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February 11, 2015

9 mezcal cocktails to ward off the winter chill

Plus two to make at home

Cocktails Tequila
Hop Sing Laundromat That's All She Wrote Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

That's All She Wrote, a mezcal cocktail at Hop Sing Laundromat

For several years now, mezcal has been gaining in popularity in Mexico and the United States. These days, you’re likely to find it at well-stocked bars and many restaurants around the city. Like its cousin tequila, mezcal invokes memories of a Mexican vacation, but mezcal is better for cold-weather drinking because of its distinctive warm smokiness.

Mezcal has a rich, centuries-long history, and for quality brands, the production methods haven’t changed: It’s still made by hand in small batches. That smoky flavor typical of most mezcals is a result of farmers cooking the piñas (cores) of the agave plants in underground pits. 

What does mezcal taste like? 

Says David Suro-Piñera, Philly’s own agave guru and owner of Tequilas restaurant, “The best way for me to describe it is that it’s like you put a wild horse in your mouth and let it scream, kick and jump — but then when it settles, it’s very beautiful and elegant.” 

So, yeah, mezcal is not for everyone. 

But fans like me appreciate its impressive complexity. 

Explains Suro-Piñera, “It tells you so many different things — from herbal notes, minerality, earthy, piney — I mean the descriptors are just endless.” 

As with wines, the best mezcals have terroir, or a distinctive sense of place, depending on where the agave plant grows. 

“I like to argue that agave spirits’ terroirs are the most complex in the world of spirits,” he says.

A longtime advocate for agave farmers and president of the Tequila Interchange Project, Suro-Piñera owns Siembra Azul and Siembra Valles tequila brands; his new Siembra Metl, one of the first mezcals to be imported from Michoacán, will hit shelves in February. But he’s not the only Philadelphian in the burgeoning industry.

After partnering with a producer in Oaxaca, Dock Street Spirits (created by Dock Street Brewing Co.’s Rosemarie Certo and Marilyn Candeloro along with Regina Pfohl) launched the floral, subtly smoky Vicio mezcal last summer. Later this year, Carlos Melendez will debut Coyote Crossing mezcal, named after his Conshohocken restaurant.

If you’re not already on the mezcal bandwagon, the best way to get to know the spirit is in a cocktail — like one of the nine stellar examples listed here. Then, hone in on your brand preference by sipping and comparing individual mezcals. 

Charlie Was A Sinner's El Conquistador

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Charlie Was a Sinner’s El Conquistador. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

When manager Pete Venuto looked for a spirit to pair with fresh carrot juice, he and his team at this Midtown Village vegan lounge found the perfect match in Del Maguey VIDA. Both the carrot and the mezcal bring earthiness to the El Conquistador ($12), balanced with blanco tequila, lime juice and agave nectar. The feel-good elixir is served in a coupe rimmed with salt and Espelette pepper.

Charlie Was A Sinner. 131 S. 13th St. (267) 758-5372

Coyote Crossing's San Cristobal

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San Cristobal, a mezcal cocktail at Coyote Crossing. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

As part of a major renovation at his 18-year-old Mexican restaurant in Conshohocken, owner Carlos Melendez debuted a new “Mezcal Bar” there in December. Among the many tequila- and mezcal-based offerings is the citrusy San Cristobal ($12), with Ilegal mezcal, grapefruit and agave syrup. Jalapeño-infused tequila gives it a kick. 

Coyote Crossing. 800 Spring Mill Ave., Conshohocken. (610) 825-3000

El Poquito's Barrel-Aged Mezcal Negroni

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Mezcal Negroni from El Poquito in Chestnut Hill. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

At this lively new Chestnut Hill spot by Garces alums George Atterbury and chef Andrew Sabin, the smooth, barrel-aged Mezcal Negroni ($14) spends about three weeks in oak. “The aging rounds everything out,” mellowing the smoke and agave notes of the El Buho mezcal and tempering the bitterness of the Campari, manager Tim Lux says. Time in barrel also adds a subtle layer of vanilla and spice.

El Poquito. 8201 Germantown Ave. (267) 766-5372

Emmanuelle's A Plethora of Piñatas & Under the Volcano

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The Plethora of Piñatas at Emmanuelle. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

Head bartender Phoebe Esmon contends that mezcal is a much more flexible spirit than many people believe, and she makes a case for its versatility with two excellent takes at this Northern Liberties bar. 

