Mezcal … we’ve had a complicated relationship haven’t we?
Remember our first time? I was 20, and you were so cruel. In those days, you needed a gimmick—you were the “poor man’s tequila” to us clueless gringos, its crazy backwoods cousin. We had heard the myth that eating the worm would make one hallucinate, just in case taking copious shots weren’t enough. We drank you in college when we couldn’t afford a more-polished spirit.
I know that many people still think of you that way. They don’t know you as you really are … a liquor whose time to shine has finally arrived.
Readers, if you haven’t been enjoying the renaissance of this misunderstood spirit, it’s probably not your fault. Despite nearly a decade of surging popularity, mezcal still won’t show up on your radar if you haven’t been to a bar that specializes in Mexican spirits or craft cocktails. However, if you feel like it’s time to get swept up by the charms of mezcal, and they are many, now is the perfect time to do so.
For one thing, it’s more available than ever (although the market has been somewhat flooded by non-descript brands looking to capitalize on the trendiness). For another, the tasting notes can range from vanilla and banana to truffles and leather. Aside from Scotch whisky, few spirits can boast such a dramatic variation in flavor. Like Scotch, mezcal is known for being smoky, but the level of smoke varies from product to product. Unlike Scotch, you can use it easily in a margarita variation during atypically hot Coachella Valley fall days.
To celebrate mezcal and its many amazing aspects, I decided to visit some local cocktail bars to see how they explore the versatility of the spirit. I was not disappointed.
My first stop was Arrive in Palm Springs, where Paul made me a Smoke and Berries. It’s on the drink menu, and is a nice way to explore the light and breezy side of mezcal. He muddled raspberries and blackberries directly into the liquor, and added some lime and simple syrup, as well as a dash of peach bitters, and voila! It was a perfect poolside sipper. It was light and breezy, with a hint of smoke, black pepper, vanilla and pineapple from the Primario mezcal.
Next, he made me a Sweet Surrender. You won’t find it on the menu, but it’s worth asking about. He bravely mixes Primario with white rum and mint, and then adds some creme de mure, lemon juice and Peychaud’s bitters. It’s a beguiling beverage. If I’d sipped it without knowing the ingredients, I would have been hard-pressed to guess them. My first impression was Fernet-Branca—the drink leads you almost there, with a strong medicinal hit—but the creme de mure brings you back before it becomes too much. There are also notes of cola, menthol and black pepper. As I left, I wondered about the rum: Would a funky Jamaican overproof make the cocktail better or worse? I think he played it smart with a quieter dance partner for the mezcal—but I might play around with the specs at some point, out of curiosity.
Next I went to see the tiki wizards at Bootlegger, right down the road—rather fortuitously. Chad had posted a picture of his new Aztec Warrior mezcal drink online, and although it’s not on the menu yet, Aisha was happy to make one for me. It starts with Ilegal Mezcal, and then my favorite ingredient of the last few years, Ancho Reyes, joins the party. (If you haven’t picked up a bottle of that yet, do yourself a favor.) The drink is finished with lime juice, coconut cream and NOLA coffee liqueur from St. George, with a grating of cinnamon. Tasting the drink, I got the impression of candy chased with a little New Orleans café au lait with chicory. I confess I have a bit of a sweet tooth with my coffee, so when I make it at home, I might add a touch of simple syrup or turbinado sugar.
I called it a night with a drink on the menu, For Luck’s Sake. La Niña mezcal, Cabeza tequila, yellow Chartreuse, honey and lime are mixed together and served on a big ice cube, with a basil leaf garnish. A bit of fire is added with a serrano pepper tincture, and the vegetal notes of the ingredients are accentuated by celery bitters. Yellow (not green!) Chartreuse is incredible with tequila, so I was not surprised that the drink came together so nicely. It’s a little spicy and a little sweet, with a good measure of herbs de Provence to boot.
Four drinks, four totally different looks. Mezcal is a powerhouse of a spirit, no matter how you use it. Whether you’re by the pool when it’s 95 degrees, or staying warm on a cool desert evening, mezcal just might be the spirit you need to add to your liquor cabinet. Even better, have your local bartender do the work for you.
If you need some more inspiration, here is one of my recipes.
- 1 1/2 ounces of mezcal of your choice (Vida works nicely with its baking spice notes)
- 3/4 ounce Ancho Reyes
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice (no cheating with the bottled stuff!)
- 1/2 ounce pineapple syrup (leave fresh, not canned, pineapple chunks in simple syrup for a couple of days; add gum arabic for extra credit)
Shake, serve up or on the rocks, and garnish with one of those pineapple chunks or a leaf from the pineapple. Waste not, want not.
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s and can be reached via email at email@example.com.