It’s no secret that agave spirits are having a moment, and mezcal is no exception. Marshall Minaya, beverage director of the New York City cocktail lounges Madame George and Valerie, attributes this to the bartending community. “The growing popularity of mezcal is due to the hardworking bartenders who found something new and funky and wanted to share it with their customers—word of mouth never ceases to have a big impact,” he says, adding that the introduction of the Oaxacan Old Fashioned—a variation on the classic featuring Tequila and mezcal rather than whiskey—by renowned bartender Phil Ward also helped considerably. “It came around at the best time: the Mad Men craze started in 2007, the same year Ward crafted his cocktail, and the Old Fashioned roared back into people’s hearts in the following years. A variation that has the original cocktail’s name still in it is one that will leap off the page to a customer.”
In more recent years, mezcal-based cocktails have come a long way, notes Maxwell Reis, bar manager of Mírate in Los Angeles. “When mezcal cocktails first came about in the United States, the mezcal was usually introduced within the context of, and accompanied by, Tequila, both to bring the cost of the cocktail down and to introduce the concept of mezcal to the consumer,” he explains. “Now, there’s a variety of competitively priced mezcals on the market as well as a drastically more familiar consumer base, so mezcal is the star and primary spirit of cocktails all over the world.”
And it has certainly helped that mezcal has shed its reputation as being a spirit of questionable quality, and one that evokes images of worms floating in bottles. Today, mezcal is recognized among the ranks of other fine spirits. “From my experience a lot of people accustomed to high-quality spirits made a natural move to mezcal—I’ve met many whisk(e)y and Tequila drinkers exploring mezcal and many fall in love with the spirit,” says Julio Xoxocotla, beverage director of Bar Lula in New York City. “I believe the romantic process of making mezcal, plus the complex layers of aromas, flavors, and textures in the spirit, played a key role in converting people into mezcal lovers.”
As mezcal has grown steadily more popular in recent years, cocktails featuring the spirit have evolved quite a bit, Minaya notes. “When the cocktail market started to play with mezcal it was usually a call in a Margarita,” he says. “I think the Oaxacan Old Fashioned and Naked & Famous were the first two cocktails that really started to take charge of the spirit in a different light, while still making it very palatable for beginners.”
Minaya adds that citrus is still a go-to ingredient for mezcal cocktails, and for good reason. But even mezcal cocktails featuring citrus are more compelling and experimental today than in years past, featuring interesting liqueurs, syrups, and other ingredients to make cocktails that are anything but run-of-the-mill. At Valerie, bartender Ezquiel Bello’s Lady in Orange ($18), for example, features Montelebos mezcal, Nonino amaro, lemon and carrot juices, house-made ginger syrup, and egg white.
“It all depends on the season, but mezcal pairs well with tropical fruits like grapefruit, guava, and passion fruit, and refreshing ingredients like jicama, cucumbers, and herbs,” Xoxocotla says. “I love working with mezcal because it’s so unique and versatile—it goes well with a wide range of fruits and spices and can be enjoyed all year long.” His One Way To Oaxaca ($16) comprises Agua Mágica mezcal, guava purée, house-made rosemary-jalapeño syrup, and lime juice, while his Tepache Punch ($16) blends equal parts Ojo de Tigre mezcal and Abasolo whisky, plus John D. Taylor’s velvet falernum liqueur, Apologue Saffron liqueur, house-made hibiscus tepache, and lemon juice.
“Mezcal, as an agave-based spirit, was fortunate enough to garner some traction because of how popular Tequila is,” says Madison Barker, bar manager at Down & Out in New York City. “Mezcal started coming in slowly, and then all at once it was everywhere.” Her My Little Cherished Wolf ($16) mixes Mal Bien Espadín mezcal, C. Cassis blackcurrant liqueur, lemon juice, house-made blackberry-cardamom syrup, and Q Tonic club soda, while her The Dirty Tea Cup ($16) features Mal Bien Espadín, Espolòn Blanco Tequila, lime juice, house-made lapsang souchong syrup, and activated charcoal.
“Unsurprisingly, mezcal plays amazingly well with citrus like its sister spirit Tequila, but the strong flavor profile and higher abv makes the perfect juxtaposition for fruity components and perfectly complements spice as well,” Mírate’s Reis notes. His El Taquero ($17) features both fruit and spice elements, blending Mírate’s private barrel of Mal Bien Espadín, fresh pineapple and lemon juices, house-made chamomile honey syrup, and lacto-fermented chorizo paste.
Dustin Blamey, general manager at El Naranjo in Austin, Texas, describes mezcal as a gateway to more complex flavors. “You can easily go from Tequila to mezcal, helping grow your palate for earthier, smokier flavors, but then as your palate develops, the spirit is diverse enough to grow with it so there’s always a mezcal cocktail for you,” he says. The Papel Picado ($14) is Blamey’s take on the Paper Plane, with mezcal used in place of Bourbon, in addition to some other tweaks. It comprises Unión Uno mezcal, Aperol aperitif, St-Germain liqueur, and fresh lime juice.
