“There’s no other spirit like mezcal,” declares Carlo Bracci, beverage director of Tahona Bar, in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood.
With a mission to educate about the agave spirit while providing first-rate cocktails, Bracci homed in on a crowd-pleasing classic: the Mexican Firing Squad, a mixture of tequila, lime juice, grenadine and Angostura bitters pulled from the pages of Charles H. Baker’s Gentleman’s Companion, Volume II from 1946. Unsurprisingly, Bracci’s first update was to swap out tequila for mezcal and change the name to the Oaxacan Firing Squad, “to make it pretty obvious that it’s made with mezcal rather than tequila.”
But that was just the starting point for tweaking the agave classic.
Switching the base spirit to mezcal made it easy to position the tart, citrusy drink as a mezcal Margarita: “You can get a good idea of the flavor,” based on that description, he explains. The Oaxacan Firing Squad quickly became one of the bar’s bestsellers.
Bracci’s mezcal of choice for the drink is Amarás Verde, a “balanced, lightly smoky” option that’s also one of the bottles in the well. “Only espadíns should be used in cocktails,” he cautions, referring to the most common agave variety used to make the spirit, which is cultivated widely and matures more quickly than wild agaves. His reasoning is based primarily on sustainability. “It’s not worth it to waste something [by mixing it] that took 14 to 25 years to grow,” he says.
From there, Bracci switched out the typical Angostura bitters for mole bitters, which adds a subtle chocolate spice note. And that’s where things started to get interesting.
“We thought we’d use mole bitters and call it a day,” he recalls. But Tahona is also a restaurant focused on Oaxacan food with Baja inspiration—including a dish featuring a trio of moles (negro, coloradito and pipián), and the restaurant’s mole negro, in particular, became a key component of a homemade mole grenadine. To make it, what starts as a classic pomegranate-and-sugar grenadine is infused with the mole—a four-year-old solera of a sauce, made with “over 50 different ingredients that it has collected over the course of its life,” notably chocolate, three types of chile peppers, plantain, tomato, “tortilla ashes,” and spices including clove, star anise, cinnamon and allspice.
“Inside our mole there’s a lot of fat, a lot of lard,” Bracci notes. “We infuse it, we strain out the big bits, and refrigerate it for a couple of hours,” before scooping off the chilled fats that accumulate on top. To be clear, it’s not fat-washing, he cautions. Instead, he describes the process as “chill filtration,” the same technique used to remove chemical compounds that can create a cloudy appearance in spirits.
The Oaxacan Firing Squad calls for more mole grenadine than the classic—one ounce, as opposed to three-quarters of an ounce—partly to balance the relatively high proof of the mezcal, and partly to make the flavor more approachable.
The remaining components come together around the mole grenadine: An ounce of lime—again, slightly more than the ratio of the classic—balances the sweetness of the grenadine, while mole bitters amplify the sweetener’s chocolate notes. For the finishing touch, a flag of skewered dehydrated lime and cherry “makes it more fancy.”
Bracci views the Oaxacan Firing Squad as one of the many “conversation starters” on the menu—a roster of classics with not-always-subtle tweaks intended to make drinks more approachable or interesting in some way, ranging from a Diablo variation enlivened with a blue butterfly pea float, to a Batanga made with housemade cola syrup. “We like to do fun stuff like this. We like to stimulate conversation,” Bracci explains, all in service of further educating guests about mezcal.
And a playful, memorable drink riff that can also encourage guests to learn more about mezcal? “It was a match made in heaven.”