Category Archives: Mezcal

With dedicated bars, mezcal’s missionaries hope to convert Dallas tastes

Dallas mezcaleria
Spreading the gospel: A trio of Oak Cliff friends are looking to share the love.

First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal’s pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight – as some believe it should always be – and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.

Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?

A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so – and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as “that bottle with the worm in it.”

Las Almas Rotas
Bar manager Daniel Ferrin making a round of cocktails at a soft opening event at Las Almas Rotas.

Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal’s virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled “Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead.”

When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they’d built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit — even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.

Las Almas Rotas
How it all began — with informal tastings like this one at the Kvetkos’ Oak Cliff home. Clockwise from top, Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko.

“We’re hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in,” says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker’s Mark. “Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits.”

Leigh Kvetko
An image of a tobala-variety agave plant, the work of Leigh Kvetko, graces the door at Las Almas Rotas.

Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant – but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.

“There’s an immense amount of genetic diversity,” panelist Ivan Suldana, author of “The Anatomy of Mezcal,” told an audience at 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. “We’re talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit.”

Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. “Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different,” he says.

Mezcal’s production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal’s distinctive flavors remember their conversion.

Mezcal Cartel
A typical table spread at one of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel’s at-home tastings.

For Samuels, that moment came at Austin’s Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. “That was my first experience,” said Samuels, who’s been tending bar at Oak Cliff’s Bar Belmont throughout the last year. “I didn’t really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, ‘We need a good room to drink mezcal in.’ That led to this.”

Las Almas Rotas – “the broken souls” – will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you’ll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum. “It’s kind of an homage to our speakeasy,” Samuels says. “Just straight spirits and Topo Chico.”

Mauricio Garriegos and Daniel Zapata
Bartenders Garriegos and Zapata keeping it real at Santos y Pecadores, the twice-weekly mezcal pop-up at Uptown’s Bowen House.

Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown’s Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores (“saints and sinners”) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.

Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.

“We want people to get in love with mezcal,” says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. “It’s, like, with Mexican food. People think they’re eating real Mexican food but it’s actually Tex-Mex.”

Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.

Mezcal Cartel
Informal dinner-table gatherings eventually led to this now-closed underground tasting room on Davis Street.

Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel,” of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.

“We basically created a room that we would want to drink in,” Shad Kvetko says.

For their mezcaleria’s actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.

LAS ALMAS ROTAS, 3615 PARRY AVE, DALLAS.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Dig Houndstooth? Try Jettison — Oak Cliff’s new sherry and mezcal bar — on for size

Jettison, Oak Cliff
A good reason to start drinking early: Jettison’s Good Morning Jerez mixes sherry and spiced syrup with cold brew coffee.

Sean Henry has already made a name for himself in the coffee world. Now he’s ready to try his hand at cocktails.

Jettison, an espresso shot of a bar at the flourishing Sylvan Thirty complex in Oak Cliff, will specialize in two undersung heroes of the backbar, sherry and mezcal – while still showcasing the drink (coffee) that got Henry this far in the first place.

Currently in soft opening, the subtly chic digs adjoin Houndstooth Coffee, the fourth and most recent of Henry’s Austin-based coffeehouse locations. The space is accessible both from the café and from a second entrance from outside.

Oak Cliff, Sylvan Thirty
The cozy space adjoins the most recent of Houndstooth Coffee’s four locations.

The bar program is headed by George Kaiho, a veteran of both Tei-An and Parliament, with cocktails featuring fresh takes on both mezcal, the smoky spirit derived from Mexican agave, and sherry, the Spanish fortified wine.

Take the Red-Headed Oaxacan, Kaiho’s play on the modern classic Penicillin, which subs mezcal and tequila for base Scotch (with a crafty float of Caol Ila 12), honeys up the ginger syrup and caps it with a rim of Himalayan salt, a common sidekick to agave spirits.

Or the sublime Good Morning Jerez, an addictively peppy blend of sweet East India Solera sherry, cold brew and cinnamon syrup that’ll have you wishing you’d started ordering it earlier in the evening.

