- Courtesy photo
Distilled more than 5,000 miles away from each other, Mexico’s mescal (or mezcal) and Scotland’s scotch have more in common than it seems. The spirits can be merciless on untrained taste buds, are both steeped in tradition and can vary greatly based on the region of origin or the family recipe being used. Another similarity comes via their respective fan base, who dive into either alcohol with fervor. Case in point: the mescal- and Scotch-laced cocktails popping up on bar menus. While many envision these fine spirits as purely for sipping, these mixed drinks prove neither liquor is quite as big or bad as neophytes may think.
Tequila’s Hotter Cousin
A visit to Johnny Hernandez’s The Fruteria might mean a sit down with the chef for a 45-minute chat about mescales. Hernandez’s interest in the spirit grew out of his love of tequila (as evidenced by the lineup at La Gloria). His monthly visits to Mexico often include stops at local, artisanal production houses or palenques in Oaxaca where the process takes “family business” to a whole other level.
“It’s a slow artisanal, antiquated process … fermentation happens in wooden vats that are hard to maintain and keep clean,” Hernandez said, explaining that production of mescal is still 80 to 100 years behind that of its much more popular cousin, “It’s hard to produce a consistent mescal when making it that way.”
When The Fruteria opened earlier this year, Hernandez made sure to include a roster of mescales to the already impressive bar menu: Diners will find four silver, two reposados and three añejos. As Hernandez puts it, “sipping is the authentic way” to enjoy a mescal–accouterments include orange slices and “sal de gusano” ground, fried larvae mixed with chile and salt. But the fruteria/botanero does feature the spirit in several of its cocktails including El Cenizo. He created it with serious drinkers in mind: Bold and smoky, El Cenizo features pineapple-infused mescal front and center with a boost from a Zapatista tequila infusion, Angostura bitters and smoked sea salt.
“When I make a cocktail, I want to be able to taste the stuff,” he laughed, “it costs a bit more, but I think people appreciate it.”
Is a mescal bar in the cards for Hernandez? The answer was a bit unclear, and as chef continues opening restaurants across the city and in airports across the state, we might have to wait a little longer.
“I actually own several names of mescal bars that I could open,” he said, ticking them off, “but I have so many opportunities with restaurants … we know the demand is there, we know it’s a safer investment.” Still, he hints at trying a mescal-specific bar within one of his upcoming projects.
A little over a mile north of The Fruteria, Houston Eaves is an equal if slightly more impassioned mescal nut. With just over a year at the helm of the Esquire Tavern’s bar program, Eaves’ penchant for charred maguey piña byproduct comes through in his cocktails and his alignments. As a member of the nonprofit Tequila Interchange Project (tequilainterchangeproject.org), he and dozens of tequila academics, bartenders, consultants, educators and enthusiasts promote the “preservation of sustainable, traditional and quality practices in the tequila industry,” according to the organization’s mission. In other words, they’re trying to keep the process of tequila- and mescal-making sacred.
The project raises fund through Sip for Tip fundraisers where participating bars donate $1 from a specific cocktail (the Aviacion in Esquire’s case) and proceeds go toward academic research on tequila heritage.
When it comes to heritage, Eaves hopes San Antonio’s rich Mexican-American history will help drive interest in mescal.
“[Mescal’s] got a rich, centuries-old tradition in Mexico, and it’s something that’s becoming more embraced as a cultural treasure,” he said. “It’s something that people learn from their family, living on a small little ranch where you can find three to four generations at any given time and there’s a 4-year-old helping and a 90-year-old man drinking mescal and telling them what they’re doing wrong. The family and community translate into the bottle, too.”
Eaves suggests talking to a professional when considering mescal. Of course, there are cheap price points to avoid, but not all pricey labels are created equal, either.
“You have to have an understanding of what you’re buying,” he said while describing the plethora of characteristics that can be found in a mescal: aggressive smoke, floral and citrus, pepper. “It’s a very interesting product and more than likely the most complex liquor in the world.”
He shared a recipe for a cocktail off Esquire’s winter menu, the Midnight in Mexico, based on Alfredo Cochardo’s memoir by the same name that goes into the journalist’s time across the border where he covered cartel violence and government corruption for more than a decade. The drink combines Espadin mescal, Ancho Reyes (an ancho chile liqueur) and Fernet de Vallet for a pitch black, unforgiving result.
