Mezcal is warm and goes down easy -- the antithesis of what people traditionally think of the spirit with which it’s most often associated: tequila. The liquor, typically derived from the agave plant (tequila itself is technically a form of mezcal), was once considered the Mexican equivalent of moonshine, but in the last few years has seen a boom in popularity globally. (In fact, this surge in popularity may also be cause for its eventual scarcity, as The New Yorker noted recently.) In NYC, that trademark smokiness and Scotch-like sippable quality has helped the booze move from niche bars like La Biblioteca to a near-ubiquity status. It's no longer hard to find mezcal on a cocktail menu in New York, but these are the nine spots in the city that continuously explore the absolute best ways to use it.
Yes, you can actually eat insects at The Black Ant, whose name reflects the menu’s inclusion of off-kilter, crunchy items. But don't let that distract you from how good the drinks are; the Yum Kaax in particular is a standout among the smoky cocktails. The low-key flavors of homemade corn juice, lime, agave, and worm salt make the drink an excellent entry point for mezcal newbies, while veteran drinkers will appreciate how the simplicity of the ingredients brings out the spirit’s flavor.
An inventive menu of crispy pig ears and spicy brisket jerky take the spotlight at this beer-forward BBQ spot, but grab a seat at the small bar so you can get all the details on the highly underrated cocktail program. The star here is the house Paloma. The simple tequila, grapefruit, and soda classic is reinvented with a base housemade grapefruit-habanero shrub. The spicy syrup, which takes two to three days to make, cuts the warmth of the Ilegal Mezcal, while the smokiness brings out the citrus flavors.
Upper East Side
The cocktails at this UES Mexican spot go far beyond the bottomless brunch specials that typically grab attention. The refreshing cucumber serrano martini starts with El Silencio mezcal, an Espadin varietal that has bright fruit flavors on top of the typical smoke. Combined with the cucumber, slight spice of the serrano, and citrus, the drink finds a balance between acidity and sweetness, which mixes well with Tajín spice.
El Born brings Catalonian flavor to a neighborhood better known for its pierogis. Small plates pair well with big cocktails, and the drinks at El Born are both hefty and interesting in their flavors, and The Wawa is exactly that. A layering of bold flavors, the drink combines mezcal, orange liqueur, lime, agave, and homemade habanero tincture; that habanero tincture gives the drink a hot bite, while the orange liqueur and agave provide a sweet, floral base.
Park Slope (& other locations)
A large mezcal selection at Fonda's three locations makes it an ideal spot for purists to dig deeper into mezcal or novices to first acquaint themselves with the spirit's natural flavors. Should you go the cocktail route, reach for the Azulada. It’s a refreshing, summery choice, made with Montelobos mezcal, fresh lime & homemade blueberry jam. The drink walks that rare fine-line of being sweet without cloying or syrupy, while the use of jam shows off mescal’s versatility in mixing well with unexpected and equally strong flavors.
The Falcon Lake Incident, the signature mezcal cocktail at this Bushwick mainstay, riffs on the Jungle Bird, a classic of rum, pineapple, and Campari. Here, pineapple and cappelletti maintain the frothy texture and bitter component of the original cocktail, and pink peppercorn, smoke from the mezcal, and floral overtones from the chamomile syrup act anchor the drink.
Cosme is the most celebrated Mexican restaurant in NYC, and the level of the cocktail program matches the food. The Striptease, a combination of Vida mezcal, Dolin blanc vermouth, guanábana, lime, and absinthe salt, makes for an exotic drink worthy of its moniker. “Beyond the notes of smoke, [our] mezcal cocktails focus on the secondary and tertiary notes that mezcal offers,” explains Yana Volfson, director of beverages. Flavors of fermented fruit are revealed slowly thanks to the guanábana nectar. Come for the Striptease, and then go another round with the more floral El Ninja.
On a weekday night, the Wayland's large windows, wooden interior, and typical live music give the impression that you’ve somehow, just briefly, escaped city madness, and its Smoked and Roasted cocktail pairs well with said escapism. With mezcal, fresh pineapple, chipotle-infused agave nectar, lemon, and chili salt, the drink goes down smooth and finishes with just a hint of a kick from the pepper notes. The Wayland’s bartenders know how to make a well-balanced cocktail: pineapple dances with the mezcal’s smokiness without overpowering it.
