Before going to Mexico City, a friend reminded me to get a bottle of tequila from its birthland. This friend, like most regular drinkers, regards tequila the national tipple of Mexico. But lesser known to them is the rustic, smokier cousin called the mezcal that has taken Mexican city dwellers by the storm in recent years.
Mezcal traces back to the Hispanic period when native agave plant met Spanish’s age-old distillation know-how. But the drink had been considered a poor man’s quaff produced in backward villages. It was also deemed too potent and unrefined for hotels’ liquor menu. Today, because the Mexican government granted it the appellation of origin in the mid 1990s, and the new appreciation for handcrafted, small-batch products, mezcal can stand on its own merits. Along any hip and trendy boulevards in the capital, one can easily spot a bar that specializes in mezcal.
I found El Palenquito in an Art Nouveau neighborhood called Colonia Roma, the place to live for famous artists and politicians up until the 1940s. The bar wears a rustic tavern look with dangling roof tiles, 100-year-old adobes, and a massive stone wheel used to crash harvested agave. Its owner, Aláu Ibarra Espriu, owns three mezcal bars in the city, but only El Palenquito devotes its entire menu to one producer.
Ibarra met Guillermo Abad Hernández about 10 years ago when he was sourcing for mezcal in Oaxaca, 300 miles south of Mexico City and where most of the spirit are made. He fell in love with Abad’s creations, just in time to convince him not to end the four-generation business. “Because everyone was drinking tequila, his father was tired of making mezcal,” says Ibarra. “So I said to him ‘No, please don’t. Let’s make something out of this. Let me help you. Let’s help each other’.” They did. Aside from the spotlight at El Palenquito, Abad’s mezcals are distributed in London and Los Angeles. From the hyperlocal lucha libre logo to the international expansion, Ibarra saw to them personally.
He even conceptualized El Palenquito’s interior, which was put together by components of Abad’s distillery. “I want to take a piece of Oaxaca to Mexico City so people in Mexico City can have the feeling and the sensation that you get when you go into one of the distilleries,” explains Ibarra, who is also a trained product designer.
It is romantic and naive to put all stakes on one producer who “doesn’t do it fast” and “takes time to preselect the agave,” but the image of a mezcal master painstakingly cultivating a diversity of agave and waiting seven to 10 years to produce a mezcal is a striking juxtaposition to an industrialized tequila. And since Abad uses the same distillation method for most agave species, patrons will have fun picking out the flavors of each agave by comparing the variations.
Newcomers to mezcal should work into the drink starting from the easy ones. Semi reposado is merciful but still interests with a complex aroma of bourbon oak. Then move on to mezca de pechuga, which has a hint of raw turkey that is added during distillation—a technique employed for special occasions. When ready, challenge the feisty maguey arroqueno that flares the nasal and burns the tongue.
El Palenquito serves the drinks like the old-timers did, with orange slices sprinkled with sal de gusano, literally known as the worm salt. These worms are found among the agave plants and are cooked with garlic and chile before they are pounded with sea salt. Definitely order the chapulines, which are toasted, crunchy grasshoppers seasoned with chile, lime, and garlic. Apart from the fact that they come with feelers, legs and eyes, they are salty and addictive like a typical pub grub.
On a Friday night, El Palenquito is packed with young working crowd who just 10 years ago wouldn’t spare a look at mezcals. The new generations are finally beginning to embrace the drink as per the old saying: “Para todol mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también,” which translates, “For all the wrong, there’s mezcal. For all the right, there’s mezcal.”
Álvaro Obregón 39, Roma, México, Federal District 06700
Prices: A glass of mezcal is about 50 MXN
Hours: 6 p.m.-12 a.m. Sun-Thu, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Fri-Sat