The Key to Great Mezcal Cocktails? Pretending It’s Gin.
Most compare the spirit to tequila, but it works better when treated like a different spirit
The closing of the hospitality industry due to the spread of COVID-19 forced a very sudden shift in how people drink in this country. The cocktail scene in the U.S., which has seen a meteoric rise over the past decade, is now effectively a DIY endeavor. If you want a drink and you don’t already live with a bartender, you’re going to have to make it yourself.
The good news for novice bartenders is that making cocktails is relatively simple, and there are hundreds of established, classic recipes to turn to for guidance. Time-tested drinks like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni and Daiquiri are delicious, simple, and call for easy-to-access ingredients that may already be in your pantry.
The downside is that not all booze is equally represented in the classic cocktail canon. Specifically absent is mezcal, a spirit that only recently grew from relative obscurity to near ubiquity in bars all across the U.S. Though mezcal makes regular appearances on menus in the nation’s best bars, other than maybe the Naked and Famous, not enough time has passed for new mezcal drinks to become established, known recipes. With this relative dearth of options, where should a homebound bartender turn for inspiration when wanting to mix with mezcal?
The typical approach to working with a new spirit is to find a recipe that already exists and then sub out the traditional base with a different one (a lot of great modern classics were made this way). With mezcal, people most commonly take this approach by leveraging established tequila recipes. Tequila was born from mezcal (it’s a square-rectagle situation), they have a shared history, a shared country of origin and both are made from agave, so it seems like they would be interchangeable in cocktails. But therein lies a problem: tequila itself isn’t much represented in the classics, and once you move beyond the Margarita, mezcal stops fitting so neatly into spaces where tequila is comfortable.
Mezcal is bolder than tequila, in ways far beyond the smokiness with which it’s often associated. Yes, mezcal is smoky — particularly the less expensive bottlings that are used for making cocktails — but compared to tequila, mezcal possesses a much denser concentration of a wider array of flavors. Mezcal is earthy, savory, herbaceous, citric and sweet, all in one long, lingering sip. It can overwhelm cocktails where tequila’s more subdued pepperiness plays nicely.
I would argue there’s an easier, more consistently successful way to incorporate mezcal into your home cocktail: find inspiration in gin cocktails.
It may sound odd at first, but gin itself is also an extremely dense, complex spirit. Chock full of pine, citrus, bitter, sweet and floral botanicals, gin packs a punch. It, like mezcal, is somewhat polarizing when sipped neat, and even in relatively small doses, gin makes its presence known. Consider the Negroni and the Last Word: both are amazing gin cocktails, packed full of aggressive, herbaceous ingredients, yet both are balanced and refreshing despite gin not even being the primary ingredient. Gin and mezcal, for all their perceived differences, both behave quite similarly when mixed in a cocktail.
To get you started, I’ve compiled a short list of classic gin cocktails where mezcal works wonderfully. Give them a try, and then look toward the huge history of gin drinks next time you’re mixing with mezcal.
Before diving into the recipes, it’s worth noting that mezcal is gloriously diverse, benefiting from numerous agave types, production styles and regional influences that make it endlessly compelling. I can’t recommend highly enough that you dive down the rabbit hole that is mezcal.
That said, as far as cocktail making is concerned, your best bet is to find an affordably priced but still well produced bottle. Most likely this means mezcal made from the agave Espadin. Del Maguey’s Vida was the first to market and remains a great option, though it’s on the smoky end and can be quite assertive in cocktails. The opposite of that would be to use the Cupreata bottling from La Luna, which affordably represents the more floral, tropical end of the mezcal spectrum. Banhez, Union, Wahaka and Los Javis are also brands that put out affordable, delicious mezcals that work wonderfully in cocktails.
The Mezcal Negroni
1 oz Mezcal
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
1 oz Campari
Stir with ice for 25 seconds and garnish with an orange twist.
Optional upgrade: I personally love this cocktail with a Blanc Vermouth in place of the sweet. Blancs have a similar sugar content but are a little less complex. The drink stays balanced but the earthiness of the mezcal shines through a bit more.
Mezcal Last Word
.75 oz Mezcal
.75 oz Green Chartreuse
.75 oz Maraschino Liqueur (I prefer Luxardo)
.75 oz Fresh lime juice
Shake with ice for 10 seconds and strain into a chilled glass.
The Last Word is the sort of drink where everything is turned to 11 but it’s all somehow harmonious. It should be too sweet and herbaceous, but instead it’s mostly just too hard to drink at a moderate pace. Mezcal adds more bottom end than gin does, but the cocktail still stays true to what’s made it so great for nearly 100 years.
Mezcal Corpse Reviver #2
.75 Orange Liqueur (Combier or Cointreau work great here)
.75 Lillet Blanc
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled, absinthe-rinsed glass.
Though the Last Word was the first equal parts shaken drink to regularly get the mezcal treatment, I’d argue that the Corpse Reviver #2 is where the mezcal-for-gin swap shines brightest. Somehow this cocktail tastes like grapefruit juice despite none being added.
Mezcal Ford Cocktail
1 Blanc Vermouth (my favorite is Carpano Bianco)
3 dashes orange bitters
Stir with ice for 25 seconds and strain into a chilled glass, then garnish with a grapefruit peel.
The drink that gin is most known for is the Martini, and here again Mezcal is right at home. I particularly love it in my favorite Martini variation, the Ford Cocktail. The Ford calls for dry vermouth, and while this works with mezcal, like I suggested with the Negroni, Blanc vermouth really takes this drink to the next level.
Mezcal Clover Club
.5 Dry Vermouth
.5 Raspberry Liqueur (I recommend Framboise from either Combier or Giffard)
.75 Fresh Lemon Juice
1 egg white
Shake without ice for 10 seconds, add ice, then shake for 10 more seconds. Strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a twist of lemon or, if you want to take it up a notch, a spritz of rose flower water.
One of my absolute favorite gin cocktails is the Clover Club, a raspberry gin sour that is amazing as is and so riffable that I use it as a verb (e.g., “What should we do for a bourbon drink on the summer menu?” “Just Clover Club it with peach and honey.”). Mezcal absolutely shines in this drink. If you don’t have raspberry liqueur, use raspberry preserves, make a raspberry syrup, or just use plain simple syrup and shake the drink with a few raspberries. You can’t go wrong here.
.75 Dry Vermouth
.5 Creme de Violette
Stir with ice for 25 seconds, strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a lemon twist.
Another example of mezcal and absinthe working successfully together is Hugo Enslinn’s pre-Prohibition cocktail, the Attention (later called the Arsenic and Old Lace). This also shows how well mezcal, typically seen as harsh and smoky, can let floral flavors shine.