Mezcal has long been one of the bastard children of the cocktail world. While its brother tequila is now considered a versatile cocktail companion (“Tequila! It's not just for margaritas anymore!”), mezcal has languished. Long considered a poor man's beverage, mezcal suffered because the low-grade versions that did make it across the border in recent decades were little more than backwoods hooch, almost always fierce and fiery on the palate and the stomach.

Petty Cash Taqueria, the Mexican taco joint from chef-owner Walter Manzke and restaurateur Bill Chait that recently opened in the space that previously housed Playa, aims to change that perception. It's introducing a selection of mezcals and their cousins that's not necessarily the largest in the city, but certainly the most carefully curated, artisanally distilled and unwaveringly palate-challenging.

interior of Petty Cash; Credit: Colin Young-Wolff

interior of Petty Cash; Credit: Colin Young-Wolff

When the team at Petty Cash — a boisterous restaurant with an open kitchen and graffitied walls — decided to implement a focused mezcal program, they approached it from innovative angles. Like bibulous detectives, executive beverage director Julian Cox and pre-opening consultant Bill Esparza roamed almost-forgotten liquor stores in the San Fernando Valley, seeking out tequilas and mezcals with authentic Old World flavors, ones that even the most enthusiastic cocktail geek has probably never tasted.

Says Cox, “We wanted to provide tequilas and mezcals that Mexicans would drink, versus carrying a blanco, a reposado and an añejo of some brand that has no real connection to its heritage.”

Like fine tequila, superior mezcal is smooth and rewarding enough to sip on its own – limes and salt need not apply. And while tequila and mezcal are both made from the agave, or maguey, plant, that's where the similarities end. By law, tequila can only be distilled from the Weber Blue agave; for all intents, everything else is mezcal or a regional cousin, often carrying its own Denomination of Origin, essentially like the AOC for French wines. Further, where tequila is roasted or steamed in standard ovens, too, mezcal inherits its trademark smokiness because it is roasted underground in rock-covered pits. These subtle differences produce spirits that share a common bond, but are unique in their own rights.

In their intense pursuit of the new and complex, Cox and Esparza brought in a selection of various styles, each expressing a distinct character depending on the species of agave from which it's made. Cox's current favorite is the Minotauro, which he claims is “one of the best mezcals I have ever tried.”

Not content to stop there, they also imported some far more esoteric agave-based spirits with come-hither names like bacanora (a mezcal made only in Sonora), raicilla (a mezcal from Jalisco), and sotol. According to Cox, the sotol, which is made from an agave relative called desert spoon, was shipped directly from Mexico as it has no U.S. distributor. These Mexican spirits are still made the way they have been for hundreds of years, in small batches and often by individual families, making them some of the purest examples of artisanal distillation out there.

Cox's passion for tequila and mescal mezcal was cultivated when he worked for John Sedlar, chef-owner of downtown's pan-Latin restaurant Rivera, where Cox also designed the cocktail program. Some years ago, Sedlar took Cox down to the agave fields in Mexico, imparting his almost mystical opinions of tequila and allowing Cox to immerse himself in the soul of the agave plant and the spirits it produces. Cox was hooked.

For all his appreciation, Cox knows that mezcal's smoky, enigmatic flavor is a tough sell. Undaunted, he simply says, “I want people to judge for themselves and demand the best product that is authentic and Mexican made.”

Back in 2008, Cox was just beginning to introduce Angelenos to mezcal. Today, he notes, patrons demand it as a necessary element of the menu. At Petty Cash, for instance, the mezcal/tequila-based Oaxacan Old Fashioned, a clever riff on the cocktail classic, is a top seller, demonstrating just how eager cocktail mavens are for new experiences.

Most of all, what Cox and the team behind the mezcal program hope for is a sort of time-traveling journey for the taste buds. Theirs may not be the most extensive selection, but it is likely to be the most thoughtfully — even spiritually — orchestrated.

“Part of what Walter and I are trying to do is bring food, cocktails and spirits to our guests and have them feel for a bit like they have escaped to Tijuana back in the early '90s with us,” says Cox. “We want authenticity but also an experience. Tasting mezcal is experiencing a piece of Mexico.”

Check out Colin Young-Wolff's slideshow of Petty Cash.

Full disclosure: Bill Esparza partnered with the L.A. Weekly on its recent Tacolandia event.

Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Email her at Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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