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Queen of the Desert: Mezcal is Complex, Vers & Ready For Your Cocktail

Queen of the Desert
White Oak Communications (Salazar)

Put the wine and tequila down. Your essential spring cocktail ingredient is here.

Few liquors are as trendy as mezcal -- and almost none are as misunderstood. If you haven't sampled Mexico's other agave spirit by now, you've probably been deterred by allegations of its smokiness (some call it the "scotch of tequila"). But mezcal isn't limited to these campfire-y offerings -- some varieties of it are herbaceous, while others are floral. The best way to understand its exceptional versatility? Try it in a cocktail.

While tequila can only be distilled from one varietal of agave, mezcal can come from any subspecies of the cactus-like desert plant. And there are literally hundreds, each with its own complexity and native terroir -- much like a fine wine. In fact, mezcal even has its own version of sommeliers, called mezcaliers.

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"Mezcal is an interesting challenge for the palate," says Evan Hosaka, a bartender at Rosina, in The Venetian hotel. Situated on the Vegas Strip, the high-end lounge is saturated with drinkers eager to take a risk. Hosaka exceeds their expectations with mezcal. "A great bartender knows how to integrate it into recipes that fall outside a guest's standard order," he says, "but not take them too far from their comfort zone."

Hosaka's approach is to use the spirit as an accenting feature rather than a base. To make his Banco de Mexico -- a perennial crowd-pleaser -- he fills a copper mug to the brim with crushed ice before adding mezcal, aged tequila, and creme de cacao. Topped with mint sprigs and caked in powdered sugar, the cocktail is smooth and bracing -- a riff on a julep that susses out the herbal and even chocolatey undertones of the agave at its core.

The secret to really enjoying mezcal is tailoring it to your taste buds, but DJ, producer, and mezcal aficionado Tom Bullock, who recently released the book The Mezcal Experience: A Field Guide to the World's Best Mezcals and Agave Spirits, has a trick he considers foolproof. "I only ever use espadin," he says. "It's infinitely varied in flavor, more sustainable, and half the price of a wild variety like madre cuishe or tobala, so it's much more fun to splash about in."

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"Espadin is the most versatile mezcal," adds Joe Valdovinos, beverage director at Salazar in Los Angeles. "It's best in refreshing and fruity cocktails, but it can even take the place of gin or whiskey in a Negroni or a Manhattan."

Our espadin of choice: Montelobos (translation: "mountain of wolves"). With its citrus zest, rosemary notes, and salty finish, it's a perfect spring sipper. Or better yet, lose the tequila and use it in your next batch of margaritas.


Courtesy of Ghost Donkey.

The Stonewall
"The diversity of mezcal is still unknown to a lot of people," says Nacho Jimenez, beverage director at New York's Ghost Donkey. "You have mezcals that are extremely smoky, others that are so fruity and green that you won't even know you're drinking mezcal, and others that have a lactic quality. This creates an infinite array of flavors to play with." Jimenez's go-to mezcal cocktail, The Stonewall, brings the sweet and the heat. Drinking it, you won't find any smoke. But you will find fire.

.5 oz. Montelobos Mezcal
1.5 oz. Milagro Reposado Tequila
.5 oz. Pama Pomegranate Liqueur
5 oz. Habanero Apple Cider

Combine the ingredients with ice in a shaker. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with an apple slice and pomegranate arils.

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