The mezcal Negroni ups the spirit and switches dry vermouth for sweet, while another twist on a classic, the BLVD, is a wake-up call of rye, espresso vermouth and two Italian bitter liqueurs, Campari and Averna.

George Kaiho
A play on the classic Boulevardier, the BLVD is one of several Jettison cocktails that incorporate coffee.

Jettison, which will mark its grand opening on Oct. 21, isn’t looking to be the premier carrier of either mezcal or sherry, just to have a solid and well-curated supply of each.

And a series of intimate Monday-night, drink-paired “pop-up suppers” kicked off last week with a mezcal-themed event, with several more to come – a French-themed wine dinner featuring chef Julien Eelsen of Whisk Crepes Cafe on Oct. 10, an Italian vermouth dinner on Oct. 17 with former Filament chef Cody Sharp; and a Spanish sherry dinner, also chef’d by Sharp, on Oct. 24.

Tickets are available here.

Jettison will no doubt draw a good part of its clientele from the Sylvan Thirty apartment complex just across the parking lot and from nearby neighbors like Teresa, an Oxford, England-born patron who complimented Henry on the vibe of the place.

Jettison, Oak Cliff
Jettison bar manager Kaiho at work.

“It’s bloody good,” she told him. ”I like the aesthetic here. You’ve got what they call ‘a keen eye.’ ”

But if those of you further flung need another bullet point to make the drive down I-30, consider Henry’s bar snack, doughnut segments – not only a playful alternative to nuts but a perfect complement to coffee that Henry may or may not continue.

“I don’t see why not,” he says.

Cocktail of the Week: Let the Mayahuel’s Awakening be your tasters’ choice

Austin Gurley, High and Tight
Among the perks of visiting High and Tight is this coffee-powered gem from Austin Gurley.

High and Tight, in Deep Ellum, is among the newcomers to the craft-cocktail scene, one of the stars that make up the several-star constellation that includes adjacent Armoury D.E., Black Swan Saloon and Brick and Bones across the street.

Of course, none of the other bars can boast an adjoining barber shop (hence the name of the place, which refers to a certain cut) and while High and Tight’s cocktail list is fully legit, it’s the seasonal board to the right of the bar that you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Which is where you’ll find this gem, which is a perfect way to mark Cinco de Mayo, if you’re into that sort of thing.

COCKTAIL OF THE WEEK: Mayahuel’s Awakening

SOURCE: Austin Gurley, High and Tight

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Mexican coffee

WHAT’S IN IT: Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon

WHY IT WORKS: Because if you’ve ever had Mexican café de olla, you’d be well acquainted with the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip.

This is not that drink – but it could be its long-lost boozy cousin. The traditional sipper is prepared stovetop, dissolving brown sugar and cinnamon in boiling water with ground coffee, letting the mixture steep and then straining it into your favorite vessel.

These are the roots of the Mayahuel’s Awakening. (Pronounce it “ma-ya-WELL.”)

“It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” Gurley says.

He’d been pondering an approachable tequila-forward cocktail, and when he stumbled onto a tasty brand of concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee that he thought would pair well with agave, the game was on: A quarter-ounce of the concentrate did the trick, providing strong coffee flavor without drowning out the tequila flavor.

Gurley used reposado tequila for its aged softness and fruity overtones, added a bit of smoky mezcal to offset the coffee’s bitterness and some brown-sugar simple syrup for richness. Finally, he tied it all together with the cinnamon, vanilla and orange-peel notes of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters.

The cocktail is served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar. The result? A perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name salutes the Aztec goddess of fertility – and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born. And as Henry Rollins once said, “What goes best with a cup of coffee? Another cup.”

Cocktail of the Week: The Whisperer shrouds its message in a sneaky puff of smoke

Armando Guillen, Standard Pour
The cocktail Whisperer: Guillen’s Trojan horse of mezcal

The all-around craft-cocktail chops at The Standard Pour can be lost in the timid tastes of the partying Uptown throngs that fill its McKinney Avenue environs every weekend. But delve deep into the drink menu and you’ll find a solid lineup of classics and bar originals both – including this one from Armando Guillen.

