First things first: Mezcal is not tequila, so don’t shoot it, don’t add lime and salt. It’s a complex and lovely spirit that’s best enjoyed neat. Mezcal has come a long way from the days when each bottle of golden liquid contained a solitary moth larvae ready to be consumed on a drinking dare. Today, in a full PR 180, mezcal is coveted by our country’s top bartenders and is found on every (good) cocktail menu in the country. Austin is no exception. Here’s what you need to know about mezcal and where you need to drink it.
So, what exactly is mezcal?
Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant, a succulent which is typically large and spiky. The agave’s piñas are trimmed, roasted, and ground before being placed into wooden fermentation tanks and later distilled at least twice through copper stills or clay pots.
Traditionally, the spirit hails from Oaxaca, although there are other regions it is found. There are copious amounts of agave varietals with different flavors that can be used to make mezcal. The combination of the terroir (soil, topography, and climate), type of still used, and producer results in near-infinite combinations. “Most people expect smokiness and dark, earthy notes,” says Billy Hankey, owner of King Bee Lounge and former lead barman of Second Bar + Kitchen, “but that there are so many varietals of mezcal that flavors can range from bright and herbaceous to funky... like blue cheese funky.”
Austin's fondness for mezcal
We asked Hankey, who first took notice of the smoky spirit and started serving it in Austin’s cocktail bars, for the source of the local surge. “Mezcal’s popularity in Austin has been growing for a while now. Vivo, Cantina El Milamores at Takoba, and Bar Illegal have had a focus for a long while; not to mention people like Bill Norris, Adam Bryan, Ben Craven, and many, many other bartenders who’ve used mezcal in cocktails for over a decade... I am trying not to reveal our ages.”
Austin bar menus featuring mezcal
“Many bars these days are developing a selection of mezcal. The trend has really taken hold," says Hankey. These eight bars range from typical best-cocktail-bar contenders with a knack for diverse beverage programs on down to dedicated mezcalerias. Oh, and just like at traditional mezcalerias, don't be surprised if the drink is accompanied by sal de gusano (worm salt) or sal de chapulin (grasshopper salt) on orange slices. These may sound gross, but are totally not; it’s just salt with little brown specks.
Billy Hankey and Colette Dein are two of the nicest and most knowledgeable bar owners in town. They also happen to have a nicely curated collection of mezcals. Allow Billy to recommend one (or four) to you and listen to him wax poetic on the process, the region, and the tasting notes. “When you’re drinking mezcal, find out what varietals are used in the production of that bottling and the process by which it was made," says Hankey. "All that information is generally printed on the bottle. Also, try to be aware of who is producing the mezcal and their story. Is it a major liquor company or a family?”
Upstairs from Mi Madre’s is the cool little mezcal bar from the same owners as the Tex-Mex restaurant. Here you can enjoy the spirit neat or in one of its cocktails. Mezcals work well in just about any cocktail (Old Fashioneds, Negronis, etc.) as long as it’s balanced. Try the fresh, herbal Verdito made with mezcal, absinthe, basil-serrano, and lime juice with agave.
This intimate bar carries a broad selection of wild-variety mezcals including mexicano, madrecuixe, arroqueño, tobala, ensamble en olla de barro, and some rare espadin, and is served two ways: guests can order a half-pour (3/4oz) in a clay copita, or a full pour in the traditional veladora glass. Downstairs at Whisler’s, the well mezcal, El Silencio Espadin, is showcased nicely in the Oaxacan Prayer (El Silencio Espadin mezcal, Cocchi Rosa, Licor 43, lime bitters, and acid phosphate).
East 7th St
Right around the corner from Takoba’s main entrance is Cantina El Milamores. It has a great menu of Mexican appetizers and cocktails, including many made with mezcal, like the mezcal Old Fashioned. It also has seven very reasonably priced mezcal flights, like the agave varietal ($12) which comes with copitas of Tepeztate, Sierra Negra Mezcalero #4, Madre Cuishe Wahaka, and Espadin Alipus San Baltazar.
Not only is El Naranjo home to some of the best interior Mexican cuisine in the city, but it has a killer selection of mezcal and other agave-distilled spirits (including tequila, sotol, and bacanora). Try Fidencio’s Tobalá, which is foraged from wild agave, or the savory, salty Wild Karwinskii from Real Minero Largo -- regarded as one of the finest mezcal producers.
La Condesa is THE Downtown hotspot for modern Mexican food and dangerously deliciously cocktails, like the DÍa de Los Muertos No. 2 (Alipus San Juan mezcal, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, lemon). Feeling adventurous? Order the $45 pour of Del Maguey Pechuga, which is distilled with a chicken breast suspended inside the still in order to balance the mezcal’s fruit flavors.
It’s hard to believe that the go-to Tex-Mex restaurant for lunch with co-workers or weeknight dinner with the fam would have such an impressive selection of mezcal, but it really does. Over 30 bottles from distillers like Del Maguey, Alipus, and Los Nahuales make VIVO a bona fide destination for mezcal lovers. For a refreshing take on a margarita, try the Haz Me Pronto! made with Los Nahuales Reposado mezcal, Ancho Reyes, tamarind, honey syrup, fresh lime, and a Tajin rim.
