Not only is smoky-smelling mezcal at the heart of Mayahuel, the New York “temple to all things agave” recently voted world’s best new cocktail bar at a spirits convocation in New Orleans, but some exclusive examples of “single-village” mezcal are appearing on retail shelves stickered above $200. At that price, there’s no room in the bottle for the once-ubiquitous grub that visually distinguished mezcal from its close cousin, tequila.
Briefly (and simply), tequila is really a sub-category of mezcal, one that must be made from a specific agave in a delimited geographical region. In theory, then, mezcal could be made from any species of agave and in any location in Mexico. In practice, it’s almost exclusively made from the espadin agave plant in the mountains and valleys of Oaxaca. Much of the production today takes place almost as it did centuries ago, and companies such as Del Maguey have gone out of their way, physically, to exploit the differences between one valley’s agave and another village’s methods of roasting and distillation. Here’s what one source had to say: “As the wines of Nuits-St. Georges differ from those of Gevery-Chambertin, so does the mezcal of San Luis del Rio from that of Chicicapa.” It’s this kind of loose talk that pushes up prices.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to shell out big bucks or trek hours into the Oaxacan hinterlands in order to sample a variety of mezcales; they’re appearing in San Antonio bars, and one good place to make their acquaintance is at the newly refurbished Havana Bar, formerly known as Club Cohiba, in the updated Hotel Havana. The only smokiness in the cigar-free lair these days, however, comes straight from the spirit itself.
The look of the bar now is much less shabby-chic than it previously was; you don’t have to sit down gingerly on the leather sofas that populate the room, which is wreathed in light that gleams blue thanks to the walls, punctuated by red votive candles. Sipping mezcales top the bar menu, but I started instead with the margarita mezcal ($8), one of the house specialties.
The menu doesn’t say which of the three Del Maguey mezcales it’s made with, but the shot price would suggest it’s the fruity-smoky Crema de Mezcal ($5), with the addition of unfermented agave syrup. The lime juice is pre-squeezed, and salt is automatically added to the rim of the small tumbler the drink is served in, but the result is refreshingly different and appealing — including the saltiness, which this imbiber doesn’t always like.
I returned on another occasion to sample the mezcales straight, only to find the Crema unavailable. (If indeed the marg is made from it this would have been the night to ask for an upgrade.) That left us with the Chicicapa, sourced from a remote village located four hours from Oaxaca and at an elevation of 7,000 feet, and the Minero, produced in clay stills in a village an hour beyond Chichicapa, in a region that is semi-tropical. As is traditional, at least ceremonially, the spirit is served at Havana in small clay saucers.
The saucers are cute, but, frankly, no: They’re small, for starters, and their shallowness makes it hard to control the contents. Del Maguey’s own website declares “Sip it. Don’t shoot it.” But this is frankly difficult — especially if you want to share. Though you may not want to. The Chicicapa’s distinctive smokiness and peppery, minty components are irresistible, and the tiny chocolate fish that accompanies the drink is a surprisingly appropriate companion.
In contrast to the Chicicapa, the $7 Minero (the village of production is Santa Catarina Minas) is floral, fruity, and intense, with marked citrus notes. There’s less smoke, but more honey. If pressed, I’d call this my favorite, but on another day …
Another day also may be required to taste Havana’s Chocolate Sampler plate. Encouraged by the pairing prowess of the chocolate minnow, we attempted to order this mix of homemade pieces of assorted chocolates, which includes a white version made with mezcal-smoked pecans. Alas, at least one of the chocolates was unavailable, rendering the plate null and void. In a bar with a very small menu, the unavailability of even a few items could get to be a problem if it’s chronic. We trust it’s not. •