While mezcal’s newfound popularity may seem to have come out of nowhere, the agave-based spirit has been consumed in Mexico since the sixteenth century, when the Spanish came over and introduced distilling. That tequila you’ve been sipping (or swilling) is actually one type of mezcal. Tequila is made only from the hearts of the sugary blue agave (which also gives us agave nectar), while mezcal can come from any member of the agave family. The various plant species give different mezcals terroir, like wines: Differences in flavor depend on whether they’re made, for example, using the popular espadin or arroqueño varieties, while the signature smokiness comes from roasting the agave hearts in underground pit ovens.
Natasha Sofia, a bartender at the Standard East Village and brand ambassador for Sombra Mezcal, first came to know the spirit through word of mouth only: In her native Puerto Rico, mezcal wasn’t available for a long time. “I became obsessed with the rich history and process of something I hadn’t tasted and couldn’t easily get access to — the forbidden fruit,” she says. On her first trip up to New York, she went to The NoMad, asking the bartenders all her long-held questions. Upon moving to the city, she got a job at chef Alex Stupak’s Empellón Cocina, where she deepened her understanding of agave-based drinks.
Mezcal’s rapid growth has been the result of both evangelism and opportunity, according to Sofia. “There has been a lot of hard work put in by the bartenders who first had access to it, by using it in cocktails and teaching their customers about it,” she says. “Availability is one of the biggest reasons — you can’t sell what you don’t have access to. With more brands being distributed, it has opened a whole new space for growth.” Sofia also points out that mezcal isn’t as heavily marketed as other spirits — you don’t yet see mezcal brands being promoted in neon signs or on napkin holders, so the promotion is done one-on-one — “which gives it a sense of mystery and intrigue.”
That intrigue has led to mezcal’s prominence on cocktail menus at places like Mayahuel, La Esquina, Ghost Donkey, Leyenda, and Casa Mezcal, not just in smoky takes on the margarita and negroni, but in any drink that could use depth. “I’m going through what I call now ‘the ketchup phase,’ ” Sofia says, “where I put [mezcal] on everything even if it’s a different spirit base in the cocktail. I’ll use a half-ounce to add dimension and make the cocktail go a long way.”
If you’re someone who’s fallen for tequila or maybe loves a good Scotch, mezcal might be a good spirit to explore next — and don’t worry, you’re not going to find a worm at the bottom of any high-end bottles. Do watch for the phrase sal de gusano on menus, though. It means “worm salt,” and your mezcal margarita might come rimmed with a healthy serving.