Ushering in a New Era of Mexican Spirits
When Thomas Kelly first opened Mexicue, it was a simple food truck dispensing tacos and burnt-ends chili sliders to hungry New Yorkers on the run. His Mexico-meets-barbecue concept proved such a hit that it has now spawned a burgeoning collection of brick-and-mortar establishments where diners settle in with spicy brisket enchiladas washed down with Grapefruit Palomas. So strong is the connection between Mexican food and drink that Kelly has also amassed a list of 50 tequilas and 11 mezcals for thirsty patrons who want to linger.
Likewise, the latest restaurant from powerhouse Chicago chef Rick Bayless, Leña Brava, highlights more than 100 mezcal selections. An ode to the live-fire cooking traditions of Mexico’s Baja California Norte, it’s the spot to unwind with a Monteromero (Montelobos mezcal, crème de cassis, black pepper, rosemary, lime) before a dinner of slow-cooked octopus carnitas.
Mexican cuisine, particularly of the Tex-Mex variety, has long resonated with American diners. Skillet fajitas and salt-rimmed Margaritas are as much entrenched in America’s culinary fabric as fried chicken and grilled hamburgers. While the tequila-lime juice-triple sec concoction is as timeless as a mess of cheesy, jalapeño-studded nachos, the Margarita is only one reason agave-based spirits are so clamored for today. Bartenders, who continue to hone their important roles as gatekeepers, have helped put the nuanced interpretations of tequila—as well as mezcal and on-the-rise raicilla and bacanora—in the spotlight of Mexican and non-Mexican-inspired settings alike.
Many of the country’s bartenders are ardent supporters of the Tequila Interchange Project, an advocacy group supporting the diversity and exportation of quality, agave-based spirits. After visiting distilleries in Mexico firsthand, it’s hard not to become roused by mezcal, believes Dee Ann Quinones, head bartender at Westbound, a restaurant that channels luxe railcar travel in downtown Los Angeles. “I’ve visited many distilleries around the world and I have to say that watching mezcal being made is absolutely magical,” she says. “From the distinct way each family has their own methods to the varied terroir, it is unique. I think that is why bartenders took to [mezcal] so quickly. Once they get passionate about something, they share it, and it becomes the ‘it’ thing.”
As bartenders dispense this wisdom and delineate the differences between, say, tequila and mezcal, they build trust with their guests, and it becomes easier to convince guests they should sample something new. “The best way of getting the word out about the great list of Mexican spirits we carry is through staff education,” explains Drew Sweeney, beverage director of New York City’s Dream Downtown hotel, home to the upmarket Mexican restaurant Bodega Negra. “We have found that once they have the opportunity for a personal connection with these products, they want to share that enthusiasm with our guests, which is the best way to get them to explore.”
Jimmy Yeager, proprietor of Jimmy’s in Aspen, Colorado, helped pioneer the success of mezcal in the U.S. He says it was 30 years ago when interest in Mexican spirits began to take shape. Every year since, that curiosity has grown, especially in 2010, when top-notch tequila became more readily available. “This led to more education and know-ledge being shared within the industry, as well as to the development of the discerning customer who cares about the quality and source of the spirit that they are drinking.” An appreciation of tequila is, of course, a springboard to relishing other agave spirits.
At Jimmy’s, where a slate of comforting foods—spinach & artichoke dip and lobster mac & cheese—are draws, patrons delve beyond more fitting bourbon offerings to sip on the Puerto de Aspen (Tapatio blanco tequila, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Ancho Reyes liqueur, fresh watermelon, lime). If guests prefer mezcal woven into their cocktails, then they might spring for La Otra Palabra (mezcal, Luxardo Maraschino, green Chartreuse, lime), a riff on the gin-based The Last Word, or the Vida Buena, a Negroni-like mix of mezcal, Aperol, and Antica Carpano. A customized “mezcal omakase” tasting is yet another adventurous option. Each course, Yeager points out, “is a cultural experience accompanied by stories of the spirit’s history, flavor profile, tradition, and the process in which each mezcal was made.” Serving the mezcal in copitas, which mimic the traditional vessels used in Mexico, further heightens guest intrigue. Scotch drinkers in particular might savor this approach, for mezcal is imbued with smoky notes that are also synonymous with the brown spirit.
Taha Ismail, beverage director at Pepita, Mike Isabella’s cantina and tiki bar in Arlington, Virginia, echoes this synergy. “I find more Scotch drinkers [choosing] mezcal, especially during the warmer months,” says Ismail. “Agave-based spirits are so versatile and complementary that today’s bartender can create a cocktail for any consumer.” His customers drink agave spirits habitually, with Margaritas sought after “from the patio on a hot summer day, and from the enthusiast who wants a ‘dealer’s choice’ mezcal libation.” In the popular Legend, mezcal is infused with pineapple and then shaken with fresh lime juice, epazote, agave, and Angostura bitters.
For Sweeney’s guests the easy choice is a Spiced Celery Sour (celery-infused Montelobos mezcal, jalapeño syrup, fresh lime juice). “The salty smokiness combined with fresh vegetal notes from our celery infusion and a bit of spice make for an exciting option that shows guests how to incorporate this great spirit into a cocktail,” he says.
Patrons at Añejo in New York City often order their chicken adobo empanadas alongside La Piña Escondido, a cocktail with tequila’s little-known, once-bootlegged cousin raicilla, pineapple, fresh lime, ginger, and lavender syrup. And at Leyenda, bartenders Ivy Mix and Julie Reiner are illuminating sotol—a Mexican spirit made from the Desert Spoon plant that was once classified in the agave family. La Contenta, another New York City favorite known for sweet blue crab tostadas, makes once-obscure bacanora the star of the Paloma Norteña, which unites maraschino liqueur with grapefruit juice and lime.
Despite the growing attention lavished upon these more unconventional finds, Sweeney says, the tried-and-true Margarita—made with premium tequila and fresh lime juice—remains a go-to: “It’s a clean, simple drink and a classic for good reason. We like to use this recipe as a base, to build around with different fresh fruits, juices, and house-made syrups that add complexity.”
As Quinones points out, tequila is a helpful starting point, provoking conversation between bartenders and guests already enamored with the spirit. Once they learn it is part of the mezcal family, interest in the larger agave category will pique. But even with mezcal’s ascent and the newfangled cocktails it inevitably generates, Quinones feels Americans will always reserve a special place for tequila. “The U.S. has a long history and love affair with the spirit,” she says. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”