Spirit Spotlight: Mezcal Rising

Espita

Image: The interior of Espita Mezcaleria

The owner of a new bar in D.C. takes mezcal from smoky to serious.

Ask someone to take a stab at describing mezcal and very likely there will be a reference to "smoky Tequila." Sure, roasting the agave in underground pits can render spirits with smoky overtones, but It's not always quite that straightforward, says Josh Phillips. The general manager of Espita, a new mezcal bar in Washington, D.C.'s emerging Shaw neighborhood (and one of only around 33 people worldwide to hold the title of Certified Mezcalier), Phillips likens the complexity and variety of mezcal's aromas and flavors to that of wine.

"If you are into gin, you are into the craft and the recipe of the spirit, and if you are into bourbon it's all about the barrel and the aging," he explains. "With wine, it's about what nature gave you, and it's very much the same with mezcal; you will never have that exact bottle again."

Phillips' journey to mezcal greatness began around eight years ago when he was introduced to it by Colin Shearn, bartender at The Franklin in Philadelphia. "One sip and I knew instantly that it was better than everything else I had been drinking." He began researching and ordering bottles online, starting with those made from espadin and then moving on to those produced with other kinds of agave, including tobala and tepeztate.

Mezcal certification (overseen by the Mexican government) is a time-consuming, four-step process, with tests and tastings, field trips for agave harvesting, fermentation, distillation, and even time spent in the kitchen cooking with agave. (For his test, Phillips made a salad and incorporated mezcal into the dressing, and advises that as with wine, if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it.)

With around a hundred bottles on the shelf, Espita boasts one of the largest mezcal collections in the country. "We don't have a bad bottle in our collection," he touts. "Not everyone will like every mezcal, but there is a flavor profile for everyone." Four flights ($24 to $42, served with orange slices and sal de gusano) let guests sample through a brand, category or type of agave, like Elder Agaves or Ensambles. (The latter is comprised of bottles made from several varietals, compared on the menu to Bordeaux blends.) Descriptors on the menu like “purple flowers,” “green pepper” and “candied fruit” appeal to oenophiles and spirit fans alike. As with wine, terroir comes into play, and agave grown alongside beans will produce a spirit that tastes different than, say, that planted alongside corn.

When the restaurant opened a few months ago, staff was hesitant to provide guests with tableside mezcal service and suggestions so as not to appear overly pretentious or precious, but they quickly realized that perusing a long list of a spirit still finding its niche can be daunting. "Now, we get to frame your whole perception of mezcal," he says. "Half of the guests order mezcal confidently, on their own, as they have more exposure to it."

One way to cozy up to mezcal quickly is through Espita's cocktails, like the Mayahuel, which Phillips says is buried on the list to make it harder for guests to find, but still remains wildly popular, selling upwards of 180 per night. Made with Fidencio Clásico, Legit Triple Sec, lime and raw agave, and rimmed with sal de gusano, it's the bar's interpretation of a Margarita.

Also a top seller is the Smiling Rabbit, the signature cocktail with Siete Misterios Doba-Yej Mezcal, Suze, lemon, pineapple and cinnamon, and garnished with a pineapple leaf. Rotating Highballs vary depending on farmer's market ingredients; currently staff offers a tart and tangy one made with strawberries and rhubarb.

With the popularity of the category, some have asked if mezcal is in any danger of losing its artisanal status. Not at all, says Phillips. "You can't make a large quantity of mezcal, or you are making Tequila with different agaves," he declares. "It's protected inherently by virtue of that fact."

Still, not every bottle out there is stellar, and Phillips points out that he has access to about 40 or so other brands but won't stock them as the quality isn't up to snuff. So how do you know you're getting the good stuff? Look for substance over style. "If it looks like it’s in a hand blown-looking glass bottle, don’t buy it," he cautions. "The company has too much money for marketing--stick to those that look like wine bottles."

Smiling Rabbit

Recipe adapted from Espita, Washington, D.C.

  • 1 ½ oz. espadin mezcal
  • ¾ oz.Lemon Juice
  • ½ oz. pineapple / cinnamon syrup (see Note)
  • ¼ oz. Suze
  • ¼ oz. Yellow Chartreuse
  • Pineapple leaf, for garnish

Add all ingredients except garnish to a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain it over fresh ice in a tall glass garnished with the pineapple leaf.

For the pineapple / cinnamon syrup:

Take 1 cup water and 1 cup water, bring to a boil and simmer until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, add 1 cup fresh pineapple chunks and 4 cinnamon sticks, and steep for 30 minutes. Remove solids, and store in the refrigerator.

Oaxacan Sour

Recipe adapted from Espita, Washington, D.C.

  • 1 ½ oz. espadin mezcal
  • ¾ oz. lemon juice
  • ½ oz. Angostura bitters
  • ½ oz. pineapple / cinnamon syrup (see Note)

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass.

For the pineapple / cinnamon syrup:

Take 1 cup water and 1 cup water, bring to a boil and simmer until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, add 1 cup fresh pineapple chunks and 4 cinnamon sticks, and steep for 30 minutes. Remove solids, and store in the refrigerator.

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter  and  Instagram  @kmagyarics.