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    The Weekly Mix: Smoke in the Water

    by Emily Bell
    Shannon Sturgis
    July 2013

    Biography

    Restaurant

    It’s summertime, when grills run hot and proteins take on that sexy, ever-so-slightly carcinogenic char. For bartenders, it’s as good a time as any to take another look at cocktails and smoke: ethereal, brooding, delicately permeating smoke. Who couldn’t love it?

    “Not everyone likes smoke in cocktails,” says Mixologist Jeremy Oertel from behind the bar at Donna in East Williamsburg. “Or really, they don’t know that they like smoke in cocktails.” Part of the problem is perception; drinkers hear “smoke” and quiver at the thought of some kind of phenol-driven, Islay peat-fest. Oertel realizes he probably won’t convert the Scotch-resistant. “But they’re often willing to try mezcal.”

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's Rosa Amargo

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's Rosa Amargo

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's Rosa Amargo

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's Rosa Amargo

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's Smoky Peach

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's

    Mixologist Jeremy Oertel's Smoky Peach

    And there’s plenty of mezcal to try. Thanks in large part to mezcal proselytizer Ron Cooper—not to mention lots of bartender love—tequila’s wilder cousin has officially asserted its rightful place in the drinks world, with dedicated bars and a notable presence even in many a standard back bar (Oertel also works at agave-temple Mayahuel, and keeps about 20 bottles of mezcal behind the bar at Donna—“it’s rising in popularity as we speak.”) It’s wise to stock up if you’re looking to smoke up, so to speak. Not only does mezcal enhance the lighter, brighter flavor profiles of summer, but unlike Scotch’s fiery presence, mezcal offers a subtle aromatic smokiness floating just above green notes, like the smoking remnants of a summer bonfire. Mezcals tend to pair complexity with a bit more approachability than peated whisky.

    Not that mezcal and Scotch are the sine qua nons of the smoke game. There are plenty of other ways to introduce the flavor into cocktails. Oertel recently bore witness to some smoky mixo theater inSeattle: “They put a cocktail glass on a plate along with cinnamon and French oak, lit that on fire with a torch, put the fire out, and covered it with a bell jar, smoking up the whole interior.” Then there are smoking guns, smoked syrups, Balcone’s Texas Scrub Oak-smoked BBQ-redolent Brimstone, etc. But while bell jar methods have visual appeal and a comprehensive coating effect, they’re not at all practical for a busy service. Mezcal, on the other hand, is a user-friendly medium, offering lots to play with in the glass.

    Despite temptation, Oertel doesn’t mix with all of his mezcals. “Mezcal is so artisanal, and expensive, you can’t afford to put it in a $10 or $11 cocktail.” And it’s not just a matter of cost. Like Scotch, some mezcals demand singular presence in the glass. But bottles like Cooper’s single village Del Maguey Mezcal Vida are ideal for mixing, “cheap enough to use in cocktails,” Oertel notes, while still delivering that primal, permeating, charred agave character.

    It should be noted, Oertel isn’t hating on tequila, he just prefers the variety and small-batch integrity of mezcal. He splits the difference in The Smoky Peach with one 1 each Pueblo Viejo tequila blanco and Vida Del Maguey. The smoke in the mezcal lands softly on a quarter-ounce dose of Rothman & Winter Orchard Peach Liqueur, giving just a hint of juicy charred peach with enough verdant pepperiness and citrus in the glass to dry it out. The Rosa Amargo[link to recipe] from Mayahuel plays on the other end of the spectrum, a silkier, stirred electric orange drink built on a Vida mezcal backbone. With a half-ounce of Campari, it’s almost like a Mezcal Negroni, minus sweet vermouth, plus a grapefruit boost from the half ounce of Combier Pamplemoussse Rose liqueur, for a slightly sweeter profile edged with light bitterness and anchored with, you guessed it, subtle smoke.

    And that’s the magic of mezcal’s smoke. Especially in the midst of the spirit’s other verdant, floral, peppery notes, the smoke is never acrid or narrow. And it works the same way in a cocktail, like a mist that other flavors poke mysteriously through, not obscuring but enrobing. “It adds depth to a drink,” says Oertel. In the great game of well-rounded mixing, “you want to hit the front, middle, back, and sides of your tongue. Mezcal adds smoke, [introducing] a way to spread that out further.” That’s the surprise here—the behavior of smoke in the glass. At least from a mezcal source, it doesn’t oppress, as you might imagine; in fact it can soften, deepen, and even lift other flavors. “It [adds] a whole other dimension,” says Oertel.

    And then there are the intangible benefits of using mezcal as your smoke factor. “It’s such a home grown, artisanal product,” Oertel says of the Del Maguey, a standard-setter in the way mezcal business is done. “You feel like you’re supporting something valuable, taking care of land and tradition. You can feel really proud to serve it.” And drink it. “I drank a whole bottle of mezcal with Ron Cooper,” says Oertel. Seems like a good way to toast summer. So to speak.

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