Rounding out the mezcal landscape, just behind Clive Bar, Bar Ilegal is the tiny cottage serving everything from mezcal mules to flights of the smoky spirit. Keep in mind, it is only open on weekends. Consider putting a few back with the traditional toast that’s given when drinking mezcal: "Para todo mal mezcal, para todo bien tambien," which translates to “for everything bad, mezcal... for everything good as well.”
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1. King Bee Lounge1906 E 12th St, Austin
2. Techo Mezcaleria & Agave Bar2201 Manor Rd (Upstairs), Austin
3. Mezcalería Tobalá1816 E 6th St, Austin
4. Bar Ilegal609 Davis St, Austin
5. Cantina El Milamores1411 E 7th St, Austin
6. La Condesa400 W 2nd St, Austin
7. El Naranjo85 Rainey St., Austin
8. Qui1600 E 6th St, Austin
9. Vivo Restaurant6406 N Interstate 35 #2343, Austin
Former Legendary White Swan owner Randall Stockton passed the reins to his half-brother Bill Hankey, who curated this East Austin underground dive's craft beer list and craft cocktail menu, which ranges from classics like the Vieux Carre to playful inventions. There's a solid offering of pizzas and paninis, but it's the drinks you'll come back for, mainly the signature Bee’s Knees -- a sweet honey and gin concoction with a spicy sting of Ancho Reyes for the daring.
Perched above Cherrywood's little red beacon and Tex-Mex favorite Mi Madre's lies a hidden gem slinging sweet and smokey Mezcal- and agave-laden cocktails. In stark contrast to its downstairs neighbor's bright fiesta motif, Techo looks like the Mexico from old Western movies with dark and dusty wooden walls and floors, stained glass windows, and burlap-upholstered bar stools. It's a fitting match for the bold flavors like pineapple, pickled grape, sage, and chili that lace their cocktails.
A semi-secret bar perched above Whisler's on East Sixth, the rusty, tin interior Mezcaleria Tobala is as close to Mexico as you'll come in Austin, thanks to its rare selection of sweet mezcal. You won't find any wacky cocktails here -- they really mean business, serving the smokey liquor up just the way it was intended -- straight in half or full pours with cinnamon-spiced orange slices. Non-believers are changed by the first sip.
Austinites who know what's good for them will skip Rainey Street's bar lineup on their next night out and head straight for the little stone house in the back of Clive and through the unlabeled, cherry-red door. Inside lies Bar Illegal, a secretive, candle-lit watering whole exclusively serving up Victoria Beers alongside sweet and smokey concoctions made from mezcal from the small-batch Oaxacan distillery Illegal Mezcal.
One of the two fully functioning bars in East 7th's modern fiesta-themed Takoba, Cantina El Milamores is the calm countersuit to the restaurant and additional patio bar, with low candle lighting, sleek, spacious wooden booths, and iconic murals. As you'd expect of an authentic Mexican bar, the offering here consists mostly of rum and tequila with a fruity flavor pallet. Those seeking the rel deal should go straight for the mezcal flight, a smokey liquor sample with creamy Oaxaca cheese and chili powdered orange slices.
La Condesa is the place to go if you're looking for traditional Mexican flavor with modern Austin flair. The menu, offering up handfuls of tortas, taquitos, combos, and a few other staples, is shorter than most, but there's an obvious preference for quality over quantity at this Downtown restaurant. Tacos strewn with red pickled onion, cilantro, and guacamole make the ideal warm-up round before hitting the bar, where tequila and mezcal reign supreme in customizable flights.
Unless you're already aware of what's inside, you'll likely mistake this little yellow house in Rainey Street District for... well, a house. The sneaky, unlabeled spot is actually El Naranjo, owned and operated by renowned chefs and power couple Iliana and Ernesto de la Vega. These two whip up some of Austin's most authentic and traditional Mexican fare, like flank steak tacos and Oaxacan mole, with ease and always keep more than a few bottles of mezcal on hand. opened El Naranjo to bring traditional Mexican cuisine to Austin. El Naranjo makes their own salsas, moles, breads, and corn tortillas with fresh and seasonal ingredients.
The first solo venture of James Beard award-winning Paul Qui, the appropriately named Qui is a minimalist's dream, from the rigid lines of its wood furnishing and rectangular layout, to the bright pops of color provided by the garnishes atop the Japanese fusion fare. The trendy image is only enhanced by the fruity gin-based cocktails and the meals that come to the table in small portions, like crispy pig's head, squid, and seared scallops.
With an eye for details like floral garnishes and artfully placed avocado slices, Vivo serves the North Loop Tex-Mex with just a little more panache than the average lunch combo plate. The menu's rife with enchiladas raging form chicken to beef to cheese to shrimp, all drizzled with red and verde sauces. Their range, however, can't hold a flame to the stash of tequilas and mezcals, which you can order by the flight or shot, or in a fruity, colorful cocktail.