Guillen, who heads TSP”s bar program, has been a longtime stalwart of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene, a frequent competition winner and, most recently, is among CultureMap’s nominees for its bartender-of-the-year award. He designed this drink, he says, at the behest of San Diego’s renowned Polite Provisions for an event sponsored by El Silencio mezcal.

NAME: The Whisperer

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Fiery citrus

WHAT’S IN IT: El Silencio mezcal, peach liqueur, honey, lime, salt, Scrappy’s “Firewater” bitters, spiced rim.

WHY IT WORKS: The Whisperer is a smoky play on the classic Margarita, capped with a spicy supernova kick. Bartender Armando Guillen, who manages The Standard Pour’s bar program, aimed to create a Trojan horse of mezcal, another agave-based spirit that, while on the rise, many have yet to embrace. He dipped into the bartender’s crowd-pleasing arsenal of friendly flavors – “peach, strawberry and pineapple; that’s the trifecta,” he says – and chose peach because it pairs well with mezcal’s earthy, smoky qualities.

To sweeten it up, he chose honey over simple syrup for its earthier flavor and added a pinch of salt to round it out. A dash of habanero-based Firewater bitters lends a not-so-subtle scorch of heat. “You’ve got smoke, earth, spice and fruit, everything mezcal needs to have,” Guillen says. And it’s true: In Mexico, mezcal is usually sipped straight, with accompaniments of orange slice and sal de gusano – a blend of chile powder, sea salt and the ground remains of roasted moth larvae that feed on agave plants – that offer a similar combination of flavor.

Guillen serves the Whisperer in a coupe, half-coating it with an appropriately smoky-spicy mix of cayenne powder, sea salt, chili powder and smoked paprika. With a final lime-wheel garnish, the result is a visually striking bouquet of lemon yellow, lime green and rusty red. On the tongue, its spicy edge suddenly slashes through its citrus-y sweetness, planting a lasting burn on the lips that leaves you wanting more.

The name? Yes, a nod to the El Silencio brand name – but really a reflection of Guillen’s sly intentions. “It’s like,” he says, a cupped hand covering his lips as he slips into a whisper, “ `Hey – you should drink mezcal.’ ”

Smoke gets in your drink: Mezcal is having its moment and you should enjoy it

Mexican Sugar
Mexican Sugar’s Benito Juarez: A cocktail worthy of the name.

In case you hadn’t noticed, mezcal is having a moment. The once misunderstood Mexican spirit has been seeping into the mainstream at a pace that has revved up in recent years, riding a craft-cocktail wave that has seen imbibers clamor for more and better ingredients.

For a spirit that at one time was known mostly as “that bottle with the worm in it,” this cousin of tequila has not only come a long way, but, it turns out, is way more interesting: a markedly smoky concoction that rewarded early adopters with broad (and wormless) expressions deriving from its ability to be cultivated from a range of Mexican agave plants. (Tequila, on the other hand, can only come from blue agave.)

“It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails.”

— Bartender Moses Guidry, of Twenty Seven’s Smoke Ring

The plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens prior to fermentation, producing the spirit’s smoky influence that for many first-timers presents a line in the sand. But the days when mezcal cocktails were found only in mixology dens are over; I knew the U.S. had reached a milestone when, several years ago, I saw a mezcal-tinged cocktail appear on the menu at P.F. Chang’s. Now you’ll find mezcal cocktails everywhere from Pappasito’s to Frisco’s 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House.

Many of those drinks, like the ones first rolled out even in craft-cocktail bars, have eased mezcal onto unfamiliar palates by placing it alongside tequila, like a kid brother riding sidecar. But drinks putting mezcal front and center are getting easier and easier to find.

Here are some of my favorites thus far in 2015.

BENITO JUAREZ, Mexican Sugar (pictured above)

In Oaxaca, where most mezcal is produced, the traditional way of consuming the artisan spirit is in small cups flanked by orange wedges and a spice mix of sea salt, crushed chilies and the ground remains of toasted moth larvae that feed on the agave plant. The combo is a mouth-pleasing explosion of smoke, citrus, heat, nuttiness and saltiness – and Plano’s Mexican Sugar pays homage to the tradition with this excellent blend – named after Mexico’s beloved former president – of mezcal, chipotle puree, orange, lime, honey and orange liqueur, slapped with a splotch of imported sal de gusano.

