A Tequila Temple Takes Manhattan
Phil Ward either sensed the next big cocktail trend or instigated the craze himself when he opened the tequila-focused bar Mayahuel in New York City’s East Village this spring. Whether the chicken came before the egg, tequila is hot, and industry insiders are referring to Mexico’s agave spirit as the latest resurgent potable. Ward’s newest concept goes beyond the idea of simply stocking lots of different tequilas and gets into what can be done with them.
Why a tequila bar and why now? “Opening a bar that focuses on tequila was an organic process,” says Ward, who made his reputation at Death & Company, another cocktail destination a mere block away from Mayahuel. “I’m really into classic and historical cocktails, but there are no tequila classics. This was a natural progression for me.”
Ward took it upon himself to fill the void in the cocktail lexicon at a sweet spot in the East Village, on 6th Street’s Curry Row. Mayahuel (a reference to the goddess of the maguey plant) resembles a Mexican cantina and monastery rolled into one, complete with candles emblazoned with images of Jesus and Mary, church pew benches and a small, beautiful bar that centers the room like an altar and draws the gaze to 30-some bottles of tequila and mezcal lining the back bar.
If you’re lucky enough to nab a seat at the bar, you might be in the company of a seasoned industry insider — such is the respect Mayahuel has garnered — but it’s just as fun to squeeze into one of the booths and marvel at a menu that preaches agave spirits. The menu is divided into several parts: Agave Fresco (more refreshing concoctions), Strange Stirrings (complex cocktails that are more spirit-based), Punch-O-Villas (a selection of punches), Tea-Killa Cocktails (tequila infused with teas), Vino En Mi Copa (tequila versions of Sangria) and Cerveza Cocktails (beer-based mixed drinks, some of which are made with tequila and mezcal). Each drink brings out the earthy, smoky, vegetal and herbaceous qualities of tequila and mezcal. For the most part, the cocktails are complex and the spirit is never overshadowed. Bitters, amaro, vermouth and sherry all seem to work beautifully with the agave spirit at Mayahuel, and there isn’t a single Margarita to be had on the menu.
Four visits later and I still haven’t had a drink I didn’t like at Mayahuel, but a handful stood out: the delightful, smoky and elegant Whoopsy Daisy (Blanco Tequila, elderflower, grapefruit, lime, egg white, soda and a dash of orange bitters), the slightly vegetal Sunset Park (Reposado Tequila, dry vermouth, Mayur’s Homemade Picon and Maraschino), the layered, smoky and citrusy Smoked Palomino (amontillado sherry, Crema de Mezcal, grapefruit and lime with a salted rim) and a slightly boozy and bold cocktail, much like a tequila version of the Sazerac, called the Slynx (Reposado Tequila, apple brandy, pear liqueur and whiskey barrel-aged aromatic bitters).
Tasty nosh is Mayahuel’s strong point too. Chef Luis Gonzales makes a perfectly piquant bowl of popcorn seasoned with lime, cotija cheese and ancho chili, succulent and flavorful tacos and a decadently moist Tres Leches. As Ward remarks, “It’s rare to find a place that has good cocktails and good food.” Lucky for us, both co-exist very nicely at our latest favorite cocktail bar. NCB