All of the mezcal cocktails at this West Village Mexican restaurant demand respect, and the margaritas almost beg that you substitute mezcal for tequila. But The Devil in Oaxaca cocktail is the real standout, using flavors that play up the smoky flavors. The carrot juice, cilantro, agave, and orange bitters make for a daring combo that surprisingly works (the carrot juice's subtle inclusion will make you reconsider its power as a cocktail ingredient).
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1. The Black Ant60 2nd Ave, New York
2. Ducks Eatery351 E 12th St, New York
3. Maya1191 First Ave, New York
4. El Born651 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn
5. Fonda40 Avenue B, New York
6. Forrest Point970 Flushing Ave, Brooklyn
7. Cosme35 E 21st St, New York
8. The Wayland700 E 9th St, New York
9. Ofrenda113 7th Ave S, New York
This bright, airy, below-street level restaurant doles out proper cantina fare from the team behind West Village favorite Ofrenda. The Black Ant is serving up some rare protein options, namely black ant guacamole and fried crickets, blending the bugs into the menu in a way that successfully evades gimmick in favor of quality, unique flavor. The cocktail list is spectacular as well, offering drinks with ingredients like habanero shrub bitters and homemade corn juice.
Texas barbecue and Vietnamese fare are the perfect couple at Ducks Eatery in the East Village, where the two cuisines come together to create fusion, one-of-a-kind meat dishes like brisket marinated in fish sauce and chili paste, and curry-laced goat neck. Most plates are meant to be shared -- and paired with an unpretentious cocktail or beer from the sizable roster.
The Mexican restaurant landscape in New York is messy and crowded -- there are far too many spots that feel like factory operations with mediocre guacamole. Richard Sandoval's Maya stands far above the pack with traditional plates, tequila and mezcal flights, and four kinds of guacamole. The Upper East Side restaurant's bottomless brunch is a weekend institution where unlimited small plates and free-flowing cocktails like sparkling sangria and mango mimosas rule the antique-tiled dining room.
Named after the artsy Born district of Barcelona, this Greenpoint restaurant is as close to a Catalonian tapas bar as you'll find in New York. The menu divides tapas into four categories: traditional, vegetable, seafood, and meat, so expect a parade of small plates like bacon-wrapped dates, roasted cauliflower, and grilled octopus with potatoes. The drinks selection includes multiple gin & tonic varieties and Spanish wine, including sherry.
Fonda is a colorful, cozy, and modern Mexican cantina in the heart of Alphabet City. This spot specializes in elevated takes on Mexico City's most delectable street foods-- think elotes, flautas, ceviche, guac, margs, and more. This always-lively and bustling spot is a solid standout for brunch (who can pass up bottomless Bloodies?) or happy hour.
Forrest Point is the kind of restaurant that could only exist in a gentrified, hipster neighborhood like Bushwick. The indoor-outdoor spot sits on a triangular block between Forrest St and Flushing Ave; the outdoor patio, gated-in like a city park, seats more than 50 at its mismatching tables, while the interior is decorated to resemble a well-worn dive bar. Expect mezcal cocktails, boilermakers, and milk punch to drink, and comfort food like a cast-iron cheese burger (made with Pat LaFrieda beef) and fish tacos to eat.
The brains behind the traditional yet unique and modern Mexican restaurant, Cosme, is superstar chef Enrique Olvera, who is aiming to change the way Americans eat and think about Mexican food. What makes the menu so contemporary is the absence of familiar Mexican cuisine markers. While you won't find enchiladas on the menu anytime soon, the core flavors are Mexican, and many of the ingredients are sourced locally.
From a duo that spent many years bartending, cooking, and consulting in the restaurant business, The Wayland is a live-music cocktail bar in the heart of Alphabet City that aces the neighborhood watering hole game. Connected to the bar is a kitchen that specializes in small plates like raw (or fried) oysters, pork belly BLTs, and fried mashed potatoes. The cocktails reflect a DIY approach, with hours of prep work just to produce house-made radish, spiced apple, and key lime-flavored bitters.
From the guys behind Cafe Condesa is Ofrenda, a West Village mainstay for margaritas and guacamole. The menu is at once upscale and approachable featuring dishes like tacos with lentils and fried plantains, a three-cheese fondue-queso hybrid, and mezcal-braised pork shank. Right on 7th Ave South, the restaurant has sidewalk seating and a dim dining room with a long bar.