If you spent the summer drinking tequila-based drinks like margaritas, perhaps make room for mezcal in your imbibing lineup for the autumn. The Mexican spirit has become a very popular choice for cocktail-makers and spirit pushers in the city; some are even opening mezcal-focused bars to showcase the versatile agave spirit.
"Tequila is a type of mezcal made with one type of agave, which is called Blue Weber, and it's made mostly in Jalisco, so tequila is very specific in terms of what it can be," explains Noah Arenstein, proprietor of El Atoradero in Prosect Heights, where soon he'll launch a sister mezcal bar. "Mezcal is way broader than tequila. It can be made with any type of agave, and it doesn't specify what kind of processes you have to make it with."
"Starting with just the roasting, the variables in what mezcal can be is so much more than tequila," Arenstein says. Mezcal producers, all of whom are very small—unlike tequila, which is "a very industrial process," according to Arenstein—roast different varieties of agave anywhere from a couple of hours to a day, typically. The plants are then mashed by various methods which include a donkey walking in a circle pulling a stone or mashing them against a canoe with an axe.
From there, the mash is fermented and eventually distilled. "The more international brands do copper, but they'll still distill it in stone, which will give it a different flavor. I've even tried mezcal where they did it in a cow stomach, like leather. It's kind of crazy," Arenstein says. "There's one being sold right now that they did it in a car, like a transmission, that was what they kept it in. Just thinking about the process of how it's made can lead to a bunch of different results."
These variations in production, along with the many varieties of agave plants that can be used in its production, make mezcal a unique entity. Some are also aged, though unlike tequila—where the darkest, most aged are the most sought-after—the younger the better for most mezcal connoisseurs. "In mezcal it's called joven, which means young [and] joven is the most prized," Arenstein says.
"I make the comparison to wine. Wine comes from a grape, but more than 50 different types of grapes. I always like to explain that as kind of a basis," says Courtenay Greenleaf, Rosa Mexicano Beverage Director and certified mezcalier. "For flavor profiles, there's such a vast array of nuances, but obviously the majority of mezcals lend that smokiness. It can also lend some earthier, herbal notes; sometimes you have these pine-like notes. Sometimes there are bitter nuances and it can even have accents of cheese on the aroma or chocolate."
With so much variety, what's the best way to drink mezcal? "I'm a purist, but that's just because I love tasting the different nuances," Greenleaf reveals. "But I'm not going to lie: mezcal is the most delicious spirit in cocktails. It's so diverse, it shines so nicely up against a nice citrus fruit. I believe it can stand in any classic cocktail as a replacement of the original spirit."
Mezcal-isco at Rosa Mexicano (Katie Burton)
Cody Pruitt, Beverage Director at newcomer Casa Neta in Flatiron, agrees. "Usually, I'll first introduce someone to mezcal through the offering of a cocktail," he explains. "Mezcal is unbelievably flexible. The greener, grassier notes offer the chance to substitute itself or tequila in place of gin. You'll find in many classic cocktails the smokey notes can allow it to easily be used in place of some whiskeys. Mezcal marries beautifully with pineapple, coconut, melon, and most other tropical fruits; however, it also goes phenomenally well with sherry and a lengthy list of vermouths."
"I think the palates of drinkers in the USA have really expanded over the past few years, and continue to do so," Pruitt says of mezcal's rise in popularity. "The growth and interest in bitters, amari, hoppy IPA’s, etc. has been pretty profound, and the depth and formerly polarizing elements of mezcal fit right into these freshly expanded American tastebuds."
"People have started to educate themselves," Greenleaf surmises, while acknowledging that much of the spirit's growing popularity can be traced to bartenders and other mezcal evangelists. "Everybody wants a story, farm-to-table, and I think that our bartenders are really doing that."
Lo Siento from Casa Neta (Oleg March)
The increased awareness and popularity of mezcal has led to some difficulties, however, both with bureaucratic regulations that threaten vulnerable producers, in addition to shortages in the agave plants used to produce mezcals.
