Why the sudden interest in mezcal? If you check in with the folks behind country music star Toby Keith’s recently introduced brand Wild Shot, imported by Shaw-Ross, loving mezcal is nothing new — it’s just that those inspired by the rustic and smoky Mexican spirit have kept it mostly to themselves until now.
Of course, Keith’s brand has had a leg up, given his profile and restaurants. (Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill, with 11 locations across the United States, are serving plenty of Wild Shot, according to his spokesperson). But rather than jumping on a bandwagon, Keith has been a long-time mezcal admirer, especially for the potent flavor it can pack when compared with many contemporary, smoothed-out tequilas.
The Mezcalita. Photo and recipe below courtesy of Wild Shot Mezcal.
Mezcal Cocktails Crisscross the Nation
Meanwhile, a growing number of bars and restaurants — Mexican-themed and otherwise — have jumped on board with both feet as the supply and range of styles of the “other” agave spirit continues to increase in the U.S. market.
For example, some of the fine-dining Mexican restaurants owned and operated by world-renowned José Andrés marked their annual tequila and mezcal festivals in March. At China Poblano in Las Vegas, the celebration featured complimentary tastings open to the public and diners. The libations — the highlight of the festival — include the Oaxacan Swizzle (Del Maguey Mezcal ‘Vida,’ ruby port, fresh-pressed apples, lime, ginger and housemade orange bitters) and El Bahio (Sombra Mezcal, roasted pineapple juice, lemon and cardamom).
Andrés Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in the Washignton, D.C., area, is offering guests informational cocktail sessions and dinners with tastings. The mezcal drinks include Joven Avocado (avocado-infused mezcal, Cocchi Americano, grapefruit syrup, grapefruit juice, Hellfire Bitters and avocado leaf) and the High Tea (Los Nahuales Reposado Mezcal, chamomile tea, honey and housemade tobacco bitters). Clearly, mezcal has taken its place among the sip and shooters as well as the cocktail creators.
New York City-based spirits impresario John Henry, who is launching his own brand called El Buho, says mezcal is appearing more and more as a finishing float on Margaritas and other tequila cocktails and that variations on the Oaxcacan Old Fashioned, originally conceived by Philip Ward of Mayahuel, have become more common as a cocktail-venue standby.
Andrés is just the latest and highest profile operator taking a shine to Mexican moonshine, as it once was called. In Los Angeles, Bricia Lopez has collected an extensive array to serve at her sandwich joint Guelaguetza. Called The Mezcaleria, the bar opens in the evening with about 50 mezcals, with sub-varieties clearly marked: Most mezcals are produced using the espadin agave, but there are other varietal agaves, and new brands and some older producers are expanding the category by producing 100% varietal mescals; the Mezcaleria features Pierde Almas' tobaziche and Fidencio’s madre cuixe, among many others.
Just as all Cognacs are brandies but not all brandies are Cognacs, all tequilas are mezcals but not the other way around. Mezcals are produced from a variety of approved agave plants and distilled in more places than the five states where tequila production is allowed. Tobala, dobadaan, dasylirion and other agave varieties, such as madre cuixe and tobaziche, now are emerging at bars that specialize in the category, and the authority that controls such things in Mexico has approved a certification program, presented in New York last fall by Doug French of Scorpion mezcal.
Most mezcals are considered an acquired taste and generally are more rustic, smoky — even a touch rubbery — than tequila, although the agave character is always present in quality brands. Americans who are fueling the growth of tequila have started showing more interest in its country cousin.
New York City’s Mayahuel was among the pioneers in turning good mezcals into great cocktails, and many others have followed suit. At nearby Viktor & Spoils, mezcal madmen Steve Olson, Andy Seymour and Leo DeGroff have gathered a range of mezcals menued by agave species (espadin, tobala, madrecuixe) as well as some cocktails to bring novices into the realm of mezcal, Seymour’s La Grita De Dolores in particular (crema de mezcal, Tanqueray 10, Bittermans Chocolate Mole Bitters and grapefruit peel).
Also in NYC, suddenly a hotbed of tequila and mescal, Salon Hecho puts mezcal center stage in cocktails and infusions — with avocado leaves, strawberries, juniper berries or pineapple — called curados. Hecho carries 11 bottles from five makers (Del Maguey, Ilegal, Los Amantes, Pierde Almas and Los Nahuales). In Chicago, Masa Azul recently opened with 10 mezcals, three sotols, and four of its 13 listed cocktails including one or the other.
Just as the wave of new tequilas has broadened the main agave spirit’s popularity, the many new imported mezcal brands are creating a tide that will lift several boats. Keith’s Wild Shot initially garnered notice because he’s the first celebrity to take on the category, but given the extra attention mezcal is getting, soon we can expect others to try on the agave craze for size.
Courtesy of Wild Shot Mezcal.
1 oz. Wild Shot Silver
½ oz. Triple Sec
6 oz. of Margarita Mix
Shake ingredients with ice and serve in a salt-rimmed rocks glass.