Laura Ball, Origin
The Mexican Martini showed how well agave spirits and Yellow Chartreuse play together.

MEXICAN MARTINI, Origin

Alas, this one is no longer on the menu at the Knox-Henderson restaurant, but ask for it and you might get lucky.

Agave spirits and herbal Yellow Chartreuse liqueur are swell buddies and play nice here in Laura Ball’s south-of-the-border creation, along with lemon, agave, jalapeno and apricot liqueur. It’s sweet and piquant, tantalizing you with its boozy charms before fading away in a haze of spice and smoke.

Hector Zavala, Henry's Majestic
Doing things the Old-Fashioned way is a fine approach for mezcal.

MEZCAL OLD-FASHIONED, Henry’s Majestic

Hector Zavala has learned a thing or two in his many years as a bar back for luminaries such as 86 Co. co-founder Jason Kosmas, not the least of which that the classic Old Fashioned packs a kick in any language. Now bartending at the Knox-Henderson one-two punch of Henry’s Majestic and Atwater Alley, the Torreon, Mexico-born Zavala subs Wahaka mezcal for whiskey with a bit of agave syrup and bitters, and his handiwork lets the spirit announce itself like a poncho’d Clint Eastwood waltzing through your whistle’s saloon doors.

Creighten Brown, Tate's
More layers than an enchilada casserole: Mr. Brown Goes to Oaxaca takes you places.

MR. BROWN GOES TO OAXACA, Tate’s

Mixmaster Creighten Brown’s deceivingly demure doozy may look like a mere wallflower in its Uptown surroundings, but it’ll impress your taste buds with its flavorful gift of gab. Supplementing mezcal with bittersweet Grand Poppy, dry vermouth, Hellfire bitters and chocolate bitters, this off-menu creation cuts through the smoke with floral and citrus swirls while the bitters offer lingering complexity.

Moses Guidry, Twenty Seven
Mezcal boldly steps in for pisco in Twenty Seven’s weekend tipple.

SMOKE RING, Twenty Seven

At Deep Ellum’s Twenty Seven, Moses Guidry’s frothy Smoke Ring is basically a mezcal Pisco Sour, subbing the smoky spirit for tamer Peruvian brandy alongside tequila, simple syrup, lime, cucumber, egg white and a sprinkling of Peychaud’s bitters. “It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails,” says Guidry, who’ll you find behind the bar on Saturdays.

Gabe Sanchez, Black Swan Saloon
Remember that scene in True Romance where Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper face off? This is that scene in a cocktail.

TRUE ROMANCE, Black Swan Saloon

At this Deep Ellum fixture, Gabe Sanchez’s riveting play on the Copper Cocktail gives mezcal the starring role over rum with a supporting cast of herbal Yellow Chartreuse, bitter Averna, lime and a bit of Szechuan pepper tincture. While the mixture might sound overpowering, the end result nicely shapes the best of each ingredient into something unique and memorable.

 

From Mexico, with larvae: Sal de gusano is worming its way into Dallas’ mezcal

Atwater Alley
Like moths to a flame: A Mexican tradition finds its way to Dallas.

So, you’ve wowed your Fireball-drinking buddies with your superior knowledge of mezcal, tequila’s smoky and more exotic cousin. You’ve earned serious props for your appreciation of mezcal’s Scotch-like acquired taste. But dude: if you really want to prove yourself mas macho, try drinking mezcal the way it’s done in Oaxaca – with worm salt.

Among the benefits of the ongoing craft-cocktail renaissance has been the rising availability of mezcal, distilled from Mexico’s native maguey plant, a form of agave. Generations-old methods of artisan production  – in which the plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens before the fermentation process, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor – have spawned hundreds of choices, many of which you can now find in the U.S.

