Naren Young’s spirits career has taken him all over the world, and he’s worked both behind the stick and behind the pen, crafting drinks for patrons and stories on the industry for notable publications. His latest endeavor? He just took over the drinks program at Empellon Cocina and Taqueria, and he’ll attempt to make both into ultimate destinations for tequila and mezcal in the city.
“I worked with our general manager Cory [Lee] five or six years ago,” Young explains of his decision. “I wanted to get back into this side of it, so I started some conversations with Adam [Elzer, a partner], and I liked and respected what they were doing. I had no desire to leave my past job at all, but I’d followed Alex [Stupak]’s career for a long time, and I’m passionate about fine restaurants. I was ready to get back behind the bar.”
And Stupak was ready to take the beverages at his outlets to a new level. “A lot of Mexican restaurants focus on wine, but that’s a European concept,” he says. “They’ll put Chilean and Spanish wines on the menu. But Chile and Spain are no more Mexican than Greece or France or any other country. So we’re always trying to expand our arsenal of tequila.”
And that is Young’s first task. The tender, who say tequila and mezcal have been career-long passions, says he’s examining the Empellon list to figure out what’s on it and why it’s there. Then he’ll get to work editing. “I’d rather not have the biggest list around,” he explains. “Having a big list doesn’t say much about the quality. I’d rather have a shorter list that’s really thoughtful. I want to bring in stuff that makes people say, ‘Shit, I’ve never seen that before.’ I support producers that make their spirits with integrity and honesty. Tons of bars have double what we have–I’m totally okay with that.”
From there, he’ll be employing all sorts of methods to get drinkers interested in more agave spirits, giving patrons different entry points to mezcal and tequila via his list. A good place to start? “Cocktails are an easy gateway,” he says. “They open eyes up to the spirit without smacking [drinkers] over the head with the bottle.” Margaritas, he says, are a particularly good introduction, and so he’s curated a handful of those that range from classic to inventive and unique, using ingredients like rose, jalapeño, and chamomile, all Mexican flavors that he enhances with what he’s lightly calling “bespoke salts”–special blends of salts, citrus, and herbs–and garnishes that concentrate flavor and add aromatics, contributing to a heightened sensory experience. Those drinks will change on a seasonal basis, incorporating ingredients from Stupak’s kitchen. In these last remaining warm days, you might sip the summer daisy, which brings out the verdant notes of tequila with red bell pepper juice.
For drinkers that want to branch out further, Young put together a few more concoctions that play on different flavor profiles of the booze, including the el diablo swizzle, which matches Del Maguey Vida mezcal to creme de cassis and ginger beer, and the polar bear, which combines mezcal with creme de menthe and vermouth. There are also a couple of beer cocktail on the list–“Beer is such an important part of Mexican cuisine,” he says; check out the traditional michelada in addition to that beer cocktail, made with tequila, ginger syrup, and grapefruit juice. And then there are the sidekicks, which nets the orderer a shot of tequila and a sangrita, a traditional non-alcoholic chaser that Young is re-imagining in the form of pico de gallo water, horchata, or a pickle back made with pickled seasonal vegetables. He’s exploring irreverent additions like a jello shot, too, saying “this is not a temple, it’s a bar. People should come in and have some fun.”
For enthusiasts and imbibers who want to venture further down the path, Young will offer a rotating flight (that’s listed on the menu with educational anecdotes), and he’ll encourage conversation about agave between guests and bartenders. “It’s okay to ask,” he says. “Bartenders here are well-versed on tequila and mezcal.”
And with all of that, Young hopes the Empellon restaurants become agave destinations. “I want to turn our bars into a beacon for people,” he says. “I want people to get off the plane and when they go, ‘Where do I go for tequilas and mescals?’, I want them to come here. I’m not here to preach, but if we can get people drinking better agave, most of my job is done.”
Check out his new bar menu at Empellon Cocina, which goes live tonight, and stop in to Empellon Taqueria later this fall, where he’ll re-tool the list in the coming weeks.
Hit the next page for a few photos.