Beyond The Classics
The general popularity of tequila and Margaritas has evolved so that newer operations are expanding their use beyond the classic cocktail. At Leyenda, which opened in Brooklyn, NY, this past May, co-owner Ivy Mix wanted to create a pan-Latin operation that also showcases pisco and cachaça. But tequila and mezcal keep surging to the top.
“What’s amazing is that when I opened, even though I’m a big fan of mezcal, I didn’t expect people to know much about it—or tequila, for that matter. But the people who come in here are very knowledgeable,” says Mix.
That’s now happening at bars and restaurants around the country: Agave aficionados often know as much or more than an operation’s staff about origin, production, region and type of agave.
The leading tequila cocktail at Leyenda is La Sonambula, made with jalapeño-infused blanco tequila, lemon, chamomile, molé bitters and Peychaud’s bitters. Also popular are Lil’ Smokey (mezcal, cachaça, pineapple, sage, lime), Palo Negro (reposado tequila, palo cortado sherry, blackstrap rum, demerara, Grand Marnier, orange oils) and Cabezaso (mezcal, Irish whisky, Lillet Rose, blanc vermouth, elderflower, molé and habanero bitters and lemon oils).
Leyenda cocktail prices are typically $12 to $13. These drinks do well, Mix says, because customers are ready to stretch when it comes to agave spirits.
“People generally really seem to like agave spirits now,” she says. “They seem new, especially the more obscure types like bacanora or sotol [distilled from the desert spoon plant and typically made in the Mexican state of Chihuahua], even though they have been around for centuries.”
The general popularity of agave spirits has spurred growth of mezcalerias all over the country. Lane Harlan opened Clavel in Baltimore this past June with a mezcal-focused menu.
“We focus on education,” says Harlan. “People often don’t even understand that mezcal is related to tequila—they have no idea what it is.”
To provide that educational aspect, she presents the mezcals on the menu by the plant species, a useful hook to cut through any basic confusion about what mezcal is. (Mezcal can be made anywhere in Mexico from a number of different agave types; the chief difference between tequila and mezcal is the production processes.)
Clavel stocks more than 50 agave spirits, including some samples of mezcal that Harlan brought back from Oaxaca herself to show the difference with some of the very small-batch spirits.
To encourage experimentation, Harlan keeps prices low and offers full and half pours of mezcal—even of the rare and pricey Del Maguey pechuga. Cocktails range from $9 for a Margarita to $13 for a glass-aged sotol Negroni; most are priced at $11 or $12. For mezcal pours, . oz.- and 1 .-oz. pours are priced at $4 and 8 for Espadin, Wild Cupreata and Espadin Reposado, and $5 to $10 for Wild Tobala.
Flights of mezcal served with a side of sangrita change weekly: Recent flights included examples from three states in Mexico and one with only spirits made with wild agaves.
Harlan also encourages bottle service for large dinner parties, something more traditionally limited to nightclubs. “This way, our Oaxacan-style food and drink go together the way it would in Mexico—everybody sips a few shots with their meal and you crush the bottle easily.
She keeps bottle prices low as well, charging $60—about twice local retail—for El Buho mezcal. “That makes it really easy for people to have a nice time,” Harlan adds. A 10-oz. vial for table sipping of El Buho Espadin is priced at $24.
Among the brand-new mezcalerias is Espita, down the road from Clavel in Washington D.C. Josh Phillips, partner, general manager and a master mezcalier, stocks the place with about a dozen tequilas and some 80 mezcals.
He, too, serves mezcals in a flexible manner: 1-oz. 2-oz. and 6-oz. portions, with the first served in tiny copitas, the second in votive candleholders and the third in apothecary bottles accompanied by copitas.
For flights, Phillips gathers mezcals of different years, such as Fidencio Pechugas from 2012, 2013 and 2014, or three made with Karwinskii varietals—Koch El Barril, Fidencio Madrecuixe, and Pierde Almas Tobaziche.
The Espita menu is broken into broad agave groups: Espadin as the largest gets its own space, with useful information about various other types, including tepazate and tequiliana.
Bartenders are playing around with mezcal in their cocktails. For his Young At Heart, bartender Patrick Natola at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago mixes Vida mezcal, Tempus Fugit creme de cacao, vanilla syrup and chocolate bitters for a whippedcream- topped winter warmer.
At Don Chido, the Mezcal Smash (Vida mezcal, blackberry and crushed pineapple) sells well, Garza says.
The cocktail list at Espita is modest—three each from categories of highball, shaken, and boozy. But even a mezcaleria needs to have an easy way into mezcal for novices. So Espita serves a Margarita variant called Mayahuel, made with Fidencio Clasico mezcal, curaçao, lime and agave, served with worm salt.
Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer based in Brooklyn, NY.