Mad about mezcal

Last fall, I had the good fortune to visit the magical town of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. High on the rooftop garden of the Hotel Palomar at sunset, as I watched the sky turn from blue to pink to purple and orange, a young man named Billy Mervin poured mezcal and told us about his conversion.

Until just a few years ago, Mervin had never tasted mezcal, the smoky distilled spirit made from fermented agave. “It used to be for the working class,” he said. For that reason, many Mexicans shied away from it. But once Mervin discovered the ancient fire water, he fell in love with the legends and romance behind it.

The grandfather of the much more famous tequila, which is a type of mezcal made from blue agave, the potent spirit can be made from a plethora of agave (or maguey) varieties and can only be produced in eight of Mexico’s 31 states. (About 60 percent of the spirit comes from Oaxaca, the southwestern state known for its chocolate-y moles and colorful, indigenous culture.)

While many Americans think of mezcal as the cheap, kerosene-like drink with the kitschy worm in the bottle, today much of the good stuff is actually produced in small artisanal batches, using methods that are hundreds of years old. Giant maguey hearts — or piñas — are roasted in underground wood-fire pits (hence the smoky taste), then mashed into pulp by a horse pulling a large grinding wheel made of stone.

It is this tradition — with all its passion and purity — that made Mervin a mezcal convert. (Today he owns a mezcal brand, Travieso, and represents three others: Amores, Sangremal and Tinieblo.)

And it is this same mystique that is fueling a thirst for mezcal at bars and restaurants all over Atlanta.

“Every nice restaurant has at least one mezcal cocktail on the menu,” says Jesus Oñate Jr., the Atlanta restaurateur who opened his La Urbana Tequila & Mezcal Bar on Huff Road in West Midtown in late March. “The mixologists are definitely getting into it right now.”

A modern watering hole that offers Mexican street food and 18 brands of mezcal, La Urbana has seven handcrafted mezcal sippers on its menu. Among the offerings: a delicious spicy margarita mixed with a house-made pineapple-jalapeño-cilantro syrup and the spritzy Mezcal Buck, a riff on the classic Moscow Mule that substitutes mezcal for the vodka and a house-made ginger cordial for the ginger ale.

In Decatur — arguably the epicenter of Atlanta’s craft-cocktail culture — three of the 12 menu drinks at trendy Paper Plane are mezcal-based: In Bloom (mezcal, Italian vermouth, Campari, St. Germain, rose water); La Reina Subterranea (aka the Underground Queen, made from mezcal, lime, falernum, cane syrup, mint, bitters); and the Savage Detectives (mezcal, potato vodka, Punt e Mes, white cacao, maraschino and lemon).

Also in Decatur, the Pinewood stages a weekly theme night called Taco Tuesdays, where partner and beverage director Julian Goglia serves a $25 flight of three premium mezcals alongside the chef’s lengua (beef tongue), chile verde, catfish and vegetarian tacos.

Of the differences between mezcal and tequila, Goglia says: “For the most part, mezcal is much more rustic, smoky, and often more abrasive (than tequila). It isn’t governed by the same rules as tequila, so it varies widely from the use of different agave, fruits, spices and even meats used by the villages that distill it.”

Did he just say meat?

Indeed, one of the odder permutations of mezcal culture is the technique that uses a raw chicken breast (pechuga) in the multistep distillation process, a practice that is said to mellow the spirit's harsher overtones. Goglia offers a taste of Del Maguey's pollo-infused spirit in his flight, along with Fidencio Sin Humo (without smoke) and Ilegal's reposado. As is traditional in Mexico, he serves the tastings neat, with orange slices and sal de gusano, a traditional Oaxacan spice of salt, ground chili pepper and toasted and ground agave worms.

He also shakes up mezcal cocktails, including Bebida de Los Muertos, No. 2. A riff on the classic Corpse Reviver, No. 2, Goglia’s “Drink of the Dead” replaces the traditional gin with “a much earthier unsmoky mezcal (Fidencio Sin Humo)” and the absinthe with jalapeño. He softens the sharp edges with a bit of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, a French liqueur made from bitter oranges. “I picked the Dry Curacao because it’s a little less sweet for a tart refreshing summer drink,” Goglia says.

Meanwhile, at the Optimist on the Westside, beverage manager Eduardo Guzman pours a gently sweet-tart mezcal cocktail called El Rey (the King). Delicious and easy to make, it calls for sweet Maraschino Luxardo liqueur to balance the grapefruit, lime and Vida, a “single-village” mezcal made by Del Maguey. “It’s basically a take on the Hemingway daiquiri with mezcal,” says Guzman, a native of Merida.

Asked if he liked mezcal, Guzman replies, “Of course. … My father would kill me if I didn’t.”

In other words: It would be disrespectful of Mexican heritage and culture.

Mervin would agree. “It’s 100 Mexican,” he says of the spirit that now claims his heart. “Mexicans are in love with tequila, but their lover is mezcal.”

