As the saying goes, a stiff cocktail will, “put hair on your chest,” but not every occasion calls for a drink that strong. Sometimes it calls for a drink with depth and a unique flavor profile that makes you feel warm and fuzzy — and for that, there’s nothing better than mezcal. The distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave is having a moment and making its way into mainstream cocktail culture in the US. According to Food Fanatics Magazine, sales of the spirit are projected to increase approximately 18% by the end of 2022.
Since mezcal is the current big thing in booze, and it makes the perfect comforting, cozy cocktail, the change of seasons is a perfect time to learn more about this liquor and how to incorporate it into craft cocktails. Master mixologist and, “huge agave fan in general,” Elayne Duff is the perfect mezcal mentor to guide anyone on their journey with the smoky spirit. Duff was the head mixologist for multinational alcoholic beverage company Diageo for 10 years, working on its luxury portfolio. She did distributor training and created drinks and cocktail menus with high-end brands like Bulleit, Don Julio, Tanqueray, and more. She’s also the founder of the Beverage Brand Ambassador Academy and hosts a cocktail-related podcast, Celebrating the Brand Ambassador.
Duff explains that to understand what mezcal is, it’s important to first distinguish the differences from tequila since they’re both made from the agave plant. In fact, mezcal and tequila vary in every other way, besides their origins, the mixologist says. The distilled liquors are produced in different regions, by different methods (mezcal is all made by hand), and they’re on opposite sides of the flavor spectrum. Tequila has a smooth, almost sweet flavor, while mezcal veers to the smoky, savory side. “To be tequila, you have to be made from a blue agave,” Duff says. “So, it's one plant. One agave plant. Where mezcal can be made from up to 30 different agave plants.” The second big difference is location, location, location. “Mezcal is made in Oaxaca in Mexico, where tequila can be made in five different regions [in Mexico].”
The way in which the alcohol is produced is vastly different as well. “When it comes to taste profile any industrial or artesian mezcal… they are smoked in a pit underground, so that will add some smokey nuances where tequila is made from blue agave that is steamed in an oven,” she explains.
Duff’s biggest rule when it comes to purchasing a bottle of mezcal is to carefully look at the label. “Make sure you're using a mezcal that’s an artisanal or ancestral. That's number one. So, on the label it should say ‘artisanal’ or ‘ancestral.’ That's when you know they're made in the authentic manner.” She explains, that if the label indicates one of those two things, “You know they're doing the right thing by the people that they're working with.” Not to mention it’s probably a higher quality product. “It's made the old-fashion way and it's going be a good mezcal. It doesn't guarantee it, but it guarantees it much more than anything else,” she adds.
Mezcal Cocktails For Fall: Rules Of Thumb
Duff acknowledges mezcal has become trendy in recent years. “People are hearing about it, and they know they're supposed to drink it [because it’s cool].” For those who are newer to the spirit, instead of going zero to 60 and sipping it neat, she recommends trying it in a cocktail. Her number one rule for creating sippable mezcal fall cocktail? “Always use fresh ingredients or as close as you can get to it,” she emphasizes. “If you're going to work with blood oranges, buy blood oranges and squeeze some blood oranges. If you're going to work with pear, [use] a pear puree or something like that, because it's very hard to juice a pear.” She continues, “Seasonal is always best. your drink is only as good as the quality of the ingredients you put into it. So, you want to spend a little money.”
As mentioned before, Duff is particularly fond of pairing mezcal with fresh blood oranges, especially during the fall months. “Because it's seasonal and it does go really well with a fall cocktail. It looks beautiful. It's got sweetness, it's a little bitter, and it works [with the flavor of mezcal] really well.”
Another one of Duff’s favorite fall mezcal cocktail ingredients is apple cider: “You can make a great apple cider cocktail with mezcal, cinnamon, and honey.” The mixologist reiterates that she enjoys pairing mezcal with “traditional” fall ingredients. “[They] work with mezcal because [the mezcal] has so much application because it's smokey. It is sweet. It does have tropical notes. It really can work with a lot of those flavors as a great base.”
She also offers the idea for a mezcal spin on a traditional colder-weather drink, the Hot Toddy. “I love like a black tea with whiskey, but mezcal brings that smoke to it,” she says. “So, it's just your favorite tea with your smoky mezcal, little bit of honey syrup, a little bit of clove and a lemon.”
Speaking of toddies, Duff explains that an easy entry into mezcal cocktails is to simply work into a classic favorite of yours … and go from there. “When I'm looking to make a cocktail, I will start off with some classics and generally make a twist [on it]. I keep it simple. I keep it yummy and delicious.”
Regardless of the weather, whichever mezcal cocktail you decide to whip up, Duff is sure of one thing. “[It]is just gonna warm the soul.”
Ahead, the mixologist offers three flavorful fall mezcal cocktail recipes for the at-home drinker to shake (or stir!) up at home.
Duff loves this drink because, “It screams fall. The spiced pear, combined with the sweet smoke of the mezcal, with a refreshing note of lemon make this drink equally warm and refreshing.”
2 oz Oje De Tigre Artesanal Mezcal
1 oz Goya Pear Juice
1/2 oz St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur
1/2 oz Organic Agave nectar
1 oz fresh lemon Juice
Garnish: lemon wheel
Prep: Pour all the ingredients into a shaker, add ice, shake, and strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube; garnish with a lemon wheel.
Oaxaca Chocolate Old Fashioned
“The Old Fashioned is an incredible cocktail that is simple, and delicious,” Duff says. ”This combination of mezcal and Copalli Cacao Rum combines smoke, tropical fruit, Cacao, and spice together for a delicious and warm combination.”
2 oz. Siete Misterios Doba-Yej
1/2 oz. Copalli Cacao Rum
1/4 oz. organic agave nectar
3 dashes angostura cacao bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Garnish: orange zest
Prep: Stir all the ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled, and then strain into a rocks glass, with one large cube. Zest with orange peel.
Cherry & Smoke Martinez
“This delicious classic cocktail, when stirred with ice, the cocktail’s ingredients blend into a rich combination with soft smoke, vanilla, and dry cherry with a hint of absinthes to add some brightness,” Duff shares.
1.5 oz. Oje De Tigre Artesanal Mezcal
1 oz. Method Sweet Vermouth
1⁄2 oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
3 dashes of Angostura bitters
Spritz of Kubler Absinthe
Garnish: Zest of an orange peel
Prep: Pour all the ingredients into a mixing glass filled with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass, and zest with an orange.