Mezcal

Beyond The Basic Margarita: Craft Cocktails In Mexico

26 May 2017

Chilenito cocktails at Auberge Chileno Bay

Mexico has many problems, but the lack of a national cocktail is not one of them. Everyone, in the U.S., at least, associates one cocktail, and one cocktail alone, with Mexico: the Margarita. (Only a pedant would argue for the Paloma.)

I imagined that I would be offered a non-stop parade of Margaritas in Mexico. Some might be made with mezcal, tequila’s smoky/spicy sibling, and some might incorporate mango juice or some such. But I expected that basically the cocktail lists at most restaurants and hotels wouldn’t differ much from that at the average Cesar’s.

To be honest, this prospect did not inspire within me feelings of unmixed disappointment. I love a good Margarita. I make them myself with some regularity. A good Margarita, to be clear, uses fresh lime juice (not chemical-green sour mix), silver tequila (or reposado, if you prefer a mellower flavor), orange liqueur like Cointreau or Triple Sec, and a dash of simple syrup or agave nectar. I serve it up, in a martini glass or coupe, and garnish it with nothing, not even salt. I’m a simple kind of guy, and simply kind of lazy.

It was quite a surprise, then, when my welcome cocktail at my first resort in Los Cabos incorporated mezcal, poblano pepper liqueur, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger and B&B bitters. It was called a Chilenito, and it was a delight: sweet, smokey, a little vegetal and a little spicy.

Cocktails with sophistication and complexity, I was soon to discover, are more the rule than the exception in Cabo’s finer bars and dining establishments. Baja has as much craft cocktail cred as Brooklyn these days. Consider the evidence, in both Margarita and non-Margarita form:

A Spritz Bay by the pool at Auberge Chileno Bay, a mix of Prosecco with strawberry, lime and ginger. A very refreshing sort of Mexican/Italian sangria, if you will. I certainly did!

*****

A Humo de Comal, at Comal, the main restaurant of Auberge Chileno Bay. It combines mezcal, purple chicha (fermented corn) and lime to great effect. The rim of tortilla ash is something you smell more than taste, its smoky note heralding the smokiness of the mezcal, which mixed beautifully with the hibiscus-like sweetness of the chicha.

*****

Flora Farm may call this a Margarita, but it’s unlike any I’ve ever had. This Ginger & Beet Margarita, as you might guess, mixed tequila, fresh beet juice and fresh ginger. It had excellent balance and an invigorating freshness. Beet and ginger, it seems, add quite the frisson of health to two ounces of tequila!

*****

Tamarind strikes me as a grossly underutilized cocktail ingredient. This Mezcalita at Esperanza‘s La Palapa restaurant mixed it with mezcal and lime, and wow. It moved from sweet to smoky to sour to paprika spice, in that order. Complex and delicious.

*****

Speaking of tamarind, this Tamarind Margarita at Los Tres Gallos in Cabo San Lucas ranks among the greatest Margaritas I’ve ever tasted. The sour notes positively popped in the mouth, tempered with precision by the sweetness of the tequila, orange liqueur and agave syrup. Magnificent.

*****

A Prickly Pear Margarita by the pool at Esperanza, with silver tequila, mango, grilled prickly pear (nopal) and lime. It might have been perfectly fine, this cocktail, with just the sweetness from the fresh mango and tartness from the fresh lime. But the grilled prickly pear gave the drink subtle earthy and vegetal notes, taking it to another level entirely.

*****

Rancho Pescadero on the coast just south of Todos Santos has an immense garden, and the bartender took full advantage of its bounty in this cocktail. I watched, amazed, as he grabbed great handfuls of mint, fennel fronds, basil, chervil and cilantro and muddled them together, mixing the resulting juice with lime, simple syrup and Hendrick’s Gin, topping it all off with tonic. This Herb Tonic cocktail tasted quite refreshing, of course, with bright herbaceous and citrus notes leavening the booziness (it looks like healthy green juice, but this was a seriously strong cocktail).

As wonderful as it was to consume these drinks in beautiful Mexico, you don’t have to brave the incipient border wall to enjoy creative cocktails made with tequila and mezcal. There’s no reason you can make a delicious drink yourself at home.

A formula with which to experiment: 2 parts tequila or mezcal, 1 part liqueur, 1-2 parts fresh juice (sugar syrup and/or fresh herbs optional). For example, right now, I’m loving a concoction of mezcal, fresh lemon juice and Stirrings Ginger liqueur. Sweet, citrusy, a little smoky, and a little spicy from the ginger.

I would love to hear what you come up with — if you discover a delicious and unusual tequila- or mezcal-based cocktail, please don’t hesitate to share the recipe!

The Spirit Of The Moment: Mezcal

2 June 2016

The author in a Guanajuato cantina, consuming mezcal in as manly a fashion as possible

Just a couple of years ago, finding more than a handful of mezcals on a bar menu in the United States was rare indeed. Even Mexicans sometimes seem a bit scared of this spirit. I’ll never forget how, when I ordered a shot at a traditional cantina in Guanajuato (the kind with a urinal next to the bar), the bartender first offered me mezcal flavored with mango or coconut! He and my guide both raised an eyebrow when I requested the real stuff, though perhaps that says more about my distinctly gringo appearance and less about mezcal.

