mixers. For those who want to drink something straight, meanwhile, Cosme’s tequila and mezcal lineup highlights the best of what’s available.
35 East 21st St., 212-913-9659
The décor is Brooklyn chic meets elegant Mexico City (dramatic drapes and a central chandelier). The crowd is made up of mostly twenty-somethings who inhabit the nearby artist lofts and workshops and come for food that shows off fresh ingredients. Cantina Royal’s drink menu is designed to please, offering refreshing real-fruit versions of the usual suspects of flavoured margaritas (mango, jalapeno, pomegranate), along with a few gently mixed agave cocktails, many of which incorporate house infused spirits (think arbol chile-infused mezcal). The tequila and mezcal list is an unpretentious combination of well-known and under-the-radar spirits, making this a good choice for those who feel more comfortable going with something they know. Whatever you choose to drink, pair it with housemade salsa for an authentic taste of Mexico.
58 North 3rd St., 347-763-2938
Decked out with reclaimed-looking wood everywhere, from the tables and chairs to the antique-style cabinets that house bottles of tequila and mezcal, this Brooklyn haunt is welcoming and intimate, without being cramped. The cocktails tend toward the experimental, though a safe bet is the bottled paloma, a traditional combination of tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda or soda water with grapefruit. It hits the spot every time. Equally appealing to aficionados and novices, the flights of agave spirits are thoughtful, and a compact list ensures it is exciting rather than overwhelming. Sip your way through tequila, mezcal and rarer agave-based spirits alongside Latin inspired bar snacks, such as a flamed shrimp arepa that provides just enough kick.
221 Smith St., 347-987-3260