Mezcal and tequila are having their moment, and those spirits are not just limited to Mexico City or Oaxaca mezcalerias anymore. Bartenders have expanded their focus beyond vodka, gin and whiskey to showcase the distilled heart of Mexico at bars like Las Perlas in Los Angeles and Mayahuel in New York, where former Death & Co. bartender Phil Ward nobly honors Mayahuel, the goddess who protected agave plants in pre-Columbian Mexico.
The bottom level of a double deck space features exposed wood beams, colorful tiles, booths, beaded chandeliers and a screened window that looks upstairs. The second story hosts more seating and a system of red stained glass chandeliers that initially looked like a spider, until it clicked in my head that we were staring at “agave fronds.” Throughout Mayahuel, they feature Day of the Dead figurines, including a skeletal trumpeter, who serenaded our table.
There are some basic ways to differentiate mezcal from its agave cousin, tequila. Mezcal’s signature smoky flavor comes from pit-roasting the piñas prior to distillation. Tequila is made from a single variety of agave (blue Weber) and comes from particular states of Mexico – Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas – whereas Mezcal is multi-regional and comes from 28 different possible agave plants.
The massive menu featured more than 20 different Blancos, Reposados and Anejos each, plus more than a dozen mezcals, primarily Del Maguey, Los Danzantes and Los Amantes. They did have one Mayahuel exclusive: pineapple-infused San Luis Del Rio. They sold three sotols from the state of Chihuahua, produced using a variety of agave called daslirion, which requires 15 years of growing before it can be harvested, unlike blue Weber agave, which takes 8 to 12 years. They even offered tequila flights by age and experience, including Tres Agaves, Tres Mas Agaves and The Aficionado, for more experienced agave fans.
They also offered more than 50 cocktails, falling into key categories like Agave Fresco, Strange Stirrings, Swizzle It Just A Little Bit, Sherry Nice Cocktails, Punches & Sangrias. They even had eight different Cerveza Cocktails including a classic Michelada, but the range went much wider.
Boca de Vaquero Cocktail ($13) may have been my favorite beer cocktail to date, with spicy jalapeno-infused tequila, smoky crema de mezcal (mezcal sweetened with agave), lime, sugar cane and Modelo Especial beer served on the rocks in a pint glass with a smoked salt rim.
FB Cup ($13) came from the “agave fresco” category and involved reposado tequila, lime, ginger and amaro zucca, a somewhat bitter rhubarb liqueur. The garnishes consisted of mint and cucumber, literally capping an aromatic, refreshing cocktail.
Spicy Paloma ($13) was another refreshing drink, a fun play on a Mexican classic and as close as we came to a margarita. The drink involved jalapeno tequila, two types of citrus – grapefruit and lime – soda and a salted rim.
Hacienda de Chihuahua ($8) sotol was my last order, and it had to be blanco, to get the clearest expression of the subtly sweet, highly sip-able spirit. Of course it made sense to add the housemade sangrita ($3), which was an excellent, spicy blend of tomato juice, celery juice, lime juice, black pepper and cayenne.
We returned to the cerveza cocktail well one last time for the Jardin Fresca ($13), the only drink that was overly complex and confusing. Jalapeno tequila once again came into play, along with cynar, St. Germain, celery bitters, lime, cucumber, Pacifico and a salted rim.
Really though, food wasn’t the focus, and it didn’t matter. We were happy to be in a fun setting and explore the creative, especially ambitious cocktail menu.