Don’t mess around with mezcal

The trendiest spirit of the past decade is mezcal. And like Instant Pots and puppies, the liquor became even more popular during the pandemic.

Once a hard-to-find niche item often feebly described as “tequila with a worm in it,” mezcal is now seemingly everywhere—with almost no worms to be found.

Online liquor purveyor Drizly reported its mezcal sales jumped 600 percent during 2020, and that after a decade of more modest but still notable increases. Celebrity-owned mezcal brands are proliferating, with offerings from LeBron James, Cheech Marin, and Breaking Bad duo Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, among others. Tequila still outsells mezcal 50-to-1, but that’s likely to change as more drinkers try mezcal and discover its warmth and complexity.

Because, simply put, mezcal is better than tequila.

If you’re new to the spirit, here are the basics: All tequila is mezcal, but mezcal encompasses much more than tequila. Both are distilled from the agave plant, but tequila comes strictly from blue agave from a specific region of Mexico, while mezcals can be made from any of 40 to 50 varieties of agave from a much larger geographic area. The agave in most tequilas is cooked in giant ovens, whereas the agave in most mezcals is roasted in wood-fueled fire pits in the ground

The difference is obvious to almost any palate: Tequila is smoother but more one-dimensional, while mezcal is stronger, smokier, and more varied.

Because it’s typically hand-made, mezcal is often more expensive than tequila; a bottle of the former under $50 is hard to find, and prices in the $200 to $300 range are not uncommon. But the biggest obstacle to mezcal’s continued growth spiral—apart from the worm, which isn’t really a thing anymore and was never a “worm” in the first place—is the lack of a signature cocktail showcasing the spirit. Tequila has the Margarita, the Paloma, and the Tequila Sunrise; mezcal is often relegated to understudy status in those drinks, or simply consumed neat.

But more and more mixologists are developing mezcal-centric cocktails that take advantage of the liquor’s distinctive qualities. These three are a great place to begin exploring.

The Tia Mia, created by Ivy Mix of Leyenda Brooklyn Cocteleria in New York, is a mezcal variation on the rum-based Mai Tai that retains the rum as well as the traditional orgeat, which gives the drink a nutty undertone that plays well off the smoke and citrus.

The Polar Bear, developed by the bar team at Trick Dog in San Francisco, is sometimes described as a mezcal-centered Stinger but really shares nothing with that cocktail except creme de menthe. The white vermouth provides a crisp foundation for the mezcal that is accentuated by the celery bitters. It’s a fascinating combination.

More ambitious is Ginger’s Lost Island, the brainchild of Bryan Dayton of Boulder, Colo.’s Oak at Fourteenth. Even omitting the fanned-apple-slice garnish, this drink is going to demand some advance planning, calling for no fewer than seven ingredients, including at least one (cardamom pods) that you might or might not find in your pantry. The resulting cocktail is more than worth the effort, however, yielding a mix of flavors that might best be described as Latin-Asian-Indian fusion.

Feel free to substitute tequila for mezcal in any of these drinks. But you’ll be be bucking the trend and end up disappointed.

Tia Mia

Adapted from Ivy Mix

1 ounce mezcal
1 ounce amber rum
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce curaçao
1/2 ounce orgeat (almond syrup)
Mint sprig and lime wheel for garnish 

Combine mezcal, rum, lime juice, curaçao, and orgeat in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled, crushed ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with mint sprig and lime wheel.

Polar Bear

Adapted from Trick Dog, San Francisco, Calif.

1 1/2 ounces mezcal
3/4 ounce Dolin blanc vermouth
1/2 ounce white creme de menthe
6 drops celery bitters

Add the mezcal, vermouth, creme de menthe and celery bitters to a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Ginger’s Lost Island

Adapted from Bryon Dayton

Pinch of cinnamon
1 1/4 ounces ginger liqueur
2 cardamom pods
1 1/4 ounces mezcal
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce apple juice
1/4 ounce Agave nectar
Apple wedge, cut into thin slices and fanned, for garnish

Lightly muddle the cardamom in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add ice and all liquid ingredients and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled double rocks glass. Garnish with the apple fan.

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