While mezcal may have risen to ubiquity as the “smoky cousin” of better-known tequila, the other agave spirit has long since stepped out of the shadows, proving its versatility in a handful of classic builds—beyond the Margarita.
Phil Ward, an early mezcal evangelist, was among the first bartenders in the United States to recognize the spirit’s adaptability, especially in spirit-forward constructions. His Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, created at New York’s Death & Co. in 2007, split the tequila base with a measure of robust, smoky mezcal to add depth to the familiar template in what would go on to become a modern classic. But he had even more luck letting mezcal stand in for the base spirit altogether in classic blueprints. His Division Bell, for example, sees mezcal take the place of gin and Aperol that of Chartreuse in a simple riff on the Last Word.
The same approach guided Emma Janzen, author of Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, to create her take on a mezcal Negroni. Drawn to the “dark, moody, earthy and dry herbaceous flavors offered by mezcal in cocktails,” she combined the agave spirit with Campari and sweet vermouth, albeit split with Cynar, and finished with a few drops of mole bitters. Maxwell Reis, beverage director of Gracias Madre in Los Angeles, meanwhile, pushes the mezcal Negroni toward the lighter end of the spectrum in his White Mezcal Negroni. His version marries gin and mezcal—a duo he describes as “best buddies” due to their shared herbaceous and grassy characteristics—with Salers and blanc vermouth.
But of all the classic formulas in which mezcal has landed lately, perhaps none showcases the mixability of mezcal like the mezcal Martini. After all, the Martini has for decades been the purview of gin and vodka alone. “If I’m making the statement [that mezcal is versatile in cocktails],” says Robert Simonson, author of Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails, “there’d better be a Martini variation.” To ensure just that, Simonson developed a Sweet Mezcal Martini, a “proto martini” with a 2:1 ratio of blanc vermouth to mezcal, more in line with the Martinez than modern-day dry iterations.
But others likewise took up the torch, even when the notion didn’t sit quite right on paper. “The sound of a mezcal Martini offends me,” says Ward, yet he went on to develop a simple variation in which mezcal is mixed with sweet vermouth, orange bitters and a grapefruit twist. He’s also experimented with what he calls a Mexi-Gin Martini—a gin Martini modified with a blend of crema de mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, jalapeño-infused tequila and celery bitters for a drink that sits comfortably between spicy Margarita and dry Martini.
Jay Schroeder, author of Understanding Mezcal and the former beverage director of the Chicago mezcaleria Todos Santos, was another mezcal Martini skeptic, believing that mezcal was herbaceous enough on its own and adding an equally herbal, dry vermouth would cause the spirits to “butt heads too hard.” His opinion changed, however, after experimenting with a loud, assertive mezcal (often a raicilla from Jalisco) in combination with a “much more pliable, submissive bianco vermouth” for a more balanced finished product.
While it may seem obvious that mezcal would find its way from the Margarita to the Martini in a matter of time, the agave spirit offers more than just novelty. Few spirits possess the same regional diversity as mezcal, challenging bartenders to zero in on the right expression for the drink in question. The more austere the blueprint, the tougher the challenge. But the reward is in turn even greater—a drink that's familiar yet bears an entirely new reading.