“Can you make me a spicy martini with mezcal?”
Working behind a cocktail bar, I’ll get “bartenders’ choice” requested a few dozen times a night—the guest requests a preferred spirit and style, and I scan my mental drink rolodex to determine what to make them. While usually fairly straightforward, this can sometimes lead to interesting places, especially with the kind of regulars I have, who like to take advantage of the slow moments by asking for riddles, like the one above.
To explain: Most spirits have a pretty deep bench, mixologically speaking. Talented bartenders have been tinkering with gin, rum, whiskey and brandy for like 200 years, and in doing so created the classic cocktails that are the foundation of the industry. Notably and entirely absent from these classics are tequila and mezcal, which weren’t excluded for any special reason aside from that they didn’t yet have a passport—agave spirits don’t show up in classic cocktails for the same reason that kimchi doesn’t show up in classic cookbooks. It wouldn’t be until Prohibition that thirsty Americans hopped borders to discover tequila, and our current understanding of mezcal as a high-quality and artisanal spirit wouldn’t even begin until an abstract visual artist named Ron Cooper founded Del Maguey in 1995.
Because of this, there’s a relatively small amount of established mezcal cocktails. The most popular ones are regular cocktails with the word “mezcal” in front of it: Mezcal Margaritas, Mezcal Old Fashioneds, Mezcal Negronis. It can be subbed in for certain spirits in certain situations, but it’s far from a skeleton key, and trying to get something smoky and wild like mezcal to fit into the clean, crystalline purity of a martini seemed, at first, insane. But necessity is the mother of invention, and after a couple iterations, we ended up with one of my favorite cocktails I’ve ever made.
The Bandolier is a spicy mezcal martini. It gets a vegetal pepper boost from Ancho Reyes Verde, which is an 80 proof poblano chile liqueur, spicy and half-sweet, and compliments the fat smoke of the mezcal beautifully. More than that, it retains the essential radiant clarity of a great martini, wrangling the mezcal’s rustic intensity into something refined.
- 1.5 oz. El Silencio Mezcal
- 0.5 oz. Ancho Reyes Verde Poblano Chile Liqueur
- 0.75 oz. Yzaguirre Blanco Riserva Vermouth
Stir cocktail in a mixing glass for 15 seconds (small ice) to 30 seconds (big ice). Strain up into a coupe or cocktail class, and garnish with a chili slice.
Notes on Ingredients
Mezcal: You want a mixing mezcal here, which are loosely defined as mezcals that aren’t so expensive that mixing with them will make you sad. The black bottle of El Silencio I use is a great choice, as is Del Maguey Vida, Banhez or the Siete Misterios Doba-Yej.
White Vermouth: Everyone knows sweet vermouth and dry vermouth, but there’s another category that’s called “Blanco” in Spain (and “Blanc” in France and “Bianco” in Italy, all of which mean “white”), that is light in color like dry vermouth but with more richness and intensity. I use Yzaguirre Blanco Riserva in this cocktail, a wonderful bottle from Spain, which provides a floral acidity to the cocktail.
It’s worth noting that every time we invent a cocktail with a blanco vermouth, we’ll make it side-by-side with eight similar vermouths to see which makes the best drink, and well over 50 percent of the time it’s the Yzaguirre that takes the day. That being said, if you can’t find it, Dolin Blanc and Cocchi Americano are acceptable substitutions.