Not many spirits can compete with mezcal these days in terms of booming popularity. That smoky, spicy, wild parent of tequila—the original agave spirit in fact—has seen a major boom in recent years thanks in part to increased education, better harvesting and distillation practices, and more widespread distribution.
Despite the fact that it’s been around for a long, long time, not too many classic cocktails call for the stuff. Even tequila isn’t required for that many classics—mainly just the Margarita and the El Diablo. But mezcal, which is made from agave plants roasted over live coals rather than baked in ovens, comes with a strong smoky flavor, which makes it challenging to work with.
However, with the spirit’s recent risen in popularity, drinkers are demanding more and more mezcal cocktails every night. Phil Ward came up with the modern classic, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, which combines tequila, mezcal, agave syrup, and bitters. The drink is my go-to behind the bar, but what to do for the second or third request for a mezcal cocktail?
My fellow cocktail-minded bartenders and I have solved our problem by playing a little substitution game. In this game, we merely swap mezcal in place of another white spirit in a classic cocktail. So the Last Word becomes mezcal, lime, green Chartreuse, and maraschino liqueur. A French 75 morphs into mezcal, lemon, sugar, and champagne. And so on.
And when I need a mezcal cocktail with bitterness and complexity, I reach in my pocket for the Mezcal Negroni. It’s rich, smoky, bitter, deep, and complex. And the flavors of burnt orange and cinnamon are absolutely perfect for this time of year.
• 1 oz. mezcal (try the Don Amado Rustico, made from 100% Espadin)
• 1 oz. sweet vermouth (I reach for Cinzano or Martini and Rossi)
• 1 oz. Campari
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until cold. Strain over fresh ice in a chilled Old Fashioned glass, and garnish with an orange 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.
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