The last thing on my mind when I planned my mini reunion with college friends in Madison, WI was mezcal. Yes, mezcal is always on my mind in some form or another, but this was vacation. Joke on me because Madison actually has quite a little mezcal scene happening. The center of beer and a shot of brandy has fully embraced the cocktail explosion and has made mezcal a centerpiece.
It has been at least 15 years since I’ve been to Madison and the changes are enormous. In the past, it was always an interesting mix of working class (Oscar Meyer had a manufacturing plant here though it just closed after 100 years of operation) and professional, being the state capital and home of the gem of the UW system. Still quiet and super laid back, there is definitely the same building spree happening that you see in other urban areas, primarily driven by tech, and of course growth at the university. The restaurant scene is vibrant and definitely levels above the offerings when I was a college student. There is also a great craft food scene, born out of the craft beer scene, and this has led to a burgeoning craft distilling scene (side note, Yahara Bay Distillery has some super terrific rye).
I had been gearing up to drink some of the amazing craft beer made here, and maybe munch on a few brats, but, got sidetracked by a crazy good mezcal cocktail at Heritage Tavern, and some fried cheese curds taken to a whole new level – tempura batter, bacon wrapped, like melted pillows of air.
Then the next day we hit up the El Dorado Grill, famous for its upscale take on Tex Mex, and its tequila bar, only to discover that it is now a tequila and mezcal bar, with a really good selection of mezcals. What I really liked was they let you put your own flight together, and with the option of different pour sizes from .5 to 1 to 1.5 ozs.
We finished the evening at Lucille on Capitol Square, in a beautifully renovated building that used to be the offices for Madison’s free weekly paper The Isthmus— still around, but now located on State Street. Not one, but two mezcal cocktails are on their menu, plus again, a nice selection of mezcals that showed careful thought to the selection.
So who is drinking mezcal here? It seems like everyone is, even the legal aged college kids which seems impossible to imagine given how broke I was all during college– $2 beers felt like an extravagance. But it speaks to an interesting long term trend for the mezcal market if it’s grabbing the attention of the kids today.
Final note/observation, Ancho Reyes is the new Fernet, which is to say it is everywhere and when you order a shot, over ice to make it last a little longer, you get that nod and wink from the bartender letting you know you.are.ok.