Mezcal, Meet Manhattan

City drinkers summon up an ancient Oaxacan spirit.

“It’s going to blow up like tequila did 10 years ago,” says Guillermo Olguin. We’re sitting in Casa Mezcal, the Oaxacan restaurant and cultural center he opened last spring on Orchard Street, and he’s waxing rhapsodic about the spirit for which it’s named. In between sips of Los Amantes—his own brand, produced in his home state of Oaxaca in Mexico—Olguin holds forth on the holy history and recent rise of this complex and often misunderstood spirit, once seen even in Mexico as a humble beverage reserved for the rural poor and now beloved by Manhattan bartenders for its earthy tones and taste of terroir.

Mezcal is tequila’s campesino cousin. Both are descendants of pulque, an ancient, low-alcohol drink made from the agave plant and enjoyed by the nobility of many of Mexico’s indigenous cultures during religious ceremonies. (Traditional pulque is hard to find in much of Mexico these days, though a commercial version comes in a can.) The Spanish brought distillation arts with them in the 16th century; applying the technique to fermented agave produced a drink of much higher alcohol content, which they called “vino de mezcal” or mezcal wine.

Centuries later it’s made much the same way and, unlike tequila, still carries a distinct flavor born of primitive production. Whereas tequila-bound agave is roasted or steamed in ovens, often in factories, mezcal makers bake the plants underground in stone-lined pits, yielding a rustic flavor that’s the essence of mezcal. Next, the agave is crushed under a huge, horse-drawn stone wheel called a tahona, and the resultant juices and pulp are fermented in the open air. Finally, mezcal is distilled twice in little copper pot stills or in even smaller clay stills identical to what would have been used centuries ago.

The results may be highly floral or heavily smoky, sharing attributes one might find in, say, an Islay single malt. They speak of the ancient Oaxacan agave fields, dotted with prehistoric caves—and increasingly they’re found in drinking dens in the wilds of Manhattan.

After dark decades when the drink was unknown—or disdained, thanks to some poor-quality products—a few passionate mezcal missionaries have gone to origin, sought out the best and brought them to the New York market, giving the storied spirit a similar treatment to that recently enjoyed by single-estate coffee and cacao. As a result, mezcal has emerged from Oaxacan obscurity and is suddenly on the best drinks menus in town.

It’s in Jim Meehan’s delightful Mexican Mule at P.D.T. It’s in Death & Company’s adored Oaxacan Old Fashioned. It’s floated atop a cocktail of añejo tequila, ginger and agave at 1534 on Prince Street. At Tribeca’s Ward 3, bartenders shake up a mean Fizz riff with Cocchi Americano vermouth, mezcal, lime and egg white.

Locanda Verde, where I created the cocktail menu, offers Tequilero cocktail, with reposado tequila and mezcal, fresh lime, pineapple, almond and spiced honey—people love the tiny whisper of mezcal, which lingers on the back of the palate like a smoky kiss.  And at press time, renowned mixologist John Lermayer is putting the finishing touches on his launch menu at the Mondrian Hotel, set to be one of the year’s biggest bar openings. There’s no doubt it’ll include mezcal.

“Once you’ve been down to Oaxaca and seen the age-old methods they’re using, you get a whole new understanding and appreciation for mezcal,” says Lermayer. “In my mind, it’s the most honest spirit on the planet, one that was organic way before that word was even in vogue. For a long time I couldn’t get my hands on any good ones and so I had to smuggle it in. Now there’s a mezcal drink on every cocktail menu I create.”

Such pride of place is proof that the spirit has enjoyed a reputation rehabilitation made possible by a few passionate individuals who have made it their mission to help Oaxacan artisans get their quality product to the modern market. Back in the ’90s, a native New Yorker named Ron Cooper was the first to blaze the mezcal trail from Oaxaca to Manhattan.

Dale DeGroff, patriarch of the modern mixology movement, explains: “My friend Ron Cooper climbed around the hills of Oaxaca looking for singular Indian distillers. They were sending their mezcal down in 500-pound tanks on the back of pickup trucks to a town where it was put in a big vat and sold in big gallon jugs without distinction—a really good one mixed with the bad ones. [Cooper] told the people in six villages that he’d buy their complete output from now on and that he’ll pay three times what the guy in the village gave them.”