It’s Kind of a Big Deal
On the other hand, scotch is scotch. The Scotland-specific whiskey (they would write it ‘whisky’) has a following all its own, as recipes and notes vary from each of the five regions—Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown and Speyside—whether it’s single malt, single grain or any combination in between.
At three weeks old, the bar program at Minnie’s Tavern is finding its legs. While chef Andrew Weissman still hopes to encourage bar-goers to drink neat or with a drop or two of H20, newly appointed bar manager Andy Hack is finding ways to incorporate what we’re calling ‘gateway cocktails’ amid the sea of ryes.
At 25, Hack still considers himself a student of the growing cocktail scene. He was trained by Sasha Petraske while at Bohanan’s before heading to Minnie’s to helm his own program. Hack’s biggest draw is his enthusiasm for the craft. He spends his off-days sampling scotch flights at Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille while taking piles of notes.
Hack suggests starting with a 10 year Glenmorangie original, a floral spirit from the Highlands with notes of vanilla, peaches and citrus. “[Glenmorangie] like to advertise themselves as being the ‘wine of the scotch world’ and they’ll age a lot of their older expressions in sherry casks, or port,” he said.
To further our quest for that perfect gateway cocktail, Hack created the Half Famous, a combination of Famous Grouse, Benedictine liqueur, Angostura Bitters and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth topped with a healthy dose of pilsner foam. The result was sweet and light, with just a hint of effervescence to help break up the already-smooth scotch.
A hop-skip away at Blue Box, general manager Stephan Mendez has a classic scotch-based Blood and Sand on his fall menu. Introduced in the early 1920s, the drink was named after a 1922 bullfighter flick by the same name; Mendez’s rendition features equal parts Famous Grouse, Cherry Heering liqueur, orange juice and a house sweet vermouth blend of Noilly Prat, Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes.
“The Blood and Sand is a really good one to get into. It’s equal parts, so the scotch doesn’t overpower but you can still taste it in the cocktail,” Mendez said while also suggesting the Penicillin, of blended scotch, lemon juice, honey syrup and ginger, topped with a quarter ounce of Laphroaig. Finishing with the aromatic Islay single malt scotch adds subtle fragrance.
Boozers can look forward to the winter menu, which will include darker spirits and cocktails such as the Rob Roy, a scotch variant of a Manhattan, or a Bobby Burns named after Scottish poet Robert Burns made with scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictine. He hinted at a scotch-white chocolate cocktail that’s still undergoing a few tweaks.
As with the other ’tenders, Mendez recommends practice—the best way to figure out which variety is for your is to sample as many as possible. And as I found out through my journey, asking doesn’t hurt either. These guys are chomping at the bit to educate the masses.
Midnight in Mexico
1 1/2ounces Espadin Mescal
3/4 ounce Ancho Reyes
3/4 ounce Fernet Vallet
Stir in mixing glass. Strain over large ice cube in an Old Fashioned glass. Express oil from peel of grapefruit and garnish with peel.
Via Houston Eaves/The Esquire Tavern
Blood and Sand
3/4 ounce Famous Grouse
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth blend (Mendez uses Carpano Antica, Noilly Prat and Punt e Mes)
3/4 ounce orange juice
3/4 ounce Cherry Heering
Build in shaker over ice. Shake and strain into coupe. Express oil from orange peel and garnish with peel.
Via Stephan Mendez/Blue Box
1 ounce Zapatista infusion*
1 1/2ounces mescal pineapple infusion*
1 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce lime juice
1 dash Angostura bitters
Add infusions, simple syrup, lime juice and 1 scoop of ice to shaker. Shake well. Strain into small rocks glass over ice. Add 1 dash of angostura bitters.
*Visit sacurrent.com for infusion recipes.
Via Johnny Hernandez/The Fruteria
1 1/2ounces Famous Grouse
1/4 ounce Benedictine liqueur
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 ounce Pilsner foam
Build in shaker over ice. Shake and strain into coupe. Top with foam.
Via Andy Hack/Minnie’s Tavern