Devon Espinosa (finally) loves mezcal. So it would seem lucky—fantastic, even—that he bartends in and around Los Angeles, a Mexican hub where the charred-agave spirit could, theoretically, flow like so much tequila. Except it doesn’t. In LA, at least, mezcal suffers a kind of there-but-not-there limbo (tequila, on the other hand, is prevalent, but suffers regular misapplication both within and beyond frat house walls). “When mezcal first came out, it was kind of crazy,” says the former Ink bartender of the city’s initial, and fleeting, mezcal craze. “But I haven’t seen much of it since. I feel like every place has one mezcal cocktail. That’s not enough.”
Espinosa’s not alone. We’ve met our fair share of mezcal-philes. (Steve Olson made an almost religious case for the smoky “spirit of the gods” at the 2011 Manhattan Cocktail Classic—amen—and 2011 Houston Rising Star Mixologist Bobby Heugel is the closest thing to an agave apostle we’ve seen.) And their passion isn’t really surprising when you consider what mezcal has to offer. “Mezcal can be anything, from fruity to spicy to smoky to herbaceous,” says Espinosa, who originally studied culinary arts. “Depending on the mezcal, it could be all of that.”
So what’s the problem? Part of it is the LA scene itself, which has morphed into a kind of archipelago of cocktail trends. “A lot of bars here specialize in something,” says Espinosa (who is himself moving on to a French-themed cocktail bar Pour Vous in a matter of days). Fortunately, at least one or two of LA’s cocktail islands are mezcal-centric (Las Perlas is probably the most well known). “A friend took me to a hole in the wall type of Mexican restaurant called The Mezcaleria,” Espinosa recalls. “There was a band and Mexican families dancing and shit. I had no idea what I was getting into.
And so The Mezcal Cocktail was born. A mixture of Del Maguey Vida (a warm, earthy, unblended mezcal made from 100% espadin agave), fresh lemon juice, ginger syrup, clover honey, and Angostura bitters, the cocktail is two or three recipe-degrees of away from Espinosa’s riff on the Penicillin (peated Scotch is a surprisingly useful mezcal gateway drug). “I was doing a cocktail with a similar flavor profile using Scotch and I thought, ‘this cocktail would be amazing with [mezcal] because of that smoke factor,’” says Espinosa. But unlike Scotch, and the myriad aromatic mysteries of peat, mezcal's smoke glows with an ethereal green factor, “that freshness of agave,” which Espinosa lifts up with an ounce of fresh lemon and some unapologetically spicy house-made ginger syrup. “What I love about the cocktail is the ginger,” says Espinosa, who blends the rhizome raw before infusing it into the simple syrup. A couple dashes of Angostura dig a little deeper into the mezcal’s smoke, and clover honey “rounds out the whole cocktail” with floral sweetness.
Admittedly, it might be Espinosa’s “one mezcal cocktail” offering in a city with too many mezcal cameos and too few mezcal stars. But The Mezcal Cocktail does what the best of its kind do: it worships the spirit, contouring its flavor profile around the brawny, smoky magic that happens when pit-charred agave hearts are distilled according to centuries' old traditions. But maybe that's the way this spirit works—baptism by mezcal: one cocktail, and one convert, at a time.