An eminently versatile spirit, mezcal works itself into some of the city’s most inventive cocktails. Yet the other agave distillate of Mexico is unfairly pigeonholed as a smoke monster — in reality, its flavor transcends mere smokiness. Supple sweetness, barnyard funk, vegetal earth, metallic minerality — these are a few of the common modifiers used to describe the many mezcals competing for shelf space behind L.A. bars. Southern California, in fact, consumes more of the spirit than any other major market in the United States.
All this is to say that if the best your local watering hole can do with mezcal is bust out a tired margarita variation, it isn't trying very hard. Plenty of places are making mezcal drinks look easy, broadening the preconceived notions of what this exciting spirit can bring to the glass. Here are 10 of the best mezcal cocktails currently featured on drink menus across Los Angeles.
Kentucky Mai Tai at Upstairs at the Ace Hotel
Just in time for Derby season, the Ace trots out this highball thoroughbred — an unexpected trifecta of flavors by way of Kentucky, Mexico and Polynesia. With so many elements competing for attention on the tongue, it's something of a small miracle that they arrive together in harmony at the finish line. Accompanying an elegant mezcal (the Amaras Espadin) is an equal part straight bourbon. The divide between smoke and oak is bridged by a smattering of liqueurs, including sweet peach and bitter Cynar. 929 S. Broadway, downtown; (213) 623-3233, acehotel.com.
Mezcal Rickey at Salt’s Cure
The most straightforward cocktail on this list is also quite possibly the most refreshing. A sendup of the classic gin rickey — properly served without sweetener — this version utilizes Crema de Mezcal, bottled with a small amount of agave syrup. Spirit, lime and seltzer is all it takes to bring this simple cocktail to life. Its brightness works well against the fat of an unctuous chicken liver mousse, a standout of Salt's Cure's afternoon happy hour. 1155 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood; (323) 465-7258, saltscure.com.
Firing Squad at Hatchet Hall
Another bubbly offering, the Firing Squad at Hatchet Hall derives its effervescence from Lambrusco. At its core is a certified organic, estate-grown mezcal from Benesin Blanco, emitting subtle notes of Oaxacan chocolate. These deeper flavors are ultimately lifted by the presence of pomegranate and lemon juice. According to head bartender Matthew Bone, the acidity of the sparkling wine is ideal for warm weather, especially on the restaurant's outdoor patio. 12517 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 391-4222, hatchethallla.com.
Oaxaca Flaka Flame at Norah
Mixologist Hamish McShane brings together bitterness and spice with his Oaxaca Flaka Flame. The cocktail's kick is a function of a particularly smoky mezcal, girded by the popular chili liqueur from Ancho Reyes. Peppery notes at the front end are eventually reigned in with grapefruit zest and maraschino, leaving you with a drink that lights a fire before extinguishing it. 8279 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 450-4211, norahrestaurant.com.
Valley of the Dark Lords at La Cuevita
Amid an ever-expanding landscape of inventive mixologists in Highland Park, La Cuevita bartender Sol Trece stands apart, sourcing inspiration from science fiction. “This one is 100 percent inspired by Star Wars,” she says. “We wanted a cocktail that, if you were looking at it through a telescope from another planet, you would see sand and living creatures.” The “sand” is provided in the form of powdered turmeric, the critters courtesy of a bar spoon of chia seeds. A grassy mezcal from Los Javis floats below, lending a gentle, floral backbone to this thoughtful Blood and Sand variation. 5922 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park; (323) 255-6871, lacuevitabar.com.
Pica Palmetto at Villains Tavern
Playful and piquant, this colorful creation is a triptych of mezcal, tequila and elderflower liqueur. Vegetal underpinnings of agave are emboldened in a dainty floral nose. Best of all, you get to suck it all down with a pica stick — a sort of Mexican fruit roll-up. The drink is smooth and food-friendly, which is a good thing, as you'll need all the help you can get washing down the Tavern's jaw-unhinging, half-pound bacon cheeseburger. 1356 Palmetto St., Arts District; (213) 613-0766, villainstavern.com.
The Aces at Break Room 86
Notorious for its novelty (an '80s-themed bar with a vending machine for an entrance), it's easy to forget that Break Room 86 also makes a damn good cocktail. Point in case: the Aces. Orange-infused cognac and amontillado sherry flanks a meatier mezcal, delivering effortless drinkability. That alchemy is, no doubt, aided through its pre-batched production. Bonus points for being one of the city's only mezcal drinks on draft. 630 S. Ardmore Ave., Koreatown; (213) 368-3056, breakroom86.com.
Pecado Mortal at Bestia
At the restaurant that helped redefine the downtown dining scene, bartender Iluggy Recinos flaunts the robustness of Mezcal Vago Elote — a variety infused with roasted corn — in his Pecado Mortal, a cocktail that merges the mezcal with mole bitters and a peppery, homemade, bittersweet chocolate. “Mezcal and mole go hand and hand,” Recinos says. “I wanted to make a bittersweet, smoky cocktail, yet keep it with depth and elegance.”2121 E. Seventh Place, downtown; (213) 514-5724, bestiala.com.
Mezcali Mi Banana at Melrose Umbrella Company
Although it's certainly the most colorful cocktail on the list, Mezcali Mi Banana is more than just a pretty face. “Banana and mezcal are very complementary flavors,” observes bartender Dave Purcell, the drink's inventor. “Banana obviously has a creamy, coating texture to its sweetness, and mezcal has this airy yet earthy quality and texture that fits well inside the structure of the drink.” Purcell has employed a smoky, slightly saline base spirit to latch onto the savory notes of a charred rosemary sprig garnish. A habanero and serrano salt rim, extending across half the glass, adds a bit of spiciness to each sip. 7465 Melrose Ave., Fairfax; (323) 951-0709, melroseumbrellaco.com.
The Juquila at Areal
The Juquila was seemingly invented to shatter any preconceived notions of what a mezcal cocktail ought to be. Bar manager Adam George Fournier believes in making drinks that you're unlikely or unable to craft at home, legitimizing the desire to “put on pants” and hit the town. This particular cocktail, merging a mineral-rich Chichicapa mezcal with strawberries, rhubarb and balsamic reduction, is a culinary-minded affair, dishing out sweet, sour, smoke and spice in equal measures. It's every bit as delicious as it is distinctive. But perhaps its most noteworthy feature is its universal appeal, delighting everyone from mezcal newbies to seasoned vets. Notes Fournier, “[It satisfies] the 'spicy margarita' crowd while still offering them something different.” So whether you've never experienced a proper mezcal cocktail or you think you've tried them all, this one's got your name on it. 2820 Main St., Santa Monica; (310) 392-1661, arealrestaurant.com.