When have you ever turned down a cold margarita on a warm afternoon or a round of tequila shots? We all know tequila's a classic, but the agave plant birthed more than just Don Julio. Enter mezcal, tequila’s smoky, sinewy, mysterious grandfather–lately, it's had bartenders and savvy drinkers alike talking. Authentic mezcal is handcrafted, roasted, and barrel-fermented underground in Oaxacan villages, so each bottle has its own singular taste, unlike mass-produced tequila. Much like a fine scotch, mezcal adds a richness to cocktails, and is complex enough to stand on its own. We scouted out the best mezcal cocktails and flights around so you can stay ahead of the curve.
1. West of Pecos: 550 Valencia St. (pictured above)
Before even looking at the menu, it's clear this Southwestern restaurant is serious about its mezcal. One hundred fifty-year-old reclaimed wood decorates the exterior, while an adobe fireplace greets you upon entrance. Oversized bullhorns hang from the wall, and bushels of red chile peppers hang from the ceiling. Home to queso, fajitas, and Texas ribs, it’s only natural that West of Pecos offers a $22 flight of three different mezcals, paired with a delicious chaser of Sangrita (muddled tomatoes, grapefruit and orange juice, pepper, Cholula, Serrano peppers, and other various ingredients) or simple orange slices. Mezcal cocktails include the Mezcal Mule (Vida Mezcal, lime, agave, angostura, ginger beer) the Rodeo Ghost (Fidencio Clasico Mezcal, apple shrub, Fernet Valet, black walnut) and the Tijuana Brass (Mezcal, almond, orange, Palo Cortado sherry). For brunch, pair your Chilaquiles with a Fresh Tomato Mezcal Mary for a smoky morning treat.
Shot of mezcal at Nopalito by Foodspotting user Laurie
2. Nopalito: 306 Broderick St, 1224 9th St.
At this Nopa offshoot, small plates of traditional Mexican dishes are accompanied by a selection of nearly every small batch (and rare!) mezcal you could desire. Despite their variety, they offer only one mezcal cocktail, the Mezcal Paloma, which is a simple drink of Del Maguey Vida, grapefruit, soda, and Cynar. In general, Nopalito eschews overly elaborate cocktails in order to let the depth of the mezcal truly shine.
photo of 'Liquid Sword' at Nopa
3. Nopa: 560 Divisadero St.
While Nopalito, Nopa’s sister restaurant, boasts the city’s most extensive mezcal list, Nopa offers several elaborate cocktails featuring the liquor. With names such as Killa Bee, Protect Ya Neck, Guillotine, and Fatal Sting, you can be sure you’re not getting your grandmother’s cocktail. Nopa’s cocktails pair mezcal with flavors of Cynar, dry vermouth, angostura bitters, honey, citrus, and pear liqueur.
4. Mosto: 741 Valencia St.
Mosto, Tacolicious’ tequila and botanas (snacks) bar, features mezcal, bar bites, and, of course, tequila. Bar manager Eric Giardina organizes monthly mezcal tastings, and actually takes bartenders on trips to visit artisan mezcal producers. Because of trade restrictions and the quantities of some small batch producers, a lot of mezcal never even makes it to the United States. Some mezcals Giardina carries cost up to $200 a bottle, but are worth the price tag to many mezcal enthusiasts. Try straight mezcals with their Sangrita of jalapeño juice and roasted tomatoes.
The Comal Swizzle, often made with mezcal. Photo via Yelp user jorge c.
5. Comal: 2020 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
The extensive mezcal list at Comal is worth the trek across the bay–it's mere steps from the Downtown Berkeley BART station, so there are no excuses not to stop by this authentic Oaxacan restaurant and bar. The Bon Vivants created the drink list, which focuses, appropriately, on tequilas and mezcals. And if you need more reasons to stop by, owner John Palushka, former band manager of Phish, makes sure the music lends a serene ambience to the dining experience.
6. Tres: 130 Townsend St.
While Tres has been known for years primarily as a tequila bar, things took a turn toward mezcal last March when Bourbon & Branch and Nopa bar manager Joel Baker joined the team. He expanded the tequila bar’s selection to include 150-plus tequilas, and an assortment of diverse mezcals. Bartenders here are well versed in the language of mezcal, so don’t be shy to ask for recommendations. But be careful not to shoot back mezcal like a shot of tequila—the refined flavor requires small, languishing sips. It won’t burn like tequila, so you can enjoy the taste as it permeates your mouth.
For additional mezcal information, check out Susan Coss’ blog. Susan Coss writes for Mezcalistas, and also travels to Oaxaca several times a year to visit producers. She knows her stuff when it comes to mezcal, and is a good reference for upcoming tasting events and fun mezcal facts.