Tequila isn’t leaving San Diego any time soon. The foundation of the ubiquitous margarita, tequila has long been a favorite of SoCal drinkers. Recently, however, its hallowed ground has been encroached upon by mezcal, a distinctly smoky Mexican liquor made from the fermented juice of maguey (agave) plants. Now, other sophisticated agave-based spirits such as sotol and bacanora are gaining ground. And craft bartenders couldn’t be more pleased.
Award-winning bartender Christian Siglin, bar manager of the lauded Bracero Cocina in Little Italy (a recent semi-finalist for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant), has a nearly scholarly understanding of agave spirits.
Influenced by Bracero’s “Mexiterranean-inspired food” (a mixing of Mexican and Mediterranean flavors), Siglin has created a bar where classic Mexican spirits such as sotol and raicilla mingle happily with Mediterranean fortified wines and aperitifs.
Mezcal is made from cooking the hearts of the agave plants, called “pinas,” in underground pits; the cooked agave is mashed, combined with water and left to ferment, hence its characteristic smoke flavor. The word “mezcal” is also generally used to describe agave spirits made in Mexico.
Siglin appreciates mezcal because “it’s less homogenized than tequila so there is much more nuance with mezcal varieties. And that smoke flavor lends another layer into a cocktail you might not expect.”
For mezcal novices, Siglin recommends Czech Yourself, a “tiki-style” cocktail composed of mezcal, becherovka, falernum, lime, pineapple juice, orgeat, cinnamon syrup and absinthe. “It’s got a lot of layers,” says Siglin. “It’s refreshing at first but then you get the smoky roasted pineapple flavor and the different spice layers that come with it.”
He explains that sotol, a distinctively grassy-flavored agave spirit, is not well known in the States yet but is available in his stirred cocktail, Chupacabra Tears, made with aged rum, sotol, cardarmaro, benedictine, orange bitters and xocalatl. It’s a decidedly dark and mysterious concoction of bitter, smoke and citrus flavors.
Bacanora, made from the fermented juice of agave plants, shares mezcal’s smokiness but also offers a teasing sweetness which Siglin says “makes it a little more approachable than some other mezcals.” He explains that bacanora distribution in the United States is very limited, making it expensive; therefore, he recommends drinking it the way it is traditionally enjoyed in Mexico: neat.
All the worse for the margarita and better for us.