The bartenders who embrace mezcal are a passionate bunch. Though there are vastly less mezcal-focused bars around the country compared to the myriad venues that highlight Tequila, these bars are thriving thanks to their dedicated leaders, who have an unwavering appreciation for Mexico’s other significant agave export. Mezcal aficionados are on a mission to increase consumer awareness and education for the spirit and its Mexican heritage.
“We opened a mezcal bar out of passion for the spirit and because nobody in our area had done it justice,” says Shad Kvetko, owner of the Dallas mezcaleria Las Almas Rotas. “We knew going into this that it would be a challenge to open with a spirits-focused program in a cocktail-driven city like Dallas, especially one that highlighted a relatively obscure spirits category. That’s why we put education at the forefront. Our mission is to help as many people as we can understand why mezcal is not just a beautiful and unique spirit, but also a cultural treasure of Mexico.”
Las Almas Rotas opened in 2017 and has since grown to boast a spirits library with more than 300 agave offerings. Kvetko says about 85% of the bar’s labels are mezcal and notes that the mezcal flight program is also thriving and helping guests understand the nuances and differences among mezcal types and brands. “We want guests to drink the spirit in its most essential form—neat,” he explains. “Our robust flight program is the heart of our beverage program.”
The venue lists flights of three and five spirits, each in a ½-ounce pour ($14-$58), with descriptions of the offerings. Along with strictly mezcal flights, Las Almas Rotas offers flights with both mezcal and Tequila so consumers can compare the two, and flights of other Mexican products like sotol, raicilla, and other agave distillates. Among cocktails, mezcal features in drinks like the Mangonada, mixed with Bahnez mezcal, mango, lime, and chamoy sauce, and the Las Posas, made with Derrumbes San Luis Potosí mezcal, Byrrh Grand Quinquina aperitif, and Zucca Rabarbaro amaro (cocktails are $11-$26). Kvetko says Rey Campero Espadín Joven mezcal is the venue’s top-seller, as it’s used frequently in both mixed drinks and neat pours ($12 a 1½-ounce pour).
“Our mezcal program has grown both in sheer number of bottles as well as diversity, giving greater shelf space to underrepresented mezcal-producing states as they become available,” Kvetko adds. “We see our mezcal library as a dynamic project that will continue to change and develop.” Further, he notes that at Las Almas Rotas, the mezcal program has been embraced by a wide array of consumers across all age, race, and cultural backgrounds, which is another plus. “One of our greatest successes has been the diversity of our clientele,” Kvetko says.
In Chicago, Encanto Agave Bar has also seen big growth in its mezcal program. The concept opened in January 2020 with roughly ten mezcal brands and in the three-plus years since has tripled its mezcal selection to 30 brands and up to 70 different labels and expressions. “I decided to add a mezcal bar into our Tequila-focused Moe’s Cantina concept because we wanted to celebrate mezcal and other Mexican agave spirits that have ancient traditions,” says Encanto beverage director Enrique Cobos. “The beauty of mezcal lies in its ever-changing nature. This constant evolution keeps our agave bar exciting, as we introduce our guests to limited editions and artisanal gems that leave a lasting impression. With every visit, they can encounter new and intriguing mezcal expressions.”
Cobos says one of the biggest barriers for new mezcal drinkers is the notion that all mezcal is smoky, but he adds that education is key and once he talks through the vast array of mezcal flavors and expressions, people are receptive. New drinkers often enter the category through cocktails, he notes, and Encanto lists ten mezcal mixed drinks ($14-$16). The Oaxacan Twilight is a perennial favorite, made with Lucy Pistolas mezcal, Priqly Prickly Pear liqueur, house-made prickly pear shrub, and lime juice. Encanto also hosts monthly mezcal tasting events, each featuring a different lineup of brands. The August event included 1-ounce pours from the mezcal producers Villasuso, Wahaka, Burrito Fiestero, and Mezcal Verde ($50).
