A growing number of bars are serving mezcal, the obscure Mexican distilled liquor.
A few years after World War II, a Los Angeles liquor distributor created a marketing campaign for the margarita cocktail. It helped make tequila an ubiquitous item in U.S. bars and restaurants. Now, another obscure Mexican hard liquor is gaining popularity. People in the know predict it could win a lot of fans in these parts.
A neon sign atop a building at the corner of Pico and Normandie marks the entrance to L.A.'s Byzantine-Latino Quarter. "Historically this used to be Koreatown," says Gabriel Martinez, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Oaxaca, Mexico as a teenager, "but then lately people have been describing it as Oaxacatown."
Oaxacan culture reaches into many parts of the country now, he says – and that’s created a demand for Oaxacan food and drink. "Cheese, the Oaxaqueño cheese, quesillo. Oh my God, it’s in demand everywhere. Mole, you will go everywhere and people will ask for mole," he said, and for mezcal. That’s the strong distilled liquor from Oaxaca.
Later, at a restaurant, Martinez takes out a mezcal bottle in a woven palm leaf sleeve with no label. He’s just brought it back from Oaxaca. He offers me a taste. It’s smooth as it blankets my tongue and potent as it tingles my scalp. This mezcal's smoky nuances are nothing like the gasoline-harsh touristy bottles with the dormant worm that I swore off years ago.
Todd Richman of Frederick Wildman and Sons is helping lots of other people get acquainted or re-acquainted with tequila’s southern cousin – also born of the agave plant. He markets a new brand of handcrafted mezcal from small producers in Oaxaca. He’s hosting a mezcal tasting event at Association near the corner of 6th and Main Street in downtown L.A. It's a bar so tony and exclusive, you won’t find the name near its creaking black door with the brass lion knocker.
Richman says mezcal appeals to people in search of an artisan-distilled spirit that’s not mass produced. "It’s very different from tequila in that the agave is cut up after it's harvested and roasted underground and smoked, and some are smoked heavier than others, and they’re all very different styles it’s from village to village. It’s closer to wine," Richman says.
One of the showcase mezcals on this night is called Ilegal Mezcal. Its distiller, 32-year-old Australian Steven Meyers, says the small-batch quality of his and other new mezcals on the market will help change popular perception of the hard liquor. "Quite often the only experience people have had has been with the worm in the bottom as a teenager and waking up with the mother of all hangovers," he says.
A bottle of high-end mezcal can cost up to $200 in the United States. Meyers says his brand’s name refers to his bootlegging the liquor in Coke bottles and cans between Oaxaca and the bar he ran in Guatemala about a decade ago. "We brought back more and more, sometimes through unofficial channels, as it were, running across rafts over the river, dressing up as priests from time to time, and created this brand," Meyers says.
If mezcal can make it big in L.A.'s burgeoning bar scene, Meyers says, it can make it anywhere. To that end, Meyer and his distributor have enlisted the help of Bricia Lopez, a 25-year-old Oaxacan-American. "I am a restauranteur in Los Angeles. I have Oaxacan restaurants in Koreatown, Lynwood and Huntington Park and tonight we’re doing a Bricia cocktail crawl," she says.
This college-educated woman has inspired cocktail names at four different bars: The Bricia Blanco at Association, the Bricia, across the street at the mezcal bar Las Perlas, Brisa de Oaxaca at Descarga, and the Sweet Bricia at 320 Main in Seal Beach.
Lopez’s father immigrated to L.A. and found himself selling Oaxacan food door to door. He saved enough money to bring his wife and kids to the U.S. Her father’s restaurant, named Guelaguetza after the Oaxacan cultural festival, has given her the visibility to start her own eatery. She says she’s proud to see her home state’s liquor featured in high-end establishments. "It puts Oaxaca in such a high level. It’s worth having a place just for mezcal, it’s not like a cheap place," she says.
Many people drink mezcal for the buzz and to get drunk, Bricia Lopez says. But if even a small portion of people who drink it think about the liquor’s humble origins, she says, her family’s success in this country will be all the sweeter.