Cocktail recipes

Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, we celebrate mezcal with four cocktail recipes from Atlanta restaurants. El Rey (from the Optimist) and Bebida de Los Muertos, No. 2 (from the Pinewood) take little effort, while the Spicy Mezcal Margarita and the Mezcal Buck (both from La Urbana Tequila & Mezcal Bar) require you to make a simple cordial and multi-ingredient juice. You won’t regret it. A tip: Just as you season your food with salt and pepper, feel free to adjust the sweet and acidic components of these cocktails to your taste.

El Rey (the Optimist)

Hands on: 3 minutes

Total time: 8 minutes

Makes: 1 drink

Mexico native Eduardo Guzman serves this sweet-tart, citrus-y cocktail at the Optimist, where he is beverage manager.

1 ounce mezcal (Guzman uses Del Maguey’s Vida organic mezcal)

1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce simple syrup (equal parts granulated sugar and water, dissolved)

1 1/2 teaspoons Maraschino Luxardo liqueur

1 long strip of grapefruit zest for garnish (optional)

Pour mezcal, grapefruit juice, lime juice, simple syrup and Maraschino Luxardo into a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake well and pour into a champagne flute. Float grapefruit zest in the drink (if using), and serve.

Per drink: 116 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium.

Bebida de los Muertos, No. 2 (the Pinewood)

Hands on: 5 minutes

Total time: 8 minutes

Makes: 1 drink

Julian Goglia, partner and beverage director at the Pinewood in Decatur, makes this riff on the classic Corpse Reviver, No. 2, substituting mezcal for the gin and jalapeño for the absinthe.

1/2-inch square piece of fresh jalapeño

3/4 ounce mezcal (Goglia uses Fidencio Sin Humo)

3/4 ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao

3/4 ounce Cocchi Americano

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

1 strip of lemon zest for garnish (optional)

Muddle the jalapeño pepper in a cocktail shaker. Pour in mezcal, Dry Curacao, Cocchi Americano and lemon juice. Add ice. Shake well. Pour into a champagne coupe glass. If using the lemon zest garnish, twist it into a curlicue shape and hang on the side of the glass. Serve.

Per drink: 170 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), trace protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium.

Spicy Mezcal Margarita (La Urbana)

Hands on: 3 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Makes: 1 drink

This cocktail is featured at La Urbana Tequila & Mezcal Bar on the Westside. It was created by beverage consultant Gilbert Marquez, and mixed for us by La Urbana bartender Miguel Chavez.

1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 lime wedge (for wetting rim of glass)

2 ounces mezcal (preferably Ilegal Joven)

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1 ounce pineapple-jalapeño juice (see instructions)

1 slice pineapple for garnish (optional)

1 pineapple leaf for garnish (optional)

For the pineapple-jalapeño juice:

1/2 pineapple, chopped into chunks

1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves

2 1/2 jalapeños, cored, seeded and roughly chopped

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Mix chipotle powder and salt. Spread onto a saucer. Moisten rim of a small Pilsner glass with lime. Invert the glass onto the saucer. Twist back and forth to coat the rim with the chipotle salt. Set aside while mixing drink.

Pour mezcal, lime juice and pineapple-jalapeño juice into a cocktail shaker. Add ice. Shake vigorously. Pour drink into Pilsner glass. Top with more ice as needed. Garnish with pineapple slice and leaf if using.

To make the pineapple-jalapeño juice: Place pineapple chunks, cilantro and jalapeños in a blender. Pulse until smooth. (You may need to break up the pineapple chunks with a large wooden spoon, pressing them down into the blender.) Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Add granulated sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 2 cups.

Per drink: 158 calories (percent of calories from fat, 7), trace protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 954 milligrams sodium.

The Mezcal Buck (La Urbana)

Hands on: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Makes: 1 drink

This refreshing summer elixir, from the menu of La Urbana Tequila & Mezcal Bar, is made with an easy ginger cordial, fresh lime juice, bitters and a splash of soda.

2 ounces mezcal (preferably Sombra)

3/4 ounce ginger cordial (see instructions)

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice

Club soda

3 dashes Angostura bitters

1 sprig mint (optional garnish)

For the ginger cordial:

1 cup fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1 cup water

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Pour mezcal, ginger cordial and lime juice into a cocktail shaker. Add 3 to 5 cubes of ice and shake vigorously. Pour into a cocktail glass, and add more ice to fill the glass. Top with club soda. Sprinkle with three drops of bitters. Garnish with mint sprig (if using) and serve, allowing the bitters to seep slowly into the drink. (If you like a sweeter drink, adjust with more of the ginger cordial.)

To make ginger cordial: Place the ginger and water in a blender. Pulse until the mixture is like a juice. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a jar or small bowl. Add granulated sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate any leftovers in a tightly sealed jar.

Per drink: 144 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium.