The blossoming of cocktail culture has given rise to many liquor trends. But sometimes the new sensation is an old tradition, like mezcal. Once considered tequila’s small-town, high-proof granddaddy, it’s become increasingly popular for its rich history and complex taste. Mezcal is primarily made in small towns in Mexico, using a process that has been largely unchanged for generations, if not centuries.
“Mezcal is a combination of cultures,” says Jessica Rosman, co-owner of Mestizo Mezcal. “The Zapotec Indians had a fermented drink made from agave. When the Spanish came to the new world, they brought the distillation process. The combination created what is today’s mezcal.”
That process gives mezcal its distinctive, smoky flavor. Rosman has seen the process up-close — her company is based in Las Vegas, but their distillery is in the Mexican town of Santiago Mazatlan, where they collaborate with a family that has been making Mezcal for generations. “The maguey plants are harvested and smoked outside in a firepit,” Rosman says. “There’s different layers of the firepit, and the final layer has the mesquite wood — mesquite has a specific flavor. It’s smoked outside for two to three days.” After that, the plant is ground in a mill and its liquid distilled, then aged in barrels — the blanco gets a quick rest, while the reposado and añejo age longer.
Mezcal can add an earthy twist to traditional cocktails — combined with ginger beer, it’s makes the Oaxaca Mule, and carries a little more bite than the Moscow version; it also creates a slightly more robust take on the Bloody Mary. Comme Ça (in the Cosmopolitan, commecarestaurant.com) serves a mezcal-fueled spin on the Old Fashioned – it’s got a slightly smokier undertone than the original, with a hint of brown sugar also countering the citrus of lemon and orange.
But mezcal also lends itself to original concoctions, such Comme Ça’s Smoking Pistol, where it blends with the caramel flavor of Averno and a mist of Islay Scotch. Mezcal’s smokiness gives a solid yet exotic base to fruitier cocktails. At the Vanguard Lounge (516 Fremont St., 702-868-7800), the Final Say mixes mezcal with the sweet Luxardo and fragrant Chartreuse, which add a cosmopolitan finish to the more elemental taste of mezcal. The liquor’s woodiness pairs with the herbal flavor of rye to give a kick to the Spaceship at Velveteen Rabbit (1218 S. Main St., 702-685-9645) — with a topping of hops foam to finish. But, like any other fine liquor, mezcal can be sipped solo – a good añejo has a rich flavor, with a hint of the sweetness of a bourbon and the woodiness of a Scotch. Mezcal is one twist in liquor trends that needs no garnish.