The Mezcals That Made Bartenders Fall in Love With the Spirit
Mezcal is one of the hottest spirit categories right now because it leaves a lasting impression at first taste. So we asked bartenders about their first experience with mezcal to find out which bottle made them fall in love with the spirit. Many, like Stephen Korenchen, a bartender at JW Marriott Chicago, first tried it in unlabeled bottles. Others, like Cody Goldstein, the man behind Muddling Memories and the cocktail menu at Toro Loco, got a surprising first taste from another bartender.
“When it hit my nose, my first thought was, ‘Wait, he just poured me scotch,’” Goldstein says, recalling his first taste of mezcal. “And after my first sip I said, ‘Yup, he definitely poured me a scotch.’”
Now, he can’t get enough. From the common to the obscure, these are the bottles that got bartenders into mezcal.
“We had a drink on the menu at PDT called the Mezcal Mule that combined cucumber, ginger, citrus, passion fruit and Sombra mezcal,” Sean Hoard, bar director at The Mighty Union and founder of The Commissary & Super Jugoso, says. “At the time, I’d never tasted anything like it—simultaneously refreshing, bracing and savory. The cocktail was a perfect introduction to the spirit because it celebrated and amplified everything I now love about mezcal.”
Momofuku beverage director Lucas Swallows was also first introduced to mezcal through Sombra. “I tend to look for funkier (sometimes cheesy) expressions of agave distillates for personal consumption these days, but certainly stand by Sombra being a classic example of what mezcal can be when made well,” he says, adding that it’s a great intro to mezcal for both sipping and mixing.
Roman Tartakovsky, beverage director at Pier 81, first saw mezcal while working on the rooftop bar of the Hotel Americano in New York City. A small glass cart was lined with mezcal bottles, ceramic copitas and thin slices of orange. One night, the chef and managers bought a round of mezcal for the team, and the bottle of choice was Ilegal Mezcal. “I still remember my first sip, powerful peppery flavors, great citrus and tart green apple flavors,” Tartakovsky says. “The rush and silky texture could only be found from the rough and tumble production of the agave plant. It was a surreal experience that I remember clearly, almost 10 years later.”
Other bartenders say Ilegal is the bottle that got them into mezcal, but their first experience with the spirit was a little buggier.
“The first mezcal brand I remember trying was Monte Alban—it was all about the worm in the bottle,” Johnny Swet, co-owner of JIMMY at The James, says. “I really learned to like and understand the spirit, though, when I began drinking Ilegal Mezcal.”
“I don’t remember the name of the brand of mezcal I first tasted, but I remember that there was a scorpion in the bottom of the bottle, which is a hard thing to forget (unless you have too much mezcal!),” Rael Petit, beverage director at The Restaurant at The Williamsburg Hotel, says. “The bottle that got me into the spirit was Illegal Mezcal. I recall hearing stories from John Rexer, the owner of Ilegal Mezcal, and he sounded like a modern Indiana Jones, making the drink sound very appealing.”
Ghost Donkey bartender Ignacio Jimenez was a scotch drinker when he first tried mezcal from an unlabeled bottle 12 years ago in Mexico City. He hasn’t looked back. “Today, they’re so many great mezcals, like Montelobos, which is a great sipper and plays well in cocktails,” he says.
Del Maguey’s Single Village line of mezcals was a starting point for many bartenders’ love of the spirit. Like Maggie Dale, manager and director of Cookshop, who first tried it in a grapefruit Margarita in Oaxaca, Mexico. One that specifically stands out is the Chichicapa. “Not only is the name so fun say, but this mezcal is perfect for cocktails due to its complexity of smoke, citrus and touch of mint,” she says. “It makes a mean Mezcal Margarita with agave, lime juice and Cointreau.”
A Margarita with Chichicapa was also the first mezcal that Ousia beverage director Johnny Livanos remembers drinking. “It was a regular Margarita with sal de gusano (worm salt) and a shot of mezcal on the side,” he says. “I fell in love with the smoky minerality of it at the first sip.” He also had his first Negroni that night, which, in keeping in line with the theme, was a Mezcal Negroni.
Others, like Pat Pip, the bar manager at Barrio Costero and REYLA, got to Chichicapa through another agave spirit: sotol. About eight years ago, he and a friend had a long night of drinking sotol. His research into all things Mexican spirits started the next day. “I quickly got introduced to Del Maguey mezcals, and their Chichicapa blew me away, as do most of their mezcals,” he says. “Citrusy smooth, medium smoke, almost minty. Our restaurants now sell the most Del Maguey in the state of New Jersey.” And for that, Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper signed “Pip! Numero uno in NJ!” in Pip’s copy of Cooper’s book, Finding Mezcal. “That will be going on my resume forever,” Pip says.
“I think it's safe to say that the bottlings from Del Maguey that made me a believer were both the Pechuga and the Iberico,” Jeremy Williams, lead mixologist at Lumber Baron Bar at the Amway Grand Plaza, says. Pechuga is made with red rice and a chicken breast suspended in the still, and Iberico uses ham. “To my knowledge, there are no other spirits created in this manner,” he says. “The result is a mezcal with amazing fruit, floral, spice and umami complexity. One that deserves to be savored.”
Ferris general manager Jenny Lakin first fell in love with mezcal through Del Maguey Iberico as well. It’s since opened her up to the mezcal category as a whole. “Certainly not a traditional mezcal but a really interesting one and one that demanded my attention from the very first sip,” she says.
"The first time I had mezcal was about four years ago, as a shot in a bar,” Sam Carlton, head bartender at Dove’s Luncheonette, says. “It was new and popular to shoot at the time, and this variety was sweet, fruity and very smoky. I didn't love it, but I had a chance shortly afterward to learn more about the spirit while I was training for the opening of Dove’s Luncheonette in 2014.”
Del Maguey Madrecuixe was a bottle that stood out to him early on. “Previously, all I had tasted was Espadin, so this opened my eyes to a broader spectrum of flavor and gave me a new view of mezcal as a spirit,” he adds.
“When I was 23 years old, I sat down at a bar with a friend and she ordered us each a shot of mezcal,” Jim Lunchick, head bartender and sommelier at Merriman’s Waimea, says. “It was Gusano Rojo, and it was the end of the bottle. She asked the bartender to give her the worm, and I watched her pop it in her mouth like a potato chip and that's when I fell in love with her—and with mezcal! I've moved on to more artisanal expressions of the stuff than Gusano Rojo (Bozal is my current favorite), but that moment in the bar so long ago was where the love affair began.”
Tobala from Vago and El Jolgorio
“I’d say I got really into mezcal when I tried my first tobala,” Shuka bar manager David Kruse says. “The agave are grown at higher elevations and often in the shade of trees and canyons. This changes the flavors to make them a bit tropical on the nose and palate with a softer smokiness and really smooth finish. The Vago and El Jolgorio brands are quite notable, but I haven’t met a tobala I didn’t enjoy.”
“Las Hormigas was the first mezcal I tried,” SECOND beverage director Percy Rodriguez says. “Though, it’s no longer called that, I loved the touch of sweetness to its smoky agave backbone. Las Hormigas really opened my eyes to the possibilities of this spirit, inspiring me to experiment with it in my own practice.”
Reserva del Viejo
Years ago, I was a whisky lover,” Jimmy Conrado, resident tequila master at 1910 Mexican Cantina at The Fives Azul Beach Resort, says. “However, in a family reunion more than 10 years ago, my uncle introduced this specific bottle of mezcal to me, and I was very curious as to why it had a worm in it. I liked it and started exploring various types of mezcals.”