Another cocktail? Okay, sure. This one, created by Eryn Reece—the beverage director at Banzarbar in New York City—is a dark, mysterious, Manhattan-esque nightcapper. She sets it down on the table, alongside a pineapple-spiked tropical drink, a cucumber-y highball, and a ruby-hued aperitivo that resembles a Negroni.
It’s a seemingly diverse array of cocktails, but they’re all made with mezcal—and they’re all finalists in the inaugural Mezcal Cocktail Mission, a competition organized by the Mezcal Collective, a group that focuses on promotion of and education about mezcal, and Panorama Mezcal, which organizes events that feature Mexican spirits. (Full disclosure: I was a judge for the East Coast invitational, which took place on April 23.)
The MCM is just one of multiple first-time-ever mezcal cocktail contests taking place this year—a confluence of events that will inevitably lead to more mezcal drinks being showcased on bar menus in the coming months.
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As a spirits category, mezcal is clearly on the ascent: Sales of the agave-based spirit have skyrocketed from less than 50,000 cases in 2009 to more than 350,000 cases in 2017, according to statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council.
But mezcal doesn’t have a well-recognized signature cocktail, a cocktail that would have the potential to push sales further still. Perhaps the best known is the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, created by New York City bartender Phil Ward for Death & Co.—even that drink, though, is made with an ounce and a half of reposado tequila and only a half ounce of mezcal.
“Mezcal, as iconic a spirit as it is, does not have an endemic cocktail,” says Danny Mena, a partner in Mezcales de Leyenda, an advocacy organization for mezcal producers. “Most mezcal cocktails are riffs on classic cocktails that originally called for a different spirit and have been modified for mezcal.”
Meanwhile, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) centered its first-ever Cocktail of the Year contest, which took place April 13–15, on mezcal. The organization says it was “a nod to mezcal’s incredible growth in the market.” Entrants were all asked to use Mezcal Banhez, which won the 2017 SFWSC’s Double Gold and Best in Class medals, as the base.
“The reason we chose mezcal was that it’s exceedingly hot,” says Anthony Dias Blue, the executive director of the SFWSC. “Suddenly the market is being flooded by some really excellent mezcals.” (Next year, another spirit will probably be featured, he says. “I’m going to angle for pisco or cachaça.”)
The winning drinks from the MCM and the SFWSC are polar opposites, as demonstrated by their recipes, below. Reece’s dark, coffee-spiked coupe won her the East Coast title, earning her a trip to Mexico City to compete in the Mezcal Cocktail Mission’s global finals. Her drink is a sharp contrast to the SFWSC winner, created by H. Joseph Ehrmann, the proprietor of Elixir in San Francisco, which was a bright, citrusy sour. Ehrmann’s winning package included $500, a feature in the cocktail subscription service Cocktail Courier, and placement of his cocktail on menus in several bars, including Libertine Social in Las Vegas and Academia in Austin, Texas.
Of course, some have expressed concern that the creation of a popular mezcal cocktail could exacerbate a looming agave shortage. Dias Blue likens the situation to the bourbon boom, which had consumers clamoring for a spirit that required aging time and was in danger of short supply. Producing mezcal also takes years, with the agave needing time to be cultivated and grown. “With vodka or gin, you can make it overnight,” Dias Blue says. “With these spirits that require at least one ingredient that needs nine years of growth, or [that need to] be aged eight years in a barrel, you’ve got to anticipate the demand. There could be a mezcal shortage if demand keeps growing as it has.”
A third mezcal cocktail competition is coming this fall, this one hosted by Sombra Mezcal, and it will focus on sustainability. For example, at least two of the ingredients in each drink must be “demonstrably eco-friendly,” according to competition guidelines. The contest will be judged by the Trash Tiki team, a bartender group that emphasizes “anti-waste drinks.” Sombra founder Richard Betts says he hopes the competition will “open up a wider dialogue about sustainability and empower U.S. bartenders to fully embrace eco-friendly practices at their bars.”
According to a representative for Sombra, entries are being accepted through August 22, and the winner will be announced in October—just in time for Mezcal Month.
Eryn Reece (Banzarbar)
This streamlined Manhattan-style cocktail won the 2018 Mezcal Cocktail Mission competition in New York City; the sponsor was Pelotón de la Muerte. Entrants were permitted a total of four ingredients—including the garnish and the mezcal!
2 ounces Pelotón de la Muerte mezcal
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce coffee liqueur
Orange peel, to garnish
In a mixing glass, stir first three ingredients with ice. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with orange peel.
Pamplemousse au Poivre
H. Joseph Ehrmann (Elixir)
This cocktail took the top title at the first-ever Cocktail of the Year contest, held in April, hosted by the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
2 ounces Mezcal Banhez
1 ounce Giffard Pamplemousse Rose (pink grapefruit) liqueur
1/2 ounce Marie Brizard Poivre de Sichuan (Sichuan pepper) liqueur
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1 dash grapefruit bitters
Grapefruit peel and pink peppercorns, to garnish
In a cocktail shaker, combine first five ingredients with ice. Shake, then strain into a coupe glass. Garnish rim with grapefruit peel cone filled with pink peppercorns.