Dive Deeper Into the World of Mezcal in Austin
It's agave all day at these local bars
Pay a visit to King Bee and you'll find more than blues music and great pizza: The dark and divey Eastside cocktail haunt also happens to have a vast collection of agave spirits.
When Billy Hankey opened his bar in August 2014, he started with just four different types of mezcal, initially stocked for friends and colleagues. After going through five bottles each of Chichicapa and Minero (two different Del Maguey single village mezcals) in one week, he recognized the marked interest and decided to start expanding his collection. Now a majority of his back bar is made up of agave spirits. Beyond mezcal, you'll find bacanora (a Sonoran spirit made from distilling the yaqui agave), raicilla (a spirit made in Jalisco from a variety of different agaves) and sotol (a Northern Mexican distillate made from the desert spoon plant).
"It's a lot of flavors people are experiencing for the first time," says Hankey. "I tend to tell people to think more of memories than actual flavors and I think that lends an easier transition into understanding what they're drinking."
While most mezcal is made in Oaxaca, it can also be produced in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Puebla. And though similar spirits are made all throughout the country, it cannot be labeled as "mezcal" outside of this mezcal denomination of origin (D.O.).
Once mezcal fever hit Austin, the spirit spread like wildfire, showing up on bar lists across the city and inspiring single-spirit concepts like Techo Mezcaleria & Agave Bar, La Holly, and Mezcalería Tobalá (above Whisler's). Now, more and more establishments are beginning to source these "alternative agaves," educating consumers while providing them with more options than ever before.
"People are starting to discover that tasting mezcal is similar to wine, in the sense that the terroir, type of agave, and the hand of the maestro mezcalero all go into creating the flavor in each bottle," says Suerte owner Sam Hellman-Mass. "As guests learn about mezcal, they are getting really curious to taste the nuanced flavors amongst the [other] spirits produced in the different parts of Mexico and Texas."
In addition to a wide variety of mezcals and tequilas, Suerte offers options like Flor de Desierto, a wild-harvested sotol roasted in earthen pits, then smashed with axes and stomped by the hooves of cattle before undergoing open-air fermentation and clay pot distillation. They also offer several labels of La Venenosa raicilla made from agaves that have been roasted and distilled in the same process as mezcal, then roasted underground (or above ground, for a less smoky flavor).
"When one of the things we love most about mezcal is how incredibly well the terroir of the plant is represented, why would we limit ourselves to D.O.?" adds Suerte head bartender Blake Gardner. "Agaves from the arid mountains of Sonora have unique expressions. Agaves from Jalisco have their own thing going on, too."
La Condesa has started hosting a series of "Know Your Agave" classes to educate the public on mezcal and its lesser-known compadres. General Manager Josh Prewitt is a major player in building out the restaurant's bar and developing this educational program. Prewitt, who has a WSET-3 (Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 3) certification, came to La Condesa with a background in wine and was immediately drawn into the world of agave.
"Mezcal is indeed the wine of the spirit world," says Prewitt, pouring a copita of Clande Lechuguilla, an herbaceous Chihuahuan mezcal blended with sotol. "If you want something really fine and delicious, more fruit-forward and less smoky, we've got that. If you want something more ethereal or something kind of weird, we've got that, too. It's such a diverse category that there's something for everybody. Now there's hundreds of different producers and varieties and even more brands coming to market."
Prewitt's passion for mezcal was solidified the first time he visited producers in Oaxaca. He now visits Mexico at least once a year and hopes La Condesa's diverse collection of spirits will inspire others to do the same.
"Once you're there and you see the really intense amount of work that these people do – starting at 4 or 5 in the morning every day, and all very labor-intensive and hands-on and non-mechanized – it really makes you appreciate it even more," he says. "It's a really very special process and I want to share my love and excitement for these places and people."
The Los Angeles-based Las Perlas, the nation's first mezcal bar, opened its second location in Downtown Austin over a year ago with 250 different bottles. It now boasts a staggering 383 different labels and counting. They are also helping to spread the good word of agave with their "Mezcal Collective" classes. In the 17 months they have been open, they've conducted over 50 collectives led by master distillers and agave experts.
"We have a lot of young people in the tech and hospitality industries here, and those people tend to have disposable income and pretty adventurous palates," says Drew Jerdan, Las Perlas' assistant general manager. "They also tend to take an interest in what I'll call authenticity, for lack of a better word, in what they consume. Handmade ancestral spirits definitely fit that category and give people the opportunity to make a connection with the cultures that produce them."
He's also met a number of Austinites originally from Chihuahua or Sonora, who remember their uncles or grandfathers home-distilling when they were growing up. "More than a few Sonorans have come in and been overjoyed to meet an American bartender who knows what bacanora is," says Jerdan.
General Manager Steve White says that sotol is by and large the quickest-growing "alternative agave" category (even though the dasylirion wheeleri, or desert spoon plant, isn't even technically an agave, but more like a close relative). "I believe the growth in this category is due simply to the wide availability of the plant as a source of material for distillate and a viable real alternative to the dwindling levels of agave plants available for use in distilling," says White.
Just over a year ago, Desert Door Sotol launched, becoming the first distillery to craft the spirit using Texas-grown, invasive desert spoon plants, and this April, Terlingua will host the world's first sotol festival. Considering the rising popularity of mezcal and the increasing sustainability challenges faced by its producers, the rise of a delicious alternative couldn't be better timed.