“More people have come to recognize the distinction between mezcal and Tequila,” Cobos says. “I’ve never claimed that one is superior to the other, but mezcal’s historical precedence grants it a wealth of traditional, artisanal, and even ancestral crafting methods that leads to an array of agave variations. With mezcal’s rich diversity, the taste possibilities are endless.”
Cobos also notes that many mezcal producers are eco-conscious—a necessity as agave supply becomes strained due to increasing demand for Tequila and mezcal—which is a plus with modern-day consumers. “They’re constantly brewing up innovative ideas to tread lighter on the Earth and preserve the agave ecosystem,” Cobos says. “In the world of mezcal, I believe sustainability and accessibility go hand-in-hand, and with this in mind, our prices are always reasonable. We want to strike a balance so that mezcal can be enjoyed and celebrated without being beyond reach.”
Exploration is a key part of the mezcal experience. Stephanie Aguilar, the general manager of Las Perlas Mezcaleria in Austin, Texas, says letting guests explore the spirit through its various types of agave and taste profiles is key. Las Perlas Austin opened following the success of Las Perlas Los Angeles, and the Texas location stocks roughly 180 mezcals at the bar, plus 150 Tequilas and other agave spirits. Seasonal cocktails and flights are available, along with neat pours.
“The program has grown immensely,” Aguilar says. “People have interest in discovering new agave strains and flavor profiles, and how the terroir of the region affects that flavor. True mezcal lovers have a deep understanding of how long it actually takes for the spirit to get into your glass, as some agave strains take 17 years to mature. That’s why we always say ‘sip it, don’t shoot it.’”
The rich history of mezcal is what attracted Greg Boehm to the spirit many years ago, and now the New York City-based hospitality guru is all-in on mezcal. The owner, founder, and CEO of Cocktail Kingdom Hospitality Group and the professional bar supply company of the same name operates four venues in Manhattan, and his ode to mezcal, The Cabinet Mezcal Bar in the East Village, is a labor of love. Boehm readily admits that The Cabinet is the least busy of his four properties, but he’s captivated by the concept regardless.
“This is my personal project,” Boehm explains. “Of all my bars in Cocktail Kingdom, The Cabinet is certainly the least busy because it’s a specialty bar. But it’s doing really well in terms of our actual goal, which is education and a more relaxed environment. It makes me happy, and I’m happy it’s part of our restaurant group.”
The entrepreneur traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico 15 years ago to learn about Tequila, and on that trip he fell in love with mezcal instead. “When I saw mezcal, the stories and culture of it, the artisanal product, the cultural significance even in modern times, it was so astounding,” Boehm recalls.
The Cabinet has a dizzying array of agave spirits, as Boehm counts roughly 1,100 agave distillates in the bar’s collection, and the majority are mezcals with an abv of 46% or higher. He recognizes that it can be overwhelming for newcomers to the spirit, but like his peers notes that most people start out with a mezcal cocktail from the main bar and then travel to the back of the venue, where there’s a tasting room that serves only neat pours. The Cabinet also offers flights, which do well.
The venue’s most popular mixed drinks are its Mezcal Margarita and Negroni Blanco, both made with Agave de Cortés mezcal. But there’s also a full roster of creative specialties, like the Nightingale After Death, mixing Rey Campero mezcal, Gruet Brut Rosé, Chinola Passionfruit and St-Germain liqueurs, and lime juice (cocktails are $15-$18). For flights, The Cabinet offers options that explore different regions of origin in Mexico, different types of agaves, and limited small-production brands (flights are $22-$55 for three 1-ounce pours). Boehm says the venue’s top labels are by Rey Campero, Macurichos, and Real Minero.
“I definitely see a lot of people who started with Tequila and don’t quite understand mezcal,” Boehm says. “The story-telling aspect of mezcal really makes it easy to talk to people and creates a level of interest that makes people want to know more. There’s huge growth opportunity.”