A Plethora of Piñatas ($14), a guest favorite, is a well-balanced variation on a Daisy cocktail with Del Maguey VIDA, Meletti Amaro, lime juice, house pineapple preserves, smoked rosemary tincture and agave nectar.

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Under the Volcano at Emmanuelle. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

To ward off the chill on a snowy day, go for Under the Volcano ($14), served hot, with Ilegal Mezcal Joven, Punt e Mes vermouth, ancho-piloncillo syrup and crème de cacao.

Emmanualle. 1052 N. Hancock St. #67. (267) 639-2470

The Fat Ham's “Sidecar”

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The Fat Ham's Mezcal Cocktail, the Sidecar. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

Inspiration for the Fat Ham’s “Sidecar” ($11) came from barbecued apples, says Dan Carr, head bartender at Kevin Sbraga’s Southern restaurant in University City. But this bright, appley-lemony concoction is no smoke bomb. A refreshing blend of Ilegal Mezcal Joven, Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy, lemon juice and honey, it complements the richer dishes on the menu.

The Fat Ham. 3131 Walnut St. (215) 735-1914 

Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.'s Temporary Phase

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The Temporary Phase from Franklin Mortgage. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

At this Rittenhouse stalwart now led by head bartender Sara Justice, vanilla- and honey-tinged Del Maguey Minero Mezcal mingles with blackberry syrup in The Temporary Phase ($15). Bartender Adam Ravitz, who developed the cocktail, balances it with Siembra Azul Reposado Tequila and Amaro Nonino. But the fun part is the addition of a very Philly tincture made from roasted long hot peppers, which add vegetal flavor and, of course, some heat.

Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. 112 S. 18th St. (267) 467-3277

Hop Sing Laundromat's That’s All She Wrote

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That's All She Wrote, from Hop Sing Laundromat. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

Lê, owner of this sultry Chinatown cocktail den, keeps it simple (as he often does) with the elegant That’s All She Wrote ($12). The drink has just two ingredients: Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal and Cocchi Americano Rosa (an Italian aperitif), stirred and served up, with a lemon twist. The pink hue and pretty rose petal garnish might suggest a delicate flavor profile, but there’s no mistaking the smoky, earthy sweetness of the organic mezcal on the first sip.

Hop Sing Laundromat. 1029 Race St.

Tequilas' Oaxaca Old Fashioned

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Tequilas’ Mezcal cocktail, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

When owner David Suro-Piñera upgraded the cocktail program at his Locust Street institution a few years ago, he turned to his friend Phil Ward, co-owner of the agave-centric Mayahuel in New York City, for help. Ward famously invented the Oaxaca Old Fashioned in 2007 when he was behind the bar at Death & Co. in the East Village. Tequilas’ iteration ($13) features Suro-Piñera’s own Siembra Azul Reposado Tequila, Del Maguey Mezcal, agave nectar and Angostura bitters. “It’s one of my favorite cocktails,” says Suro-Piñera. “It really shows how well agave spirits can coexist.”

Tequilas. 1602 Locust St. (215) 546-0181

When you’re ready to spring for a bottle, Vincent Stipo of a.bar on Rittenhouse Square (who’s been known to create a killer off-menu mezcal cocktail upon request), suggests these two easy recipes to make at home: 

Mezcal Old Fashioned

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a.bar's Mezcal Old Fashioned. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

By Vincent Stipo of a.bar

2 ounces mezcal of choice (a.bar prefers Ilegal or Del Maguey VIDA)

Bar spoon (about 1/8 ounce) of Demerara syrup (2 parts Demerara sugar or Sugar in the Raw dissolved in 1 part hot water)

4 dashes orange bitters

2 dashes Angostura bitters 

2 dashes chocolate or grapefruit bitters (optional)

Directions: Stir the ingredients over ice, then strain over fresh ice and garnish with a grapefruit or orange peel.

Mezcal Bee’s Knees 

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a.bar's Mezcal Bee's Knees. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

By Vincent Stipo of a.bar

2 ounces mezcal of choice (a.bar prefers Ilegal or Del Maguey VIDA)

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

3/4 ounce honey syrup (2 parts clover honey dissolved into 1 part hot water)

Directions: Shake the ingredients hard with ice, then double strain into a stemmed glass and garnish with a lemon peel.

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