Posted on | May 1, 2011
Written by | Alia Akkam
At Empellon, one of the newest Mexican restaurants to open in New York City, Mathew Resler whips up mezcal cocktails that incorporate Serrano chilies, chia seeds and chamomile, exotic ingredients used in the kitchen. Across the river in Queens, at popular Astoria cantina, Pachanga Patterson, locals sip small glasses of mezcal, whether Del Maguey, Ilegal or Los Nahuales, to accompany their short rib tacos. In downtown Los Angeles, Las Perlas, brainchild of nightlife guru Cedd Moses, buzzes as a mezcal shrine, while Rosa Mexicano, the upscale Mexican empire with New York roots—it has now expanded to 10 different restaurants on the east coast and L.A. —has a new cocktail menu, designed by bartenders Alex Day and David Kaplan, featuring two mezcal cocktails.
Almost two years ago, the last time Beverage Media checked in on mezcal’s growth, the category was just gaining traction thanks to the presence of NYC bars like Mayahuel stocked with primarily Tequilas and mezcals. The arrival of boutique brands such as Sombra—from Richard Betts, Charles Bieler and Dennis Scholl—and Amy Hardy and Arik Torren’s Fidencio also infused the category with new life. Of course, the continued efforts of mezcal’s most enthusiastic ambassador, Del Maguey’s Ron Cooper, helped shed the little-known spirit’s unfair reputation.
In just that short time, the mezcal landscape has changed. The agave spirit primarily made in Oaxaca, often confused with its long-distant cousin Tequila (for example, all Tequilas are mezcals, but not the flipside; mezcal can be made with agave from numerous plants while Tequila only from Blue Weber; agave for mezcal is roasted, but steamed for Tequila) has managed to strike out on its own, captivating consumers not only with a range of pure, nuanced flavors—although an alluring smokiness is the dominant characteristic—but as a reflection of Mexico’s rich cultural heritage.
IN THE KNOW
Guillermo Olguin and Ignacio Carballido first launched Los Amantes in 2003, an era when Americans still wrongfully perceived true mezcal as a worm-studded novelty creation sipped during spring break. Even in Mexico’s urban centers, like Mexico City, Carballido says it wasn’t mezcal locals sought out, but Tequila and whiskey. Now, he notes, that stigma has slowly been eradicated. “People are drinking mezcal. They understand it’s not something for a wild and crazy night, but to savor like bourbon.”
This perspective was certainly fueled by Olguin and Carballido’s decision to open Casa Mezcal last year, a sprawling mezcal emporium on New York’s Lower East Side that emphasizes Mexican food, music and art, too, so customers can be fully immersed in Mexican culture. While the bar serves as an ideal place to sample Los Amantes, Carballido points out Casa Mezcal’s most important mission is to promote a greater awareness of the category. “Of course we have a brand of our own,” he explains, “but we wanted to be open to other brands so mezcal could be recognized and people would pay attention to the spirit. It’s great for the Mexican economy.”
BURYING THE WORM
As the arrival of small-batch mezcals like Pierde Almas and el Buho (when this one debuts in New York and New Jersey in June, it’s designed to be sipped or incorporated in high-end cocktails) begin to resonate with bartenders in much the same way, say, handcrafted gins and whiskies do, mezcal is poised to raise its profile.
“There is a hunger among consumers and particularly liquor stores and bartenders to try all the new mezcals coming onto the market,” notes Cooper, founder and president of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals, who for well over a decade has been championing the spirit. “Our growth over 16 years has been really shallow up until 2008. Then, in 2008 we grew 50%, in 2009 17% and in 2010, 100%. The growth of Del Maguey in 2008 was radical; mezcal hit the tipping point.”
Early mezcal supporters like Aspen restaurateur Jimmy Yeager and AKA Wine Geek’s Steve Olson helped alert tastemakers to the quality of single village mezcals, and eventually, says Cooper, the “mass got big enough, and people wanted to know more.”
Cooper remembers when just a mere mention of mezcal elicited talk of worms: “That was an old marketing gimmick prior to the 1950s, and now, after 10 years it’s not the first question people ask.”
According to Cooper, what is also helping propel mezcal along is its exposure to a first generation of consumers: “They never had a crappy mezcal experience, so when they get introduced to this really fine spirit that’s full of flavor, it’s like a smoky single malt.”