Replanting programs have begun to replenish espadin—the most common type of agave in mezcal production—as well as other types of agave that are considered wild and are relatively easy to replant. "One's called madre cuishe (sometimes it's spelled cuixe) and tobola," Arenstein explains. "So some of the more responsible producers can be like, 'Okay, whatever we pull up we're gonna replant and do it like that.' But as it gets more popular the supply is only so much. There's this type of agave that takes 30 years to grow. It's not something you can correct for very easily."
But before there's a shortage that affects the supply of this delicious and versatile spirit, here are a few places in NYC to learn about and enjoy this unique beverage:
La Biblioteca (Facebook)
LA BIBLIOTECA When Greenleaf first moved to NYC, this is where she got her start as the "Tequila Librarian" at this Richard Sandoval joint. Librarian's not a casually-dropped distinction here; the selection of agave spirits is extensive and requires multiple pages of perusal to settle on one variety. Much of that list is dedicated to tequila, but there's a strong mezcal representation, too, including the more rare aged mezcals like reposados and anejos. 622 3rd Avenue, (212) 808-8110; richardsandoval.com/labiblioteca
CASA NETA This newcomer to the Flation District offers 167 agave spirits at the moment. In that lineup are mezcals at many price points, from a glass of Del Amigo Espadin ($12) up to La Venenosa Puntas ($60), made from "the upper portions of the 'hearts' and the portion of the distillate separated right above them," considered the "choicest cut by most mezcaleros because of their intense flavour," according to Astor Wines. 40 East 20th Street, (212) 529-7870; casanetanyc.com
EMPELLON AL PASTOR Agave spirits are at the heart of many of the Empellon family of restaurants, but we like this one for its casual, inexpensive atmosphere—and tacos, all of the tacos. You can snag pours of several different types of mezcal, ranging from $5 to $9, plus mezcal-based cocktails like a Mezcal Margarita ($12) made with Fidencio Clasico, fresh lime and smoked salt. The drink is only $8 during happy hour, with cheap taco specials to boot. 132 St Marks Place, (646) 833-7039; empellon.com/al-pastor
LA LOBA CANTINA Dedicated to showcasing all this Oaxacan, including tlayudas and quesadillas using fresh masa, this cute Kensington/Flatbush spot offers a laid back environment to dip your toes into mezcal drinking, with mezcal tastings and takeovers to learn more about the spirit. The restaurant offers 1 or 2 ounce pours of most of their mezcals, which are organized by the type of agave used in production and tasting notes about each of the bottles. 709 Church Avenue, (347) 295-1141; lalobacantina.com
Masa y Agave (Katie Burton)
MASA Y AGAVE The mezcal-driven component of the city's fleet of Rosa Mexicanos, this bar stocks 400 bottles of agave-based spirits, the largest collection in NYC by their estimation. Their devotion extends to education, too, in addition to employing mezcal in a variety of seasonal cocktails. 41 Murray Street, (212) 849-2885; rosamexicano.com/masayagave
CASA MEZCAL It says it right there in the name. This mezcaleria (and restaurant and venue) offers mescal-infused margaritas, specialty cocktails based on mezcal, and a selection of mezcals from the Oaxaca state of Mexico. Owners Guillermo Olguin and Ignacio Carballido also use the space as a showcase for Los Amantes, the brand of mezcal the duo created. 86 Orchard Street, (212) 777-2661; casamezcalny.com
EL ATORADERO MEZCAL BAR When it opens at some point this month, El Atoradero's mezcal bar offshoot will serve 100 mezcals priced from super cheap to between $10 and $20 for the really good stuff. "I'm not going to say we're going to price it to move, but we are going to price it so people can come in and try a bunch of stuff and go home not having spent a couple hundred dollars," Arenstein says. 706 Washington Avenue