Where There’s Smoke


My Rouses Everyday, March/April 2017

The smell of ribs on a grill or pulled pork coming off a smoker seems to trigger an innate thirst for a cold beer. It’s quite possible we were born with the genes for this predisposition.

But sometimes instinct is overruled by another thought: I’d like something with a bit more behind it to stand up to the smokiness from the fire. Bourbon drinks are a popular option. But the pro move? Match smoke with smoke: try a mezcal or mezcal-based cocktail.

Granted, searching for mezcal in South Louisiana can be like searching for a dark brown gumbo in Guadalajara — you get the feeling it’s just not the right place. That’s not much of a surprise, as Mexican influence hasn’t been as pervasive here as in, say, neighboring Texas. (Austin has four mezcalerias, small, traditional bars where you can sample artisanal mezcals.)

But in other ways, the absence of mezcal is inexplicable, since Southern Louisiana loves big, bold flavors, and that’s what mezcal delivers. After all, mezcal evolved south of the border as an accompaniment to foods that also draw on layered, complex tastes with a fondness for spicy smoke, including dishes with chipotle peppers.

Mezcal is made from the agave plant, which grows in abundance throughout much of Mexico. You’re probably already familiar with one popular type of mezcal. It’s called tequila. This a more highly regulated subset of mezcal — to be called tequila, it must be made with blue agave, adhere to certain labeling and production requirements, and be made only in specified regions of the country, which naturally includes the village of Tequila, home to several major producers. (By international trade agreement, tequila and mezcal may only be made and bottled in Mexico; similar products made in the United States are labeled “agave spirits.”)

Mezcal isn’t required to color inside the lines like tequila, although traditions do guide the flavor profile. It typically has a distinctive smoky streak — making it a sort of Mexican cousin to Scotch — which stems from cooking the agave heart in a stone pit over oak or mesquite, a technique that has persisted for generations. It’s more often than not made by small-scale producers in what amount to glorified backyards — sometimes just one- or two-person operations, with the bulk of production in the hills around Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

Among the first Americans to promote mezcal north of the border was an artist named Ron Cooper, who started importing under the Del Maguey label in 1995. He tracked down “single village” mezcals, allowing consumers to sample different tastes from different towns, the result of varied traditions. Today, Del Maguey has made some fairly broad inroads on backbars and liquor store shelves — look for the dark green bottles and colorful, bold labels.

Other mezcals are starting to crop up at bars across the region — although you may have to dig a bit deeper to find them. Casa Borrega in New Orleans is a good first stop — it features about a dozen mezcals that complement its long list of tequilas, all served in a sort of Oaxacan roadhouse eatery created by artist and founder Hugo Montero, a Mexico native who’s been in New Orleans for three decades. Not all mezcals in stock appear on their printed list; ask the bartender if they’ve got anything new on the shelf.

The bar also serves up some outstanding mezcal cocktails, including a mezcal-meets-beer hybrid called Condessa, named after a popular neighborhood. (“It’s basically the Bywater of Mexico City,” said Orestes Montero, one of two of Hugo’s grown sons who work at Casa Borrega.) It’s refreshing without being timid, and pairs remarkably well with all variants of barbecue.

Mezcal is also emerging as a favorite among craft bartenders, who find the smokiness can add a nice complexity to a cocktail. Alexandra Anderson of Cane & Table in the French Quarter came up with “The Luck I’ve Had,” a bright, tasty drink that tames the mezcal with dry vermouth, creme de cacao and armagnac. And at Cure on Freret Street in New Orleans, bartenders are also finding ways to showcase mezcal, including in a riff on the old-fashioned, and a wonderful Manhattan variation (no name as yet) from bartender Matt Lofink.

Mezcal sometimes gets tarred as being the country cousin to tequila, more raffish and unrefined. As if that’s a bad thing. But where do you have better adventures? On a no-exit highway, or on an unpaved track that heads toward smokers cooking up ribs?