Fifteen years later, Cooper is still importing a diverse range of mezcals under his Del Maguey brand. He’s brought Oaxacan artisans both income and infrastructure, and enlightened drinkers everywhere by promoting mezcal across America and around the world. His spiel conveys his love for the liquor: “You are tasting a true ritual beverage,” he says, “expressing age-old traditions and supporting small Zapotec, Mixtec and Mixe Indian family operations.”

Casa Mezcal’s Guillermo Olguin is on the same the crusade. An artist by trade (and a very well known one in Mexico, as I discovered on my own during a recent trip there) he’s a passionate and vastly knowledgeable ambassador of all things Oaxaca, widely recognized as the artistic capital of Mexico and revered for its cuisine, including celebrated moles and stringy cheeses. He fell in love with his homeland’s indigenous spirit and the undulating hills of ancient maguey it evokes.

But even a decade into Cooper’s marketing of his Del Maguey brand, the spirit remained a tough sell. In 2005—when Olguin says no one in Manhattan had even heard of real mezcal, outside of a few expats and world travelers—he began producing the triple-distilled Los Amantes and spent several years literally walking liquor store to liquor store trying to explain what it was he was selling.

John Rexer, who’d founded his artisanal mezcal brand called Ilegal in 2004, recounts a similar experience: “There was little awareness of ‘real’ mezcal. Overall it was unknown or very misunderstood, seen perhaps as cheap tequila or Mexican moonshine due to the poor quality of the few commercial mezcals available.”

Like his fellow entrepreneurial importers, Rexer seems motivated by something more meaningful than money; he regards his work as part of a bigger effort to keep the traditional spirit artisanal, communal and familial. “A group of us hope that the mistakes of the past can be learned from; that biodiversity, environmental concerns and the culture are seriously considered, respected and fought for.”

So despite being a purist who takes his mezcal straight, Rexer is delighted that in a few short years, Ilegal has helped convert the people best positioned to spread the gospel: New York mixologists.

At Death & Company, where the Oaxacan Old Fashioned has been a standby since 2007, bartender Joaquin Simo says his moment of conversion came on a trip to Oaxaca. “I always knew I liked mezcal,” he says, “but there was something elusive about it that made me want to keep learning more. So I took a trip down to Oaxaca with a few bartender buddies and had my come-to-Jesus moment with mezcal.”

He admits the complex spirit is not an unalloyed pleasure: “Just as a James Brown song wouldn’t be the same without a blood-curdling shriek or two, a great mezcal is defined by its earthy, funky, sweaty, dirty, smoky, salty, vegetal weirdness. And by weirdness I mean deliciousness. It’s an acquired taste to be sure, but definitely worth acquiring.

A few blocks away at The Summit, you can have your own religious experience with the drink: Greg Seider has long been a passionate supporter of mezcal, and his Breaking the Law cocktail with Ilegal reposado, Dimmi, lime, chipotle-infused agave and soda shows it off to best advantage.

Jim Meehan attributes the popularity of his Mexican Mule to the singularity of its starring spirit, which simultaneously offers spice, smoke and citrus. “People are really eager to try something new that actually has flavor, like mezcal,” says Meehan.

Uptown and more upscale, Daniel Boulud’s head barkeep Xavier Herit masterfully mixes mezcal with orange Curacao, pineapple and jalapeño juice, served over an enormous ice cube.  “I knew mezcal before as sometimes a very poor product with the worm inside the bottle,” says Herit of the bad old days. “After tasting Ilegal, I understood that good mezcal was finally on its way. I started to enjoy this beautiful smokiness as a great cocktail tool almost like a smoky whisky,” he says, adding that the Smoky Bandit “still brings a new mezcal fan every day.”

“I don’t think there is a truer or more honest representation of terroir than can be found in artisanal mezcals,” says Death & Company’s Simo. “I truly believe that’s why bartenders are loving it, because there is a movement towards supporting the little guy. Sure, we have a tendency to overly fetishize weird ingredients and some of these mezcals can be intimidating to someone used to smooth añejo tequilas. But I think collectively,” he says of his bartending brethren, “we all just fell in love with a spirit that speaks so clearly, so truly, about exactly where it comes from.”

