For the uninitiated, mezcal is daunting, seductive -- and sometimes puzzling. Its smoky funk, much more potent than a peaty Scotch or a juniper-centric gin, is not for the faint of heart. But if you appreciate cocktails and the spirits that make them, mezcal must call to you on some level. In an almost mystical way, it needs to be conquered (drink lovers, you get this). Luckily, bars all over town are offering up mezcal cocktails, which are the ideal way to sample this challenging spirit, softening its rougher edges and making it highly approachable.
First, though, let's clarify what mezcal is. And what it isn't. Yes, it's kind of tequila, but it's not officially tequila, which can only come from Jalisco. Everything else is, essentially, mezcal. What makes mezcal all the more intriguing is that, while tequila can only be made from blue weber agave, mezcal can be made from a variety of agave plants, each with its own unique personality. Throw in climate and topography, and you have a spirit that can be both bold and subtle, depending on how and where it's made.
Tequila and mezcal are both descendants of the Aztec's favored tipple called octli (and later pulque), a fermented agave beverage with quite a kick that is, in fact, making a comeback as Mexicans and other boozehounds look for "authentic" flavors.
While they're both made from the agave plant, tequila is baked in standard ovens; mezcal is roasted in underground pits, which imparts its trademark smokiness. That smoky character is what bartenders love to play with, riffing on classic cocktails like sours and martinis, as well as combining complementary ingredients that play up that roasted quality. Here are three that are, well, smokin'.
3. Las Perlas
Del Maguey's Vida mezcal is the go-to brand for many bartenders, most likely because the almost fruity profile balances out the smokiness that can overpower some cocktails. At Las Perlas, Vida is showcased in a mezcal version of the El Diablo, traditionally made with tequila, crème de cassis, lime and ginger ale. Says bartender Raul Yrastorza, "It's our twist on the classic. Instead of tequila, we use mezcal, fresh pressed ginger, and a dash of Tapatio hot sauce for the 'diablo'. It's 'ginger-spicy' with a subtle smoky heat." FYI, Tapatio ranks at 3,000 on the Scoville scale, which measures the heat in chile peppers; for reference, the Tabasco pepper, which is used to make Tabasco hot sauce measures between 30,000 and 50,000. Point being, enjoy your drink; the heat will not overwhelm. 107 E. 6th St., downtown; (213) 988-8355.
It's Vida again in the Angel's Flight at Ebanos Crossing. Mixed with Aperol, Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur and fresh lime juice, this is a mezcal version of the familiar margarita. The margarita, which is part of the 'sour' family of drinks, is a surprisingly malleable sort, eager to embrace new ingredients and play with the drink's profile -- as long as 'sour' is part of the end game. The folks at Ebanos had this to say: "The most important part of any drink is the base spirit. It provides the structure to literally build the rest of the flavors in a cocktail on. Mezcal is fantastic in this role because it provides not just great body but also fantastic aromatics, most notably smoke. In the Angel's Flight, these attributes blend with the happy trinity of grapefruit, lime, (two of agave-based distillate's best friends), and Aperol." 200 S. Hill St., downtown; (213) 935-8829.
The Barbacoa has been on Rivera's cocktail menu since they opened -- a menu that guarantees that "if you don't like the drink, send it back." No one has ever sent a Barbacoa back. In fact, it has become so well known -- in an almost urban legend sort of way -- that people come in and ask for "the beef jerky drink." You heard right. Beef jerky tops this mix of mezcal (yes, it's Vida), chipotle puree and ginger syrup to dial up the heat, agave syrup and fresh lime to cool it down, and muddled lime and bell pepper to add a vegetal note. Booze, veggies, and meat -- a meal in a glass, why would you ever send that back? 1050 S. Flower St., #102, downtown; (213)749-1460.
P.S. The fact that all these spots are downtown is utterly coincidental, but highly convenient to the mezcal-sampling aficionado.
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Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.