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On Call: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

Posted on  | August 21, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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With a new label and the addition of an Añejo expression, Los Amantes continues to redefine Mezcal.

On Call @ Casa Mezcal on NYC’s Lower East Side with Martin Capella, preparing a La Ceiba cocktail

In 2002 a friend of Ignacio Carballido told him he needed to meet Guillermo Olguín. Though Carballido was living in New York working in the fashion business, and Olguín was a painter based in Oaxaca, both were Mexican natives with a unifying passion: Mezcal.

The two became fast friends over a Mezcal-fueled weekend in Oaxaca and set out on a journey to change the way Americans view the under-appreciated agave spirit. Soon they had partnered with a third-generation Mezcal producer, and were scouring countless small Oaxacan villages in search of quality spirit. In 2004 they launched Los Amantes (“the lovers”) with a Joven ($54) and a Reposado ($64), both pit-smoked in the traditional style, and triple distilled. But they didn’t stop there.

“We were determined to make Americans take Mezcal seriously, and we believed the best way to do it was not simply by crafting our own brand, but to open a bar in New York City where people would come to drink Mezcal and talk about it,” shares Carballido. After seven years of permit issues and painstaking construction (they sent a 20-foot container of Mexican tiles, clay pots and artwork on a boat from Vera Cruz), Casa Mezcal opened its doors in 2010.

The bar showcases dozens of different Mezcals, in addition to Los Amantes, and it’s fair to say that much of Carballido’s mission has been accomplished. “Today people have a very different view of Mezcal,” he says. The overall quality from the region has skyrocketed and scores of new producers have entered the U.S. market, adding vibrancy and diversity to the category which Carballido celebrates. “Even in Mexico Mezcal is rivaling tequila as the spirit of choice in the hottest bars in Mexico City,” he notes.

Los Amantes joined the Palm Bay Spirits portfolio in 2010, a partnership which exposed the brand to a wider national audience. “There is tremendous interest all over in Mezcal,” reports Carballido, who notes that it often comes from less obvious places: Seattle, for instance, has emerged as one of the best markets for the brand. “A handful of years ago, Astor Wines in NYC had two Mezcals and a very large shelf full of tequila. They now have an entire section devoted to Mezcal.”

The Single Malt of Agave

Carballido isn’t the only one to make the comparison: Mezcal is in many ways more like Single Malt Scotch than tequila—and Single Malt fans are driving Mezcal’s growth. Whereas tequila production is highly regulated as to how and where it is produced, and required to utilize only one type of agave (Blue Weber), Mezcal is produced in seven different Mexican states from over 30 different types of agave. The harvested agave piñas are cooked with mesquite, which infuses the spirit with a smoky, earthy flavor that beautifully complements the fresh, salty-citrusy agave character. Carballido observes that the number of people sipping Mezcal “Scotch-style” has dramatically increased since he opened Casa Mezcal.

That smoky character works wonders in cocktails, too. “When mixologists want the complexity of smoke in a cocktail, they have two choices—Scotch or Mezcal, and the latter has more versatility,” says Carballido.

This fall, Los Amantes will be debuting an elegant new look, designed by Carballido’s business partner, Guillermo Olguin. Los Amantes Añejo will also hit the market for the first time. Aged 2½ years in white oak, it is earthy, smooth and sweet with subtle notes of vanilla and butterscotch that in no way overshadow the fresh, ripe agave taste. While Los Amantes has a lot more company on Mezcal menus nationwide, Carballido feels anything but threatened by the competition: “Mezcal was neglected for so long, I’m just so happy people are finally showing it the respect it deserves.”


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