If it wasn’t for global brand ambassador Stephen Myers’ proactive efforts, Ilegal, the mezcal brand that was hatched in founder John Rexer’s Guatemalan café, may not be one of the category’s breakout brands. “Fortunately for us, and through our extensive experience and travel through Oaxaca, we were able to create a great mezcal that was able to rectify the image of poor quality mezcal, and build our own at the same time,” shares Myers. “There are very few categories remaining in the liquor market that have the potential to expand to a significant size and I believe mezcal is one of them. The production methods used in creating mezcal, and combined with the ability to use many different agaves, means that the breadth of flavor profiles available within the category has allowed mezcal to be a flexible liquor that can be paired with the entire spectrum of the spirits available in today’s market.”
Resler, who runs Empellon’s bar program, thinks a renewed interest in cocktails has helped mezcal make some much-deserved headway into the mainstream. “I give much credit to the Tequila boom of a few years back. People are often finicky, so when they get ‘bored’ with Tequila they are willing to branch out and try something new.”
One of the mezcals he likes using for its diversity is Scorpion. “I can use the silver for most mixed cocktails where I want to showcase the smoky agave and raw nature of mezcal; I tend to use the reposado if I want to give the cocktail a bit more depth and backbone. I recently made a cocktail using the Scorpion five-year añejo, Carpano Antica, lemon juice and Pacharan liqueur.
Miguel Aranda, a mezcal-loving bartender who works at Yerba Buena, Apotheke and Theater Bar in NYC, discovered the spirit years ago, but it wasn’t until a recent trip to Oaxaca that his passion deepened. Now he makes innovative cocktails like “The Mayan” with Fidencio, Royal Combier and corn elixir at Yerba Buena, and the “Rite of Passion” at Apotheke that incorporates fresh pineapple chunks cooked with chipotle and pink peppercorn into a mezcal-orange base. “Fidencio works well in my cocktails because it has the perfect balance on smokiness and character; the most important thing is the relationship between the spirit and the ingredients,” he notes.
In Denver, Sean Kenyon of Blue Collar Cocktails is another mezcal fan who reaches for brands like Sombra. Its distinct smoky profile, he points out, may not work for every libation, but its complexity allows him to build creative cocktails around the spirit.
Even at Rosa Mexicano, where Tequila reigns supreme, the importance of serving mezcal is clear. “While we have served mezcal for many years, guests rarely ordered it because it was not very well known. When given the choice, Tequila has always been ‘safer,’ explains Jason Berry, VP of operations. Still, with the addition of two Del Maguey Vida cocktails, “El Mezcalito” (Tanteo jalapeno-infused Tequila, fresh lemon, organic agave, muddled fresh strawberry) and “Flor de Humo,” (silver Tequila, St-Germain, orange marmalade and fresh lime), Rosa Mexicano has created a way for guests to “dip their toe into the wonders of mezcal without making a full shot-sized commitment. For a high-volume environment like ours we are able to tell very quickly if the mezcal cocktails will be popular, and so far the response has been tremendously positive. Mezcal cocktails quickly convert a curious drinker into a mezcal fan.”
Connections with established importers have helped take mezcal brands to new levels as Sombra’s inclusion in the Classic & Vintage Artisanal Spirits portfolio, Ilegal’s alignment with Frederick Wildman & Sons, Los Amantes’ with Palm Bay International and Del Maguey’s recent acquisition by Gemini Spirits & Wine attests. New products, including Del Maguey’s made-for-cocktails Vida, Scorpion’s silver and extra añejo Tobala featuring estate-grown wild agave and Fidencio’s refined Clásico joven and limited-edition Pachuga, triple-distilled with quince, pineapple, apple, guava and banana, reveal the promise of new flavor and cocktail concoctions.
All this development has Carballido thinking that mezcal is finally gaining the respect it deserves. “At first it was hard for Americans to accept Tequila, so they needed the salt and lime gimmick; with mezcal they are just experiencing it, and realizing it’s more in the category of Scotch.”
Cooper thinks authenticity across the board means the mezcal category will be neither saturated nor a mere flash-in-the pan trend: “But there will be a place in the market for a lot more, and what that will do is bring more consciousness.”
Myers also thinks the category will grow on a global level: “That said it will be a slow and controlled development because the companies are small and very involved in keeping the traditions and practices of mezcal production alive.”
A celebration of dynamic heritage, combined with the power to morph into modern iterations, may be exactly what ensures mezcal is timeless on the back bar.