It’s those flavors Olguin offers to New Yorkers—and even to Oaxacans. In 2007 he and business partner Ignacio Carballido opened the Mezcaleria Los Amantes in the heart of Oaxaca. In the tiny, temple-like mezcal tasting room, 20 people get quite cozy over a few shots of the house hooch.

There’s no food, no music and very few chairs; instead the focus is on the very rare, unlabeled local mezcals that will probably never make it to these or any other shores.

Olguin is thrilled that real mezcal is finally being understood. “It has always been a peasant’s drink, which turned a lot of people off. But now even in Mexico there is a newfound pride in mezcal as a national drink and there is somewhat of a hipster movement in Mexico City driving it.”

He’s been yearning to see something similar stateside, so when he and Carballido came upon an abandoned underwear factory on the Lower East Side, Casa Mezcal was born. The four-story emporium already houses a ground-floor bar and restaurant, and Olguin says that by next summer it will be a Oaxacan cultural center complete with a basement nightclub, an artists’ residence, an art gallery and a second kitchen where visiting chefs will teach traditional Oaxacan cuisine.

That’s already served on the ground floor, a room that on busy nights is packed like Mexico City’s Sunday Mercado, and is decorated with eclectic artifacts including damajuanas, the huge glass bottles that traditionally stored mezcal. Handmade tortillas come courtesy of Fernando Ruiz of Queens’ famed Tortilleria Nixtamal; tacos are

stuffed with cactus or chorizo and house specialties include chile relleno or banana-leaf-wrapped fish.

Naturally, Olguin encourages you to drink as well as eat; Casa Mezcal offers 14 incarnations of its namesake. (There are currently only about 18 available in New York, although that number is likely to go up even by the time you read this, such is the current boom.) To complement my icy can of Tecate, I try a rare Los Amantes Silvestre (made from wild agave), as well as a little of Rexer’s Ilegal: the aged reposado is rich and nutty with notes of sweet agave, ripe red apple and roasted pineapple. For a finish, the new Sombra, a young or joven style, with its prickly bite of pepper. They’re all served in little snifters with the traditional accompaniment of orange slices coated with sal de gusano, a mix of ground salt, chilies and dried worms (technically larvae) that can grow inside the agave plant. It’s surprisingly addictive and livens the palate between sips.

“Sip them slowly,” counsels Rexer, suggesting a pensive approach in which the imbiber considers the years that went into the process. “The maguey takes a decade to grow, pulling minerals from the earth, moisture from the air and energy from the sun. You may have droughts, earthquakes and heavy rains that affect the flavor of a particular mezcal. This is why in Oaxaca mezcal is often referred to as gotas de tiempo, ‘drops of time.’”

It’s a sentiment DeGroff agrees with. Before he drinks mezcal, he often takes part in a mini ceremony: “We sprinkle a little bit over the earth for the gods. Then we say stigibeu (pronounced “stee-gee-BAY-oo”) ‘It tastes like the earth that it comes from.’”

The Botanist and the Bartenders: by Carrie Vasios

Doctor Charles Peters, curator of botany at the New York Botanical Garden, says small-scale mezcal isn’t just delicious—it’s also saving Mexico’s most threatened ecosystem.

On research trips, Peters was surprised to find tropical dry forests near tourist sites like Acapulco and Ixtapa. Why hadn’t the forests been razed to build more resorts?

It turns out that Mexican communities prize the forests for the wild agave that grows within them—a resource they manage carefully, harvesting only about a third of the plants and leaving the rest to reproduce.  Impressed, Peters established the New York Botanical Garden Agave Project, which documents the mezcaleros’ sustainable practices—and intends to teach other farmers what he calls quantitative plant ecology.

Big commercial mezcal companies—not the ones profiled in this story—grow agave on plantations, which has led to the spread of a fungi blight; Peters hopes the rising marketability of small-batch mezcal will preserve Mexico’s wild forests. Towards that end, the botanist plans to host a tasting for city mixologists—just as soon as the farmers participating in his project obtain permits to export to the States.

Photo credit: Susanna Blavarg and Naren Young

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