Not long ago, mezcal was a rather exotic and rarely seen booze this far north. Now distilled agave juice is hot at restaurant/bars including Masa Azul and two new establishments that opened in the past few months: Mezcaleria las Flores in Logan Square and La Mez Agave Lounge, downstairs at Mercadito (108 West Kinzie).
I am sitting at La Mez enjoying some of Dylan Stewart’s mezcal cocktails with Lou Bank, self-professed evangelist of agave. As Stewart makes us drinks, I ask him how he goes about educating people in the mysteries of mezcal.
“Sometimes,” says Stewart, “people have already read books and been on trips to Oaxaca and other times you have people coming in for happy hour that are pleasantly surprised by the earthy, smoky flavor and want to know more. I try not to be too professorial; rather I present it like something I’m really excited about that I brought to show-and-tell. My own enthusiasm is one of the best ways to generate interest.”
To get another perspective, I ask Bank how he’d educate customers, if he were a bartender. “The bottles behind the bar would be organized by type of agave,” says Bank, who has clearly thought about this before, “with signage indicating the age at which the plant is harvested. In front of the bottles would be copitas [little cups] or some other drinking vessel that would clearly indicate that these spirits are meant to be sipped and savored. My menu would lead with the spirits, with tasting notes. And I’d offer flights, like an opportunity to taste three different Esapdins [types of agave], each from a different region, or three different clay-distilled expressions. Then the customers who were interested would ask the question, and I’d start my sermon.”
What if the customer has never had a mezcal before? How do you introduce them to the spirit?
“I ask people what they normally drink,” says Stewart. “Then I try to identify what about that drink they enjoy. From there I like to find a mezcal that presents characteristics that are familiar to their palate but unique to mezcal, so I can show them a little of what they know and a little of something new. Pretty much any mezcal is a good entry-level mezcal if you know what you’re looking for. That said, Fidencio Unico and Pierde Almas Tequilana Weber are both great starting points because they share similarities with tequila.”
Bank believes “the best ‘starter’ mezcals available in Chicago are Fidencio Clásico, Sombra and Marca Negra Espadin. Real Minero should be in the market shortly, and when it arrives, I’d add their Espadin to that list. And anyone interested after tasting those should be moved to the Mezcalero line in short order and La Venenosa Raicilla thereafter.”
Bank, as is probably obvious, takes his mezcal very seriously—and straight-up—adding “I’d never advocate any cocktail that includes mezcal.”
Nonetheless, I found myself appreciating how the citrus in Stewart’s drinks—like “I’ll Show You Mine, If… ”—balance off the smoky flavors of the agave. Of course, anyone who pounded back tequila in college knows that lime and agave spirits get along just fine. (David Hammond)