Gringos, however, have recently begun to take quite a liking to mezcal. In fact, as of March, Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood now has an official mezcal bar, Mezcaleria Las Flores, which has some 78 mezcals on its menu (including related spirits like sotol and raicilla). Those who find that selection too restricting should head instead to Leña Brava, Rick Bayless’s newest restaurant, which stocks a remarkable 112 different mezcals!

The rather sudden rise of mezcal may leave some readers wondering what the heck it is and what all the fuss is about. Mezcal is a sort of parent to tequila. But unlike that ubiquitous spirit, which can be made only from blue agave, mezcal can be made from just about any agave cactus variety. In addition, the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days, whereas the piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted. If tequila is like bourbon, mezcal is like scotch.

I love it. The flavor typically starts with something fruity, fresh and/or herbaceous before it moves to some warm, smokey spice reminiscent of Hungarian paprika. Sometimes it feels rustic, sometimes it feels refined, but it’s always exciting to drink.

A Monteromero (foreground) and a Leña Fire at Leña Brava

Monteromero (foreground) and Leña Fire cocktails at Leña Brava

I consume mezcal most often neat, but like scotch, it can also work beautifully in certain cocktails. Leña Brava’s cocktail list contains seven mezcal-based drinks, for example, and on a visit last week, I had the chance to try two of them. I ordered a Monteromero, composed of Montelobos mezcal, crème de cassis, fresh lime juice, black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. What a delight — the complex, well-balanced cocktail combined sweet, smokey, herbaceous and citrusy flavors to great effect.

My friend Scott ordered a Leña Fire, a powerful combination of Leña Wahaka mezcal (the restaurant’s house mezcal), Ocho Sientos sotol (see my post about sotol here), Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh lime. This veritable parade of high-proof spirits tasted bright, spicy, citrusy and very, very strong. A couple of sips was enough for me, but Scott had no trouble polishing it off. (Also see this post about a mezcal-based Negroni I had in Vienna a couple of years ago.)

Chef Bayless’s daughter, Lanie, acts as the restaurant’s mezcal sommelier, and she offered to pair glasses of mezcal with the five courses we had ordered. Fortunately, she anticipated our desire to leave the restaurant in a semi-coherent state and gave us half-size pours. Lanie knows her mezcals. Her suggestions were excellent, contrasting or emphasizing flavors in various dishes, just as well-considered wine pairings do.

Tasting the mezcals in rapid succession highlighted their distinct characters. The Vago mezcal had a lovely freshness to it, with a sweet cucumber note balancing the ample paprika spice. But the Wahaka Reposado Con Gusano (aged six months in oak barrels) tasted richer and rounder, with something of a mocha note under the spicy heat. “Con Gusano,” incidentally, means that the bottle has a worm in it. Adding an agave worm is “…a proven, age-old method for clarifying the radicals of the barrel while balancing the spirit’s overall flavor with notes of earth and salt,” according to Wahaka’s website.

Words like “spicy heat” and “worm” may make mezcal sound intimidating. But if you give it a try, I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I find it much more interesting than tequila, and its quality-to-price ratio is very much in the consumer’s favor. More and more bars carry it — if you see it on a spirits list, I highly recommend ordering a shot to pair with a cool appetizer or with a creamy or chocolatey dessert. And if you already like scotch, mezcal is an ideal summer alternative.

Mezcal, Vegetarian And Non-Vegetarian

27 October 2012

Although it’s started to have a following in the United States, mezcal has yet to invade the popular consciousness the way tequila has. Everyone knows tequila, whether they like it or not, and almost everyone who drinks has tried a margarita at least once in their lives. But what does mezcal taste like? And what’s the signature mezcal cocktail?

The answer to the second question is easy: There isn’t one. At least, not yet. And that’s because of the answer to the first question. Mezcal has a much smokier, less cocktail-friendly flavor than tequila, because the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days. (The piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted, and they come only from the blue agave plant.)

While staying in Acapulco recently, I had hoped to explore the world of mezcal more deeply. But as a single traveler staying at a property well outside of town, it felt uncomfortable and inconvenient to bar hop in the city itself. Fortunately, my hotel had an excellent mezcal for me to sample, an Amores Reposado made in Santiago Matatlán (in Oaxaca) from espadín agave. As with tequila, “reposado” indicates that the spirit was aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months.

Amores distills its mezcal reposado three times and ages it for eight months, instead of just two, and the extra care shows. It had a red, smokey aroma, and it felt strong but surprisingly smooth, with smokey notes tempered by something sweet. It tasted particularly good paired with orange wedges dipped in chili powder.

Unfortunately, I failed in my quest to sample mezcal pechuga, which is mezcal distilled with a variety of fruits as well as a breast of chicken suspended in the still (you can read more about the process here). I found a bottle of Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga in a liquor store in Acapulco, but it cost an eye-popping 1,950 pesos, which works out to about $150! Even for a mezcal distilled with a chicken breast, that seemed a little steep. I consoled myself with some bottles of wine from Baja instead.

Mezcal won’t appeal to everyone, but if you happen to like tequila, it’s definitely worth a try. Fans of scotch, which can also be a bit smokey, should also consider investigating mezcal. Your liquor store should carry at least a few examples. Go for a reposado or an añejo (aged one to three years in oak). A quick search of Binny’s website revealed 36 options priced anywhere from $18 to $230 per bottle. And hey, if you’re looking for a Christmas present to send to Odd Bacchus, Binny’s carries the Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga for a cool $200.