Mezcal and Tequila Tips for Bars and Restaurants

To a tequila novice, the strong, agave-derived liquor (sometimes maligned by the nickname “to kill ya”) may stir up connotations of summer evenings made cooler by salt-rimmed margaritas served on ice (or even images of their frozen, slushy counterpart, churned into a glass with a slice of lime). Certainly, yes, this is one good use for the distinct, flavorful liquor – at least for the less aged variety that carries a sting of flavor many can only tolerate with salt and lime. For that matter, tequila’s smokey relative, mezcal, is starting to make the rounds in cocktails these days, too, with varying degrees of success. However, the truth is that a truly good tequila or mezcal is a soothing liquor that warms the body and is perfect – when unadorned by mixers or garnishes – for sipping slowly on a cold winter’s night, in much the same way one might nurse a fine Scotch.

Is all tequila meant to be sipped, though? And is mezcal a kind of tequila or isn’t it?

Mezcal: a Primer

Let’s start with the mezcal. What does one do with mezcal, you ask? Well, if you’re the owner of the new San Francisco restaurant called La Urbana, you feature 46 mezcals on your bar menu, you plan tasting classes centered around the exotic liquor, and you have a menu of well-crafted cocktails carefully designed to incorporate this tasty product. Apparently, there’s plenty that can be done with mezcal!

And what is the product, exactly? Like tequila, mezcal is made from agave, but unlike tequila, it can be made from almost 30 different types of the plant – instead of the best mezcal only being made from 100 percent blue agave (which is what the best tequila requires). To count as mezcal, the product must be bottled in Mexico, where it is legal to produce in 7 Southern states, most notably Oaxaca. Also, mezcal gets its smokey flavor from the fact that the agave, instead of being steamed (as it is for tequila) is instead smoked. Mezcal is also considered more terroir-driven than tequila. Mezcal, like tequila, goes well with fruits like pineapple and orange – but the smokiness of mezcal also makes it compatible with hot flavors like peppers – especially chili peppers – and whiskey (Scotch in particular); in short, nothing turns up the heat quite like mezcal.


This is not to say that tequila – legally produced in 7 states of Northern Mexico, mainly Jalisco – doesn’t hold its own in that department, however. While it is true that silver (“blanco”) tequilas, as well as inexpensive tequilas like Cuervo Gold, only have to be 51 percent agave (the balance often being made from sugar cane liquor) – and that they carry precisely the kind of bite that inspired the method of downing tequila as a “shot” and/or by hiding it in a margarita – reposados, on the other hand, are smoother, having been aged between two months and a year. And añejo tequila (aged between one and three years in small whiskey, cognac, or bourbon barrels) bears the delicious essence of wood. (As with mezcal, think of a roaring fire on a cold night). Añejos, then, should thus be sipped and appreciated, not just tolerated.

The Finest of the Fine

To take it one step farther, since 2006, rare tequilas (ones that have been aged for longer than three years) are now being called “extra añejos,” and these are by far the smoothest and most intense – a warm, pleasurable, slow experience that should never be relegated to the realm of even the best margarita, or, God forbid, to the realm of “shots,” leaving everyone standing around and wincing with lime slices in their mouths. (Rather, the only shuddering that should happen around an extra añejo is whatever state of shivering your patrons reach during their last few steps through the Polar Vortex before entering the haven of your establishment – where their warm reward awaits them).

There may be a time and place for lesser tequilas (and that time might be summer – and that place might be in a margarita) – but while winter is here, you can guide your patrons to make the most of the weather with something smooth, warm, and completely packed with the kind of pleasure that’s best left unadorned and never rushed.

Josh Saunders