Wine has sommeliers; beer has cicerones; mescal has…mescaliers!
Yes, it’s a thing, although there’s only a handful of the certified agave experts scattered about New York’s colossal cocktail landscape. Count Courtenay Greenleaf among them. After earning the distinction three years ago, the New England native set up shop at La Biblioteca, the city’s first lounge dedicated exclusively to craft tequila and mescal. In October, she helped launch Masa y Agave (41 Murray Street; 212-849-2885) — a Mexican-accented speakeasy of sorts — in the basement of Rosa Mexicano’s new outpost in Tribeca. Here’s a taste of what makes her bar and its spirits worth their salt.
When descending into the dimly lit, subterranean den, it’s easy to imagine you’ve wandered into some exotic cantina on the outskirts of Mexico City. This is by design. “We wanted to provide our guests, and even our staff, with a very authentic experience,” Greenleaf explains. When it comes to libations, that means incorporating traditional Oaxacan ingredients into the cocktails. Sal de gusano (worm salt), strained corn milk, and a bevy of house-made syrups and bitters infused with native herbs add a bona fide texture into every drink featured on the menu.
“I honestly think that mescal is the most flexible spirit to mix with,” says Greenleaf. “It shines so well on its own, it complements citrus, pineapple, acidity, sweetness; it’s the most diverse [liquor] in terms of creating a balanced cocktail while preserving its natural characteristics.” That versatility is showcased in drinks such as the “Oaxaqueño,” a semi-sweet, semi-smoky tipple, or the “Dama de Noche,” a barrel-aged concoction fusing blended scotch, agave nectar, and artisanal mescal. Both provide superior entry points for the uninitiated.
But to satisfy inquisitive newbies and seasoned vets in equal measure, Greenleaf compiled her very own Agave Bible, the definitive resource on the subject. The compendium includes detailed information on the more than 400 bottles shelved behind the bar. “It was an absolute joy for me to compile the research,” Greenleaf says of the project, which she considers a work in progress. “It took almost four months. I started putting it together in August, and it was a full-time job until we opened in October.” The leather-bound binder breaks down spirits by distillery, delving into the methods of production and regional idiosyncrasies defining each respective operation. “We wanted to provide a book that would be able to represent each distilling family with great accuracy.”
Her carefully curated tasting flights, ranging from $18 to $45, feature three generous pours tied by a singular theme. The Tahona, for example, highlights mescals produced with stone-ground mills, rather than mechanical shredders, effecting a greater degree of earthiness in the glass. Each flight is garnished in traditional Oaxacan fashion, with orange slices rubbed in chile salt.
To become a mescalier, Greenleaf had to pass a rigorous test challenging her mastery of agave subspecies — any of two dozen of which are frequently used to make mescal. She also had to identify terroir and how it interacts with the palate and recall all the denominations of origin. Yet even with this wealth of knowledge, Greenleaf avoids the pretentious trappings of many a schooled expert. In fact, she seems to derive the greatest pleasure in steering newcomers toward their proper point of accessibility; she recommends Fidencio Unico or Bruxo #1 for those looking to go light on smoke, with more of an emphasis on caramelized sugar. Of course, the excitement also percolates when talking shop with self-proclaimed connoisseurs.
On the food side, Masa y Agave reaches for flavors to correspond with the spirits. And Greenleaf has tasted her way around the menu enough to recommend some killer pairings. One of her favorites — “besides chocolate, of course” — is a bold, smoke-heavy mescal served alongside the Tamale de Cochinita, house-ground masa with a gritty texture wrapped around roasted pork in a guajillo sauce, all topped by a tangy queso fresco. Look for a mescal-friendly, house-made chocolate to land at the bar in the next few months, courtesy of the mescalier.
As one of the fastest-growing spirits categories, mescal is undeniably having its moment. As are the destinations developing its lore, and the knowledgeable specialists promoting it. Courtenay Greenleaf is helping drive this movement. “People are catching on. And they love our little nook down here. It’s a very cozy environment, and we’re seeing a tremendous response.”
What a beautiful buzz, indeed.