Blamey adds that when he first started getting into mezcal, there were only a few places he knew of that offered quality mezcal experiences, but this has changed drastically in recent years. “It used to be that if a place served mezcal at all they would have just a bottle or two on the shelf, or be entirely focused on the spirit with virtually zero overlap. But as time has gone on, the category has exploded at places you would have never seen a bottle in just five years ago,” he says. “Additionally, as bartenders have gotten more comfortable with its profile, mezcal has gone from something that people would swap into Margaritas to eke out extra depth to something they’ve begun to build experiences around.”
Indeed, bartenders today are all about making mezcal the star of the drink. “The agave to make mezcal often takes a minimum of 8-12 years to reach maturity, and faces a lot of sustainability issues with scaling, so to hide it in a cocktail to where its sole purpose is inebriation is a travesty and is irresponsible,” Reis says. “It’s important to build the flavor profile around the complex flavors of the mezcal and create a backdrop for the complex and beautiful flavors of a spirit with generations of tradition behind it.” His El Tocayo ($18) is big on Oaxacan flavors and ingredients, featuring Mírate’s private barrel Mal Bien Espadín mezcal and private barrel Cascahuin Reposado Tequila, piloncillo syrup, sal de chapulín (grasshopper salt), and house-made mole bitters.
“Now that mezcal is an interest for a lot of patrons, we have the opportunity to play with a bit more creativity, utilizing the agave spirit in ways to amplify the earthy, smoked aroma and flavor,” says Minaya of Madame George and Valerie. “We can also be confident in using it as a base or modifier in a cocktail because the consumer’s eyes are attracted to it.” At Madame George, Minaya’s Gravesend Highball ($20) is certainly creative, mixing equal parts Del Maguey Vida mezcal and 6 O’clock Brunel gin, plus house-made tomato bell pepper water and clarified lime cordial, and Scrappy’s Celery bitters, topped with cracked black pepper.
Blamey notes that the past few years have been particularly exciting for mezcal as more bartenders recognize the versatility of the spirit. “It’s neutral enough to be swapped into a drink that would typically use a standard Tequila or vodka to make it more interesting, but with that characteristic smoky body, it can also be used in place of a whisk(e)y or gin without leaving the drink lacking,” he points out.
Reis notes that while substituting mezcal in a Tequila cocktail like the Margarita and Paloma is easy and common, he’s more interested in using mezcal like you would gin. “I find that because of the expressive and often herbaceous notes of mezcal, its ability to stand out among other flavors, and its lack of barrel aging makes it a great substitution for gin in cocktails,” he says. “The mezcal Negroni is a prime example, and in cities like Los Angeles, it’s overtaken gin in popularity in context of the classic gin cocktail. Mezcal and Tonic, mezcal Martinis, mezcal Gordon’s Cups—the possibilities are endless.”
At Lengua Madre in New Orleans, bartender Maggie Morgan’s Mezcal Martini ($15) comprises Fidencio Unico mezcal, La Cigarrera Manzanilla Sherry, Bordiga Extra Dry vermouth, and house-made lacto-fermented tomato water and jalapeño tincture. “For a long time, the assumption was that mezcal was always smoky and vegetal, and that any drink made with it had to lean into those flavors, with every cocktail bar having some kind of Frankenstein mezcal Margarita with chiles and herbs, but now people are hip to mezcal’s more delicate flavors,” says Tyler Cazes, Lengua Madre’s general manager.
At Madame George, Minaya’s Sunset Stoop ($20) was inspired by both the Manhattan and the Martini. It features equal parts cilantro-infused Banhez mezcal and El Tesoro Reposado Tequila, plus Routin Dry vermouth, house-made avocado pit orgeat, and Bittermens Buckspice Ginger bitters. “I hope that mezcal Martini riffs start to catch the attention of consumers,” Minaya says. “The earthy, vegetal quality of mezcal pairs so well with vermouth, so I hope with all the Martini variations out there that people start to play more in that realm.”
Down & Out’s Barker has been happy to see mezcal cocktails move away from the typical Margarita variations to more interesting roles. “Personally, having moved toward both imbibing and developing more spirit-forward stirred beverages, it’s great to start seeing mezcal as the base for riffs on Negronis or adapted Manhattans,” she says. “I think it’ll be more commonplace to see mezcal being used as a substitute base in traditional spirit-forward cocktails and more herbaceous concoctions rather than bright and citrusy.” Her Numero 83 ($16) is an Espresso Martini variation blending cinnamon-infused Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, St. George NOLA coffee liqueur, house-made rich vanilla demerara syrup, espresso concentrate, and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters.
“Mezcal’s overarching theme of being smoky is, I think, the basic understanding where we all start, but the more I’ve learned and tried different mezcals, the more I’ve come to understand the depth and complexity the spirit has both alone and with others,” Barker adds. “Like Scotch, it can be something you sip, but it also plays so nicely with others that it’s fun to push the boundaries by pairing it with other spirits.”