Typically it’s imbibed straight. Picture a tiny cup or shot of your beloved mezcal, served alongside a small plate of orange slices. Garnish those slices with a sprinkling of sal de gusano – a rust-colored powder of sea salt, ground chilies and the crushed remains of agave worms. Better yet, dip a slice into a bowl of the powder itself.

While you grimace, consider this: Despite the name, the worms aren’t actually worms. They’re the larvae of moths that start feeding on the hearts and leaves of the agave plant as soon as they’re born. In other words, they are living the life. Their brief and blissfully unaware existence comes to an end in late summer, when – in accordance with centuries-old tradition – they’re gathered up, dried in the sun and toasted, then pulverized along with sea salt and chilies to become the magical mix now before you.

Proof + Pantry
These larvae sacrificed themselves for your mezcal enjoyment. Don’t disappoint them.

Back to your plate. Take a bite of powdered orange and your mouth explodes with sweet citrus, faint heat and a wallop of salt. It’s a zesty complement to the swig of smoky mezcal you’re about to inhale. But wait: There’s another flavor there, too, almost paprika-esque. It’s lovely and rounds out the mezcal perfectly.

“It’s savory,” says bartender Hector Zavala of Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “It has that flavor of umami.”

Yes, a bit of the worm-salt experience and you might just be calling for your mommy. But insect consumption is a longtime tradition in resource-challenged Oaxaca, where critters like grubs and crickets provide a cheap and plentiful source of protein. (I once sampled a plate of not-so-bad dried crickets at a Oaxacan hole-in-the-wall in Phoenix, sautéed with lime and chili and served with a side of tortillas. The biggest issue – the little legs that get caught between your teeth.)

Atwater Alley
Bartender Zavala’s spice powders, made from moth larvae and grasshoppers.

A few weeks ago, Zavala scored a shipment of sal de gusano from Mexican producer Gran Mitla; he’s now dishing it up Oaxaca-style at Henry’s Majestic and its speakeasy sidekick, Atwater Alley. (Appropriately, he serves it with Wahaka’s reposado mezcal, which incorporates the same agave worm.) At Uptown’s upscale Mexican place Komali, bar manager Leann Berry is pondering serving her recently obtained sal de gusano with mezcal flights, while you can also find it at Proof + Pantry in the Arts District, socked away in a Hefty bag labeled “grub salt.”

Zavala, of Henry’s Majestic, comes from the same small town in Mexico as fellow bartender Luis Sifuentes; they lived two miles apart but never met until they came to Dallas. Now both are among the badass bar crew assembled at Henry’s by beverage director Alex Fletcher. “Alex has a lot of trust in us,” says Zavala, who along with sal de gusano also procured a milder, sweeter powder of ground-up grasshoppers called sal de chapulin. “He lets us experiment and come up with our own ideas.”

Fletcher finds the whole thing intriguing. “(Hector) brought those in to play with,” he says, wheels already turning. “I think doing a worm-salt, citrus-based mezcal cocktail would be fantastic.”

That’s what a post on the site Mezcalistas.com suggests. In fact, its play on the classic Margarita is basically the orange-slice tradition rolled into a drink, replacing tequila and lime with mezcal and orange juice and then serving it in a worm-salt-rimmed glass.

Atwater Alley
At Atwater Alley, a worm-salt-rimmed cocktail from bartender Sifuentes.

At Atwater Alley, Sifuentes gave the cocktail concept a go, too, mixing mild Wahaka mezcal with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and a bit of bitter Averna. Worm salt lined the glass. It was a respectable blend, but it could just be that the spices’ jaw-punch of salinity is too aggressive to play well in cocktails, at least in significant quantity. Still, there’s nothing wrong with having it the traditional way. Sometimes simplicity is best.

Maybe food is the most logical complement of all. In Austin, you’ll find worm-salt-accompanied mezcal at Takoba, along with slices of Oaxacan cheese. And at The Pastry War in Houston, you can get mezcal with a straight-up side of toasted grasshoppers. If that makes you shudder, start slow – with a bit of worm salt.

“Psychologically, that’s a hump I had to get over,” said Proof + Pantry bartender Mike Steele. “But it’s pretty good stuff.”