When it comes to Mexican booze, tequila’s gotten all the glory. Until recently, if you asked for a margarita made with mezcal at your local watering hole, chances are your request was met with a blank stare. But all that’s changing. The smoky spirit has caught a new wave of popularity and is popping up on more and more cocktail menus around the country.
Ready to try it? Odds are you already have. Most people think mezcal is a type of tequila—but it’s actually the other way around. Any alcohol made from distilled agave is technically a mezcal, including tequila. Tequila is produced in a very specific region of Mexico and is made from 100% blue agave that’s steam-cooked in large ovens. Traditional mezcals, on the other hand, are made across Mexico using one of the more than 30 varieties of agave in existence. The pineapple-size hearts of the plants—which resemble but have no relation to cacti or aloe—are slow-roasted in earthen mounds over hot rocks. After cooking for several days, the agave is crushed under giant stone wheels (usually pulled by horses), fermented in wooden vats, then distilled in wood fire-powered copper or clay stills. The whole process takes place outdoors, without electricity—and hasn’t changed in 500 years.
“Mezcal is a lot like a fine wine,” says Martin Capella, bar manager at NYC’s Casa Mezcal. “Each one has a different flavor based on the region where it was produced and the type of agave used. That gives every mezcal its own unique spiciness, earthiness, and smokiness.”
Building a cocktail around something with so many variables can be challenging, but Capella has some basic tips for even the most novice of bartenders: “For a simple drink, I like to just serve it on the rocks with a splash of club soda and a lime,” he says. “That way, you let the mezcal’s natural flavors take the lead. Another easy combo involves muddling a shot of mezcal with some lime, cucumber, a bit of club soda, and a dash of hot sauce.”
Want to kick things up a notch further? Try these mezcal-infused monsters:
OAXACA OLD FASHIONED
From TequizTián in Miami Beach
2 oz mezcal
2 fresh orange slices
2 maraschino cherries
1⁄2 oz diluted agave syrup (1 part syrup, 1 part water)
Muddle mezcal, orange slices, cherries, and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add a dash of bitters. Shake, strain, and pour over ice. Top with a splash of soda.