Rosa Mexicano Makes A Mezcal

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Rosa Mexicano was the first to introduce New Yorkers to authentic, fine-dining Mexican fare when it opened in 1984. The 11-unit restaurant brand is now helping bring mezcal more to the mainstream with a private-label mezcal to celebrate its 35 anniversary.

The limited-edition, single-barrel mezcal, which launched in February, is a collaboration between Rosa Mexicano’s master mezcalier/beverage director Courtenay Greenleaf and Arik Torren, owner of Fidencio Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico. The añejo mezcal, produced via the tahona method of crushing the cooked agave, was then aged for more than two years in Belle Meade bourbon barrels from Greenbrier Distillery in Nashville, TN.

“Mezcal is so vibrant and complex on its own, it doesn’t need aging,” Greenleaf says. “But the wood does bring out flavors.”

Just 36 cases–222 bottles–of Rosa Mexicano’s private-label mezcal were produced. The spirit was available at the restaurant’s locations nationwide, priced at $13 for a 1-oz. pour and $25 for 2 oz.

Why a mezcal? There has been a massive shift in consumer interest in tequila and mezcal in the past decade, especially as more products have been coming onto the market, Greenleaf says. 

Tequila is better recognized, she notes, but people are intrigued by mezcal as an artisanal type of product.

Consumers today, especially millennials, want to know the history and traditions of spirits, Greenleaf says. Transparency is also important in how a product is made and sourced, so mezcal appeals on both fronts.

A commitment to authenticity

Chef Josefina Howard founded Rosa Mexicano with partners Doug Griebel and Brian Hicks. The restaurant, named for the bold pink hue found in Mexico’s sunsets, offered Mexican cuisine on a level beyond the tacos, tamales and other street foods that had defined the genre.  

A portrait of Josefina Howard, who cofounded Rosa Mexicano in New York 35 years ago.

Howard, who died in 2005, remained the executive chef and co-owner for more than 15 years. Born in Cuba and raised in Spain, she had lived in France, Italy, Mexico and the U.S. Howard understood regional Mexican cuisine and was dedicated to providing genuine flavors and tastes.

She used exotic ingredients such as huitlacoche and offered signatures like house-made mole and fresh guacamole prepared tableside. 

Howard also created a sensation with her frozen Pomegranate Margaritas, which have been on Rosa Mexicano’s menu from the beginning.

Pomegranates were highly exotic at the time; in fact, no one was even making commercial pomegranate juice, Greenleaf says. “So Josefina had to hand-squeeze them!”

Agave expertise

Greenleaf has been with Rosa Mexicano for about four years. Before that she worked with Stephen Starr to open a New York outpost of his Philadelphia-based modern Mexican concept El Vez.

Courtenay Greenleaf, Rosa Mexicano’s master mezcalier/beverage director, creates a Dia de los Muertos tequila punch.

But Greenleaf developed her love for Mexican spirits during her years working for restaurateur Richard Sandoval, famous for his Latin/Asian fusion cuisine. She started bartending for Sandoval and later moved into other roles emphasizing agave spirits education. 

She moved to New York in 2010 to run La Biblioteca, a basement bar in Sandoval’s Zengo restaurant. Greenleaf’s title was “tequila librarian,” and her role was to guide guests with tequila. “People were always wanting to explore through the category,” she notes.

Greenleaf joined Rosa Mexicano in 2015 to open the Tribeca location in New York. That restaurant has the largest selection of agave spirits in New York—more than 400.

It was also the last location to open. Rosa Mexicano operated 15 restaurants two years ago, but has scaled back to 11 currently: four in New York, one each in D.C., New Jersey, Maryland, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and San Francisco.

Private-equity group TriSpan Rising Stars bought the Rosa Mexicano last April from Goode Partners, which had owned it since 2008. Greenleaf says that the brand is looking at new locations in areas where it already has a foothold.

All the spirits of Mexico

As beverage director, Greenleaf was charged with building an agave menu “that speaks more to Mexico with all the true spirits.” In addition to tequila and mezcal, Rosa Mexicano offers bacanora, raicilla and sotol, as well as a Mexican rum-type spirit called charanda.

Rosa Mexicano’s signature frozen Pomegranate Margarita.

Authenticity is important to the brand, especially the beverage program. The restaurant has long embraced fresh juices and has started making more of its own salts and tinctures for the cocktails. “We used to make more of our own bitters, but that was hard to do on a large scale,” Greenleaf says.

As with many Mexican concepts, most guests come in for a Margarita, Greenleaf says. And much of Rosa Mexicano’s beverage menu is built around that type of fruity, citrusy cocktail. “But I really want to start introducing bitter flavors into our program,” she notes.

Several specialty cocktails have embraced bitter ingredients. One was a Oaxacan Negroni, with mezcal, Aperol, Combier apricot liqueur and Mr. Espresso cold-brew coffee liqueur. A Raicilla Negroni that was on the menu for eight months a few years ago combined racilla, cappelletti and bianco vermouth.

A current menu cocktail, the Dos Agaves, is a barrel-aged blend of Corralejo blanco tequila, Fidencio Clasico mezcal, Cointreau, house-blend orange bitters and grapefruit bitters. Rosa Mexicano’s cocktails are priced from $13.50 to $16.50.

Greenleaf recently created an “Agave Bible,” a comprehensive guide to the bottles in each restaurant. The book serves not only to help guests but also to educate employees, she says.

Mezcal moment

While mezcal “is not everyone’s go-to spirit,” Greenleaf admits, the private-label offering has been a hit. The Los Angeles location went through its allocation in about a month. A lot of guests opt to sip the mezcal, Greenleaf says; it’s also been popular in cocktails.

Rosa Mexicano serves the mezcal with the traditional worm salt and three slices of orange. It’s not meant to be a lime/salt chaser as with conventional tequila shots, Greenleaf says, but something that you enjoy with the mezcal.

Greenleaf will also pair mezcal with dinner such as with ceviche. She likes Fidencio’s Clasico joven mezcal with pork carnitas and pork belly. The Clasico is great for sipping and for cocktails, Greenleaf says. “You can substitute it in any classic cocktail—the Clasico in an Old Fashioned is amazing.”

Rosa Mexicano for the most part sells the mezcal verbally; it’s promoted on table tents in the bar, but not in the dining room, Greenleaf says. The proprietary product gives servers another story to tell and reason to engage with the customers.

Offering a private-label mezcal, she notes, “is a cool opportunity to give guests a unique experience.”  

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