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Mezcal's cocktail problem

Max Garrone pours La Nina Mezcal at Tastmade.

Max Garrone pours La Nina Mezcal at Tastmade.

This past Wednesday night I poured La Niña del Mezcal at a Tastemade event at San Francisco’s Ferry Building with Reza Esmaili of Derby Cocktail Co. The experience was fascinating for what it said about one of the core issues in the mezcal world: Should you drink it straight or in a cocktail? You know it’s an issue because you’ve seen all the great cocktails being made from mezcal and witnessed the volume that goes into that. Pretty much any restaurant or bar that has mezcal on the menu features it in a cocktail and just by looking around you can see that the cocktails are what are moving with nary a glass of pure mezcal being served. Those cocktails represent critical revenue all along the economic chain; restaurants can make great margins from them, importers and distributors as well not to mention the people who actually distill and bottle our favored spirit. And yet, it’s also a profound blow to the heart of mezcal.

Wednesday night’s tasting was casual with me pouring mezcal straight on the left and Reza making a mezcal piña colada on the right. The vast majority of guests reflexively reached for the cocktail first so it was everything Reza and I could do to convince them to try the mezcal neat first. With a little push, most everyone did try the mezcal and most of those said they liked it. Quite a few circled back for another drink of even after drinking Reza’s great cocktail.

All of this is a good thing. I had a great time a while back testing mezcal’s amazing flexibility as a cocktail base and continue to be amazed at how bartenders use it. But it’s also something I love to drink straight and would love to introduce to the world that way. I know that you have to get people used to it and that cocktails are the gateway to that experience, but I would so love to find a way similar to last night’s tasting that jumped the queue and took us straight to Go because all those people asking us where they could find a bottle or buy one immediately last night are well on their way to the promised land of the mezcal industry.

Max co-founded Mezcalistas with Susan way back in 2012. Before that he was a journalist at Salon.com and The San Francisco Chronicle.


  • Michael Kuntz
    September 14, 2013

    Great piece. I would add that maguey conservation is a real issue in much of Mexico. Monoculture is reducing agave diversity and wild/silvestre are being harvested unsustainably in many parts. In talking with friends in Oaxaca, there is a real concern around turning mezcal into a mass consumption product, something that cocktails lend themselves to. That’s not to denounce the use; it’s just to add another variable to taste/appreciation.


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