There aren’t as many spirits with quite the popular trajectory these days as mezcal. 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.
But despite the fact that it’s been around for a long, long time, there aren’t really any classic cocktails that call for the stuff. Even tequila isn’t called for in that many classics, mainly 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.
But with the sharp rise in mezcal’s popularity in recent years, 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?
What I and many other cocktail-minded bartenders have been doing for years now is a simple substitution game. In this game, mezcal is merely swapped 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 is morphed 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, it’s 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.