“I don’t want to say I invented it—no one did,” says Marco Montefiori of the 50/50 shot comprised of Amaro Montenegro and mezcal, better known as the Monte y Mezcal, or simply the M&M. “It’s like the invention of the wheel, or the [building of the] pyramids. Many people come up with the same idea.”
But as the U.S. market manager for Montenegro, the 134-year-old Bologna-based amaro, Montefiori has been lining up the M&M shot—as it’s widely known—since 2012, introducing it to his network of bartender peers as an unlikely marriage of two industry favorites. “It was a natural fit, the sweet and bitter notes of Montenegro with the smokiness of mezcal,” he recalls. It didn’t take long for the combo to take off as a bartender handshake, with some even dubbing it “Manager’s Meeting”—an insider’s nod to the place where it was most often consumed.
It’s thanks to Robert Krueger, however, that the M&M moved from those back-office discussions to the front of the house and onto the radar of the general public. When he was behind the stick at Employees Only and Extra Fancy in New York, frequent dealings with Montefiori inspired Krueger to create an entire new category of drink utilizing Montenegro as the sweetener.
“I pitched the idea that any spirit could be ‘made a Monte,’” he explains, meaning an equal-parts drink with Montenegro. He found that more-savory spirits worked particularly well in his Montes, especially rye and mezcal, whose smoke and bite could be mellowed out by Montenegro’s lingering bittersweetness. Sometimes he would add a dash of chocolate bitters and an orange twist, hinting at a potential evolution for the drink.
Turbocharging the drink’s virality was the rapid expansion of the Employees Only brand: In 2016 an EO location opened in Singapore; the next year, two opened in Miami and Hong Kong; and just last year locations opened in Los Angeles and Sydney, where Kruger is currently based and still serving M&Ms. In fact, as it becomes a more common bar order, the M&M has naturally outgrown the shot glass.
“If I want to party, I like to do it as a shot. But if I’m sitting down for a drink, I usually do it on the rocks,” explains Montefiori, who also endorses the Monte-rita, a mezcal Margarita that uses Montenegro instead of triple sec.
But the combination need not be gussied up to achieve variety—different mezcals can tweak the flavor profile. Montefiori prefers the vegetal and highly smoky Ilegal, while Krueger often goes for Pierde Almas, a chocolaty, almost meaty option. Montenegro is the only immutable aspect.
Despite its popularity, the M&M has mostly remained a word-of-mouth sensation, with few mentions of it on the Internet other than a minor Reddit thread. On Google, the top results yield recipes for an amaretto- and coffee liqueur-based shot designed to taste like the candy-coated chocolates of the same name.
In part, its lack of online tributes reflects its notable absence on bar menus (Montefiori admits he’s never seen it printed anywhere). Even so, in California and New York, it has become such a well-known “call” that few top-flight bartenders are confused by the order, especially at industry favorites like San Francisco’s Trick Dog or Brooklyn’s Pig Beach. The latter, a raucous barbecue joint in the Gowanus neighborhood, recently started listing it on their large chalkboard menus as part of a $10 “Piglet” boilermaker—the shot served alongside a can of local Interboro IPA.
“Mezcal has been on fire at Pig Beach recently, and Montenegro is a great digestive aid,” explains restaurant partner Shane McBride, who first learned about the drink during a barbecue competition in Memphis. He utilizes Montelobos Mezcal, a peppery and slightly higher-proof option, as his second-M of choice.
But it’s not just the trendsetting coasts offering the shots; more and more, Montefiori is finding that when he introduces himself at bars around the country, from Kansas City to Cleveland, he is greeted with an M&M shot.
Yet there’s one place where it has yet to land: Montenegro’s homeland. “I’ve still never seen it in Italy,” says Montefiori, admitting that mezcal is a relatively small category there. But he sees the M&M as having a future there, too. “They won’t think it’s sacrilege. Italians are not as nostalgic as you think.”