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Don't Fear Mezcal. Try it in a Cocktail at These Five Spots

As gringos slowly get wise to the power of Mexico's other major agave spirit, here's how bartenders in New York, Toronto, Montreal and Chicago are serving it

Mezcal is a hell of a drink.

My first mezcal experience stands in stark contrast to my first tequila. In high school, cheap tequila was thrown back with gusto (and chased with a parcel of regrets). When introduced to mezcal, I sat in a circle of travellers on a stifling Oaxacan eve just after sundown. There, we listened with intent as a Mexican fellow shared his knowledge of the spirit, sniffing it carefully before letting the smoky liquid pour over our tongues. This was something to be savoured; this was something with history and depth. Mezcal demanded respect.

Following North America’s superficial foodie obsession with the taco, it makes sense that interest would eventually progress deeper into Mexico’s culinary and beverage offerings. Much like how tacos al pastor made way for mole (sauce that folds about 20 ingredients into its chocolately landscape), curiosity about tequila has helped blaze a trail for mezcal.

“The difference between tequila and mezcal,” explains Evelyn Chick of Toronto’s PrettyUgly bar, “is that all tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas.”

While tequilas can only be made by fermenting the blue weber variety of the agave plant, mezcal can be produced using many different varieties of agave (the exact number varies depending on what source you read, but it’s at least a couple dozen). Each type of agave (called “maguey” in Mexican Spanish) will yield different flavours, from tart young papaya notes to a sweetness redolent of ripe fruits. While agave grows throughout Mexico, most mezcal is distilled in the province of Oaxaca.

Like most mezcal fans, Chick finds the variety intriguing. “It all depends on how the maestro – the distiller – chooses to roast, rest and ferment the piña.”

The piña – the agave’s heart, which resembles a jacked-up pineapple – is roasted in a pit in the ground. This process imbues its sugars and juices with its renowned smoky flavour. After being crushed, the heart is combined with water and finally distilled in either clay or copper pots.

But before all that – before the agave can be harvested – it needs to mature for at least 25 years (for tequila it only needs to grow for a minimum of eight years). Not to mention that while vines will produce new grapes every year, an agave piña can only be used once. All these reasons add to mezcal’s mystery and allure – and its cost.

If you’re up for sampling mezcal, trying it in a cocktail first can make for a smooth introduction. Here are five places to begin your mezcal journey.

Toronto: PrettyUgly

PrettyUgly is a newish bar in the Parkdale neighbourhood, brought to you by the people behind the successful Bar Isabel and Bar Raval. Guests enter through a tiny imitation of a mezcaleria and rug shop before passing through to the main bar beyond. There, the cocktail menu – a collaboration between Chick and partners Robin Goodfellow and Mike Webster – places much of the focus on mezcal. When coming up with the cocktail called “Lew drank it all,” Chick was trying to build a cocktail to highlight the flavours of an arroqueño mezcal (arroqueño is a variety of agave that grows wild).

But when Chick went on the hunt for the bottle, it was nowhere to be found. As the story goes, Lew – one of the youngest bartenders on the team – well, it turns out he drank it all. In the end, both tequila and a mezcal (not an arroqueño, incidentally) are used for the powerfully spirit-forward drink. Guerra Dry vermouth from Spain and pineapple-infused Chartreuse round out the ingredient list, with the latter adding a tropical element in the finish. “This tastes like I’m supposed to be in Mexico,” Chick says.  

Karolyne Ellacott/Billy

Lew may have drunk it all, but paradoxically, you can still order one

Chicago: Mezcaleria Las Flores

Sniff out Mezcaleria Las Flores if you’re in Chicago and you’re interested in mezcal. Head bartender and partner Jay Schroeder has been smitten with the spirit for some time. While working at a Mexican restaurant, Schroeder explored the complexities of mezcal through daily tastings. “I began to realize that it's a field in which there's always something to learn,” he says. “That's when I really started to fall in love.” After tossing around the idea of opening a fully dedicated mezcaleria, a space opened and plans swung into motion.

Inside, Las Flores has been tricked out with a mishmash of Oaxacan- and Southwest-inspired design details. Patrons are able to select from more than 100 expressions of mezcal; Schroeder is trying to head to Oaxaca on research trip every six months or so. “Agave is the most complex source material for spirits,” Schroeder says. “It has more aromas and flavours to start with than grapes or sugar – in fact, more than every grain used to make whisky combined.”

With the goal of making a cocktail both accessible yet interesting Schroeder ended up with the “unknown death,”

The tipple pairs Wahaka Joven Espadín mezcal with Ancho Reyes, a chili pepper liqueur, for heat, plus Amaro Montenegro for an herbal quality, and it derives a sweet nuttiness from crème de noyaux liqueur.

The name is an homage to the work of Swedish rapper Yung Lean, whom Schroeder believes is also accessible and interesting. “Pink in colour and served in a blue and white bowl, the beverage [also] perfectly portrays Yung Lean's Arizona-iced-out aesthetic,” Schroeder says.

Mezcaleria Las Flores

The 'unknown death': a Mexican spirit plus American cocktail know-how, named for a Swedish rapper's album

New York: Cosme

Famed chef Enrique Olvera’s eatery Cosme pays just as much attention to its cocktail program as it does to its Mexican-inspired cuisine. Beverage director Yana Volfson ensures that the Flatiron District restaurant boasts a lengthy mezcal list for sippers, as well as cocktails such as the “striptease,” named after the building’s former occupant, a strip club called Ten’s Cabaret. For the tipple, Vida mezcal is paired with Dolin Blanc vermouth, guanabana (also known as soursop) and lime. Absinthe salt provides the finishing touch. Volfson says of the cocktail, “the striptease is a flirtatious layering of exotic flavours starting with a lick of its salty vegetal rim, floral, smoking bod and tropical linger.”

New York: Fonda

Chef and cookbook author RobertoSantibañez, of New York’s Fonda restaurants, has a mezcal education that reaches way back. “My father's side of the family is from Oaxaca,” says Santibañez, “so I was exposed to mezcales at a very young age.” Fonda has a large mezcal selection stretching over its three locations New York-area locations, making it a great spot to settle in for a tasting.

For the “el sabor” cocktail, Montelobos Mezcal Joven is infused with cinnamon before being layered with Luxardo maraschino liqueur (which has sour cherry notes), apple juice, Green Chartreuse and lime. Santibañez says balance is key; it’s important to create accents around the mezcal, while allowing it to “be the king.” Santibañez warns: “Too much of anything can take your mezcal to a dark, hidden place – you don’t want that!”

Montreal: Escondite

In Montreal, Escondite is the place to go for a dose of mezcal. Restaurateur Yann Levy of izakaya Biiru found that Mexican food scene was underwhelming in his city, so he decided to rectify the situation himself: “I personally love Mexican food and we saw that it was a bit neglected.”

The result is a space with plenty of vibrant design elements that speak to both the past and present of Mexico. While Escondite’s cocktail program sticks to tequila due to importation concerns (mezcal is not yet popular enough in Canada to be readily available at all times).

However, Escondite does carry a private mezcal from Oaxaca called Los Cuerudos. Sippers can choose from a blanco, reposado and añejo in addition to the gusano version – which features a worm (well, a caterpillar, technically) in the bottle, for anyone feeling daring enough to take the next step.


Interior at Montreal's Escondite

Published Tuesday, January 17th 2017

Header image credit: An 'unknown death' cocktail at Mezcaleria Las Flores, Chicago



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