Cocktails

How the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned Became a Modern Classic

November 10, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

How the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned Became a Modern Classic

November 10, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Art: Lizzie Munro

The early Death & Co. creation kicked off a boom of contemporary mezcal drinks.

The peak of New York’s cocktail revival. A first-time bar owner with everything (and nothing) to lose. A newly minted head bartender at the height of his creativity. An unfamiliar and underutilized spirit. Put those things together and something wonderful was bound to happen.

The bar was Death & Co. in Manhattan in 2007; the owner David Kaplan; the bartender Phil Ward; the spirit mezcal, at the time little used or understood in bartending circles. The something wonderful? The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, a simple tequila and mezcal twist on the classic cocktail, introducing hordes of bartenders and drinkers to the versatility of agave spirits.

The drink—composed of one-and-a-half ounces of reposado tequila, a half-ounce of mezcal, two dashes of Angostura bitters and a bar spoon of the then-novel agave syrup, garnished with a flamed orange twist—would go on to be served and imitated the world over, leading to a wave of adventurous new cocktails made with tequila and mezcal, spirits that were rarely ventured beyond shots and Margaritas. A dozen years after its creation, Death & Co. cemented the cocktail’s status by putting the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned on a T-shirt.

“The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned is definitely the drink [of ours] that has graced more menus than any other,” says Kaplan. “There are others we see a lot, such as Joaquín Simó’s Naked & Famous, Brian Miller’s Conference or Jessica Gonzalez’s Flaming Lips, but the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned has taken on a life of its own.”

Both Kaplan and Ward agree that the drink was near-perfect upon arrival.

“Phil rarely seemed to tweak drinks,” recalls Kaplan. “They were always presented as complete, formed thoughts, even if it was his first pass at it.”

Ward, like most New York bartenders, was new to mezcal at the time. The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned was only the third cocktail in which he used it, the first being a simple Daiquiri with a quarter-ounce of mezcal thrown in. The second was a drink called the Cinder, another Daiquiri twist, this one fueled by reposado tequila, jalapeño-infused blanco tequila and mezcal.

Ward doesn’t remember who he made the first Oaxaca Old-Fashioned for, but he recalls it being created as a “right off-the-cuff humdinger,” for one of his many regular guests. “The Oaxaca was invented in my favorite time of Death & Co.,” Ward recalls. “I feel like it was one big cocktail lab with a slew of guinea pigs—regulars—who would anxiously await the new works in progress every visit.”

While Ward is credited as the drink’s creator, Kaplan played an important supporting role. He was the one who brought in a few bottles of Los Amantes Joven mezcal for the Death & Co. bartenders to play around with, and, according to Ward, he named the drink.

“I believe I suggested the name, but the drink really named itself,” says Kaplan. “I did always look for an excuse to say ‘Oaxaca,’ as I love the word.”

The cocktail was an immediate hit, a simple concoction that handily introduced drinkers to agave’s array of smoky, sweet and savory notes. It benefited from not just the novelty of its split spirit base, but the then-ascendant fortunes of the Old-Fashioned. The long-dormant classic cocktail was just beginning to experience a renewed popularity. For many customers, the comforting format of the straightforward Old-Fashioned acted as a Trojan horse for the untried pleasures of mezcal.

“The concept of an Old-Fashioned is relatable,” says John Deragon, a former bartender at nearby PDT and an early fan of the drink. “Mezcal was still a little unfamiliar for many people, and putting it into an Old-Fashioned formula makes it much less intimidating. … It’s basically a gateway cocktail to mezcal.”

Deragon, who traveled a lot for business in those days, recalled seeing the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned pop up on other cocktail menus fairly quickly. One of those menus was the nearby Mayahuel, the agave bar Ward opened in the East Village in 2009. If the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned did well at Death & Co., at Mayahuel it shifted into overdrive. Eryn Reece, an early Mayahuel bartender, recalls making “a million” of them. And Ivy Mix, another employee, remembers, “I have never flamed so many orange twists in my life!”

That flamed orange twist, an eye-catching “ta-da!” that completed the cocktail, undoubtedly boosted the drink’s popularity. “Everyone loves pyrotechnics and I think flamed orange twists get people’s eye,” says Mix. “It’s called the fajita effect!”

At Death & Co. and Mayahuel, the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned kick-started both public and industry interest in mezcal in New York and beyond. Since the drink’s creation, the bar world has seen hundreds of agave cocktails come and go, as well as plenty of Old-Fashioned variations. But the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned endures as a favorite in both categories. Alex Day, another old-guard bartender at Death & Co. and now a partner in the larger Death & Co. bar empire, notes that the drink’s adaptability has worked in its favor. In its earliest rendition, the cocktail was made with El Tesoro reposado and Los Amantes Joven mezcal—ingredients that today are too expensive for most bar programs.

“With each follow-up iteration of swapping in a different tequila or mezcal, the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned demonstrates its endurance,” says Day. “Each one is different, but, in a way, the same.”

For Kaplan, the outsize popularity of the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned was almost a fait accompli, a cocktail that was destined to be.

“It was a drink that needed to be made,” he says, “that probably should have existed already.”

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