It has taken over cocktail menus across the country. That smoky and polarizing cousin of tequila, once found on only the most authentic of Mexican menus, has taken hold of the American drinking palette. Mezcal, the earthy and peaty fermentation of the agave plant, is the lesser known agave spirit of Mexico (though tequila itself is technically a mezcal). Unlike tequila, which is derived exclusively from the blue agave plant, mezcal can be made from any species of agave.
Mezcal gets its defining smokiness during the earliest stages of its production. The peat comes from the literal smoke created while cooking the agaves hearts, or piñas, in earthen ovens filled with wood and charcoal. The hearts are left to smoke in the ground for days, infusing their nectar with the flavor of the smoke.
In Houston, where some of the country's best Mexican restaurants have existed for decades, the spirit has been available to order for years. Hidden among tequilas on select liquor menus, or collecting dust on bar shelves behind bottles of Don Julio and 1800. Those days, of course, are long gone. No self respecting cocktail lounge or hipster bar would be caught dead now without a mezcal cocktail on its menu.
The trend has now expanded well beyond Mexican kitchens. Many of Houston's most respected bar programs have started introducing inspired and challenging drinks that push the boundaries of what mezcal can be. The following is a list of the most original, classic, and all around best renditions of mezcal cocktails available today in Houston.
Xochi Rita - Xochi - Downtown
A semi-classic preparation of the world famous margarita, with a smoky twist.
Houston's unofficial Mayor of food, chef Hugo Ortega, launched his most ambitious concept to date, Xochi, in the lobby of the downtown Marriott Marquis last January. Naturally, this hyper-authentic Mexican eatery, specializing in the food and culture of interior Mexico (where mezcal has its origins), had to feature mezcal heavily in its bar menu.
Along with a cocktail list that includes over a dozen of Mexico's highest quality mezcals, Xochi's cocktail menu is spearheaded by it's flagship drink, the Xochi Rita. This straightforward take on the margarita is a simple recipe of mezcal, orange liqueur, lime juice, and citrus syrup. What elevates the drink is both its selection of high quality spirits and the chef's choice of rim salt.
It's called gusano salt. If you speak Spanish, you guessed it. It's made of worms. This obscure cocktail salt is a mix of rock salt, ground worms, and chiles. It is applied brilliantly to garnish and add unique flavor to the Xochi Rita. Sauteed and heavily seasoned, insects are a recurring aspect in chef Hugo's cooking and the most buzzed about dish on the Xochi menu (pun intended). Their use in this drink is the perfect introduction to this creepy crawly ingredient for any hesitant diners not quite ready to jump into a cricket taco.
Paloma Picante - Goode Company Kitchen and Cantina - Memorial City and The Woodlands
Another classic Mexican cocktail, with two bold twists.
The Goode family have been integral members of the Houston restaurant community since 1977, when the first Goode Company BBQ pits started smoking. In the 41 years since, they have grown their humble family business into an empire as big as Texas itself. The Goode's now own and operate more restaurants than should really be jammed into one sentence. Among them, the Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantinas.
Both Kitchen & Cantina locations serve their signature menus of world class Tex-Mex. An inspired and extremely authentic fusion of true Mexican dishes with just a dash of Texan influence. With such a bold new take on Tex-Mex came the necessary addition of mezcal into the Cantina's list of spirits and cocktails.
The Paloma Picante is a two headed twist on this grapefruit and tequila standard. First is the obvious exchange of tequila for mezcal, giving the refreshing drink a serious character makeover and a peaty finish. Next, the drink goes spicy with the addition of Ancho Verde; the popular chile poblano liqueur that is becoming a secret weapon for mixologists everywhere. This fusion drink combines citrus with smoke and spice for a layered taste experience that is worth venturing outside the loop for.
Mezcal Margarita - The Pastry War - Downtown
A no frills standard that both highlights and transforms the mezcal within.
Sours are an obvious choice for mezcal because the citrus cuts down on the fiery burn of agave spirit while still complimenting its unique flavor. Tequila, with its maskable purity, makes for light and refreshing cocktails. The kind that put you on your ass without even warning you first. Mezcal is not as inconspicuous. Its bold flavor is unmistakable no matter what you choose to mix it with. As such, a perfect mezcal cocktail does not attempt to mask the smokey goodness, but rather highlight it.
The Pastry War is a place that knows something about mezcal. It is Houston's only self defined mezcleria. Opened in 2013 by Houston cocktail king, Bobby Heugel, just in time to ride the national mezcal wave right into several "best of" lists and cocktail awards.
This margarita is impressive for it's simplicity, if nothing else. Mezcal from family owned small batch distilleries in Mexico, fresh squeezed lime juice, and agave syrup. Shaken and poured over rocks, this is a mezcal lover's margarita. It highlights without hiding. A perfect mix of smoky and sour with a touch of salt.
The Brave - Anvil - Montrose
Something altogether different.
If you live in Houston and love cocktails, you know Anvil. This tiny craft cocktail lounge in the heart of Montrose launched Bobby Heugel's career as a cocktail mogul. Opened in 2009, Anvil has been lauded for nearly a decade as the preeminent Houston bar for classic and noteworthy cocktails.
One of Heugel's original creations, and among the very few drinks to remain on the Anvil menu since 2009, is The Brave. This is the type of drink that lists like this are written for. A completely out of the box creation that takes everything you think you know about a spirit and turns it on its head.
The recipe calls for four parts: mezcal, blanco tequila, Averna Amaro (Italian tonic liqueur), and Royal Combier (French orange and cognac liqueur). All four parts are mixed in the glass by swirling, and the drink is garnished with a mist of Angostura bitters and a flamed orange peel. Past variations have substituted the blanco tequila for sotol, an even more obscure cousin of tequila from the northern state of Chihuahua (and possible subject of future articles).
The Brave took over a year to perfect and has remained Anvil's house cocktail for nearly ten years. It is considered by many to be the best cocktail in Houston, and among the best American cocktails ever created.