Last week, the guys behind Hecho en Dumbo revealed that they were expanding into the space next door with an agave-spirit-focused cantina called Salon Hecho. This week, Ethan Smith and his chef-partner, Danny Mena, discuss the growing popularity of mezcal.
Is mezcal still a hard sell?
Danny: We are starting to get people that really just come in, like, “What mezcals do you have?” and it’s so polarizing because people either love it or weren’t expecting it to taste like it does. It’s an acquired taste, but, yeah, it’s hugely popular.
Why do you think that is?
Danny: When tequila became en vogue, with the production of 100 percent agave tequilas, people started drinking it largely due to some of the bigger-name tequilas, like Patrón. I always equate it to what Starbucks did for cafés. On the one hand, it got people really interested and excited about coffee. But at the same time, it was a big, corporate thing. So, I think mezcal is on the coattails of tequila, where there’s a renewed interest in agave spirits.
Is it just happening here?
Danny: Well, that’s another thing that needs to be noted. It’s not like mezcal is only getting discovered in the States. It’s also having a huge renaissance in Mexico. It wasn’t outside of specific areas like Oaxaca for a long time. But now, in Mexico City, there are a lot of these mezcalerias.
What do you love about mezcal?
Danny: They distill it with a wooden flame that gets fanned under the pot. It’s very artisanal. I was in Oaxaca once, drinking a mezcal from a little, crappy plastic cup, and I was like, If you could see how this gets bottled and sold for $15 a shot. These guys have been doing this for generations and it’s just a natural spirit that they all drink.
Ethan: When we met these mezcal guys, they were talking about blessing the oven with a prayer. They were kind of laughing at it, kind of tongue in cheek, like it’s superstition, but they still take it seriously. I think everybody’s looking for a human connection nowadays, in what they eat, what they drink. Mezcal has that to a T. Almost all of these mezcals are organic. Not certified; they don’t have the money to get pesticides.
Is there much rivalry between tequila and mezcal producers?
Ethan: I’d say there’s more tequila-on-tequila crime versus mezcal. [The mezcal producers] are small distilleries. … If the quantities were on par with tequila, there might be more, but it’s still such a different animal. I’ve really never heard anybody really poo-poo someone else’s mezcal.
Danny: Except for the original one with the little worm. That was pretty bad.
What’s a good beginner mezcal?
Danny: I think a non-smoked one is probably the easiest. The smoky ones are where you get your Scotch flavors. People find that first flavor and say, “Oh, that’s really strong.” But I’ve had a lot of mezcals that are less smoky.
Ethan: I think hitting something that’s 80 proof is the way to go. A lot of mezcal can get up to 96. That heavy alcohol content for someone not used to the flavors can be a real deterrent. To a connoisseur, it can be very fun. You can also sometimes go with an aged mezcal to start with. Barrel-aging rounds out some of the harsher characteristics. At the same time, I’m a bit of a purist. I wouldn’t necessarily want someone to start with that. But a barrel can be like little training wheels.
Does mezcal pair well with food?
Danny: Depends on who you’re talking to. I have trouble preparing food with neat spirits. Even in a cocktail, mezcal can easily overpower. Vodka is like the tofu of spirits. Mezcal is the exact opposite. A lot of times you’ll see bartenders doing half tequila and half mezcal combinations. That’s a way to get the mezcal flavor without overpowering.
Ethan: It’s definitely a territory where the cocktails/mixology can come in. Before or after dinner, there are a whole variety of spirits that can prepare you or round you off, but with dinner you need something to mellow out the harshness of the spirit. Even if it’s just putting it in a margarita. Who’s more fun — the spirits geeks or the novices?
Ethan: The only thing that makes this kind of work worthwhile — because it can be so difficult — is when people walk away having learned something or having appreciated the experience. Whether you’re a geek or someone who’s never tried it before. I even get chills when I’m talking about it because it’s a tremendously difficult path and when you have people that are receptive, it really makes your day.
Danny: But both can be annoying and both can be great. There’s someone that’s innocent and willing to learn and is like, “Oh, that’s amazing,” or someone who knows a lot and is like, “Oh, you have this. I’ve never had this one.” They’re both willing to enjoy the experience. It’s great. There are people that come in and don’t want to have a good time and there’s nothing you can do. Why come here? That’s really the only thing that frustrates me working in the restaurant industry. Sometimes people just go out to dinner and complain. No one forced you to come. I would love for you to love it.