Even if you’re hitting sophisticated Mexican restaurants around town, you certainly encounter many a margarita and Corona in passing. It’s unavoidable. But beyond these mainstays, Mexico offers so much more to drinking culture. By now, even casual drinkers have at least heard murmurs of mezcal, tequila’s smokier sibling. Far fewer are aware of the existence of raicilla, bacanora, and sotol — three distinct agave-based Mexican spirits. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad liqueurs and cordials artfully produced south of the border. To pay proper homage to the culture, bypass the migraine-inducing sweet and sour mixes and spice things up with a few of these adventurous alternatives.
The game-changing mixology program at Death and Co. (433 East 6th Street, 212-388-0882) devotes an entire menu section to offbeat agave concoctions. The Pale Horse, for example, blends a snap-pea-infused tequila with vermouth and an herbal alpine liqueur, landing curiously on something between a wheatgrass shot and a gin-infused Last Word. The Sound & Fury delivers broader appeal, with raspberry and muddled red bell pepper added to Calle 23’s delicate blanco tequila. An initial sweetness is combated by the tingling heat of Ancho Reyes — a Mexican liqueur derived of spiced chiles.
Also utilizing Ancho Reyes to expert effect is the program at Añejo (668 Tenth Avenue, 212-920-4770) in Hell’s Kitchen. The restaurant’s Ancho Negroni balances the peppery complexity of the liqueur against the earthy smoke of Montelobos mezcal and citrusy bitterness of Campari. Offering significantly more depth than any gin-based drink, it’s that rare example of a sequel outperforming the original.
By the way, for the DIY set, 80-proof Ancho Reyes, with its superior mixing capabilities, is a worthy addition to the home bar. Bottles retail for $35 throughout town. In Manhattan, Phillipe Wine & Liquor will even deliver it to your door.
But if you feel like stepping outside your comfort zone, delve deeper down the rabbit hole with a shot of raicilla, which is traditionally regarded as Mexican moonshine. Similar to mezcal, the once-illicit spirit utilizes agave hearts that are fire-roasted in primitive clay ovens, imparting a punchy smoke guaranteed to mess with the margarita-minded. Head over to Empellón Cocina (105 First Avenue, 212-780-0999), where the well-versed staff can either pour you a shot or steer you toward sensible mixing applications.