I’m not the best prognosticator of what’s most likely to become popular at the bar next — at least my track record won’t get me hired anywhere as a trend predictor — but lately, all signs point to a mini mescal explosion.
In Austin, bar entrepreneur Bridget Dunlap has opened the town’s first mescal-only cantina, called Bar Ilegal after the only brand she currently carries (more are expected to be added soon). Admittedly, a tiny space that will only hold around 20 people is hardly a sign of a trend, but Bar Ilegal is just one of the many new bars that are featuring a significant number of mescals: In New York City, Salon Hecho puts mescal center stage along with tequila in cocktails (the Esmerelda includes mescal and gin with muddled cucumber and basil leaf) as well as mescals infused with avocado leaves, strawberries, juniper berries, pineapple or other ingredients, called curados. They carry eleven bottles from five makers (Del Maguey, Ilegal, Los Amantes, Pierde Almas and Los Nahuales), not a whole lot but certainly a start.
Places without the Mexican connection see the smarts in featuring at least one mescal-inflected drink. At New York’s Tiki temple Lani Kai, the Tia Mia is made with mescal, Jamaican Rum, toasted almond orgeat, orange liqueur and fresh lime juice. Cocktail menus on recently opened spots are including the spirit as well: In recent weeks, Blue Bear Tavern in Philly opened with the rum, pineapple and mescal Bear Punch; Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Washington, D.C., included The Cigar on their menu (mescal, lemon juice and smoked peach ice, garnished with charcuterie); while Catalyst in Boston opened in Kendall Square with the Mexican Sand (mescal, Cherry Heering and vermouth).
In Chicago, Masa Azul recently opened with 10 mescals and three sotols; four of its 13 listed cocktails include one or the other. Last month at the Spirits of Mexico competition at which I am a judge, we had the largest number of entrants (13) in the “other agave spirits” group, which includes sotol, bacanora, espadin, tobala and all the non-tequila agaves. Thirteen is not a lot, especially compared with the number of mescals now available in the market, but each year that group grows. And the fact that all of them ranked fairly high in the final scoring of the category by some very tough judges shows that the quality level, at least in terms of the American palate, is rising (best of category went to Los Siete Misterios Tobala, by the way).
And more are coming to market, being reformulated (there’s a new version of Sombra coming soon) or finding wider distribution. As a reminder, just as all Cognacs are brandies but not all brandies are Cognacs, all tequilas are mescals but not the other way around. Mescal is made from a variety of agave plants and can be produced in more places than tequila.
As for its long-time reputation as a glass of firewater infused with the aromas of burning rubber, well, there’s still a little something to the idea that these are spirits jammed with hair-on-the-chest pungency, and even the better-made variations coming to the United States retain that punchy essence. But just as you don’t offer a whisky novice a glass of Bowmore or Ardbeg and expect them to love it, getting customers interested in mescals requires a light hand and some preparation.
Of course, the best place to start is the way bartenders have been perfecting mescal's mixology lately: adding mescals as a wash, a complementary spirit or even just as a dash to add some backbone to an otherwise acceptable cocktail in need of a kick in the pants. However you use them, it's time to revisit the category, if, like many folks, your early experience with mescal left you nauseated at even the sight of a worm for many months after.
Just as tequila makers changed the image of their much-maligned product in the 1990s by making better products more widely available, the range of quality in mescal today demands your attention. Consider them the spice rack of your cocktail larder at first; soon, I think you and your customers will be rewarded.