Phil Ward began his career like so many bartenders in the business: almost on accident. What began as a part time job bar backing morphed into bartending when, as such things often happen, someone didn’t show up for a shift. Like some bartenders, Phil developed a real passion and skill for working behind the bar. And like few bartenders, Phil became an expert in one particular area of the craft. For Phil, that area of expertise is agave spirits.
Spirits such as tequila and mezcal are made from varieties of the agave plant: tequila is made from 100% Weber Blue agave, mezcal is made from any number of varieties, each with their own flavor characteristics. The primary difference between tequila and mezcal, other than the agave varietal is the method used to break down the plant’s starches into sugars: for tequila, the plants are baked in large clay ovens. For mezcal, the plants are roasted over coals in large underground pits.
Mezcal can be a tricky spirit to work with. It’s strong, smoky, and in your face. But thanks to bartenders like Phil, it’s becoming more and more frequently requested across the country. Phil moved up the ranks of New York City bars to eventually own his own bar in the East Village, Mayahuel, which has become one of the most important agave-driven bars in the world. His evangelism for all things agave has helped bring this once-neglected spirit into the mainstream.
Phil’s signature cocktail has become something of a modern classic: The Oaxacan Old Fashioned. He took the Old Fashioned formula of spirit, sugar, and bitters, and made a few tweaks. For the spirit he mixes mezcal with aged tequila, substitutes agave syrup for the sugar, and selects Mexico-inspired chocolate mole bitters to tie the whole drink together. The result is a soft, smoky, slow sipper. Perfect for an early autumn night by the fire pit.
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
1½ oz. reposado tequila
½ oz. mezcal
1 tsp. 2:1 agave syrup
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters
Grapefruit peel, for garnish
Combine the tequila, mezcal, simple syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass and stir with ice cubes until well chilled. Strain over fresh ice into an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with grapefruit peel.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.