Mezcal, technically, is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant, but you can also think of it as a kind of fever. Mezcal tends to obsess people. Consume them. It is a wild spirit, smoky and mercurial and powerful as an ox, but develop a taste for it and you’ll find it’s all you want to drink for months. And while it can sometimes feel difficult to find an entry point on something so bold, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned is the cocktail that points at the furious thrashing bull that is mezcal, and hands you a saddle.
Mezcal’s been made in Mexico since roughly forever, but one of the first outsiders to catch this fever was a visual artist from California named Ron Cooper. Cooper wasn’t a liquor importer, he was just a guy who had spent lots of time in Oaxaca, the southern Mexican state where most mezcal is produced, and loved it. In his autobiography Finding Mezcal, he compares the spirit to art: “A work of art is successful to me if it transforms the viewer,” he writes, “it doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s transformative. The mezcal I encountered had the power to transform.” He wanted to share this art with the world, so in 1995, he started a company called Del Maguey, one of the first to import artisanal mezcals into the States.
Mezcal had a slow start, as one could imagine. The ’90s belonged to vodka, and for mezcal to be further from vodka you’d have to launch it into space. The breakthrough moment arrived on the opening menu at Death & Co., in 2007, where bartender Phil Ward had the idea to make a tequila Old Fashioned—but modify it by throwing a little mezcal in there. The Oaxaca Old Fashioned was a revelation, a half ounce of the smoky monster accenting what is otherwise a fairly straightforward classic cocktail. It opened the floodgates to mezcal cocktails, and our eyes to their possibilities. Ward himself was so enamored with agave spirits he’d leave to open a bar called Mayahuel, and Cooper took him down to Oaxaca to see where the spirit was made: “That was my big epiphany moment,” Ward says, as relayed in Cooper’s book, “I remember thinking, This is the purest spirit I’ve ever tasted.” Mayahuel swiftly became one of the best mezcal bars in the country, and Ward would do as much as anyone to proselytize for it.
The spirit isn’t such a hard sell anymore, 14 years on. The fever for mezcal has, if you’ll forgive me, become pandemic. You can’t find a cocktail bar without mezcal somewhere on the menu, and even a crappy bar will likely have a bottle or two. And as mezcal has filtered to and largely been embraced by the general public, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned endures, albeit sometimes in edited form (more on this below). Generally speaking, the cocktail treatment tends to obscure the piquant, unexpected quirks of a good mezcal, but the great gift of the Oaxaca Old Fashioned is that it presents all the charms of the mezcal while absorbing most of its volatility. It’s a foundation stone that is still fresh, vital delicious. “Today,” writes Death & Co. in their excellent book Modern Classic Cocktails, “the Oaxaca Old Fashioned is the most requested drink we’ve ever produced, and the most replicated.”
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
Grab a rocks glass the biggest piece of ice you have that will fit into it. If you don’t have large cubes, fill with the biggest ice you have. Add ingredients, stir briefly to integrate them together and garnish with a large grapefruit peel, expressing the oils over the top of the drink before adding the peel to the glass.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Mezcal: You’ll notice the recipe above simply calls for mezcal, while Ward’s original had 1.5 oz. reposado tequila and just 0.5 oz. mezcal. To be sure, his is “correct,” as he is the one who invented it, and it was perfect (and necessary) to hold back on the mezcal in 2007. For my palate, however, as someone who loves the spirit in 2021, I like going full mezcal.
The most popular way to consume mezcal is neat, just a spirit in a glass (or a little clay bowl-looking thing called a copita). This treatment aligns with another fact about mezcal, which is that it tends to get expensive in a hurry, and expense usually implies complexity, and so with mezcal you get the familiar admonitions about “wasting a good spirit” in a cocktail. I’ll say this: there’s no mezcal so nice that I wouldn’t at least consider using it here, and the best examples of this cocktail I’ve ever had are with $70 to $100 mezcals. That being said, I almost invariably make it with a less expensive, cocktail focused bottling—Del Maguey’s Vida is delicious and priced for mixing, as is the matte black El Silencio. Honestly, there’s lots of cocktail-priced mezcal that is quite good.
Agave Syrup: You can buy agave nectar at any decent supermarket—buy the “light” kind if you have a choice, but the dark is fine too. You can just use it in cocktails straight out of the bottle, but it’s very thick and difficult to measure. If you’re using it straight, use 1 tsp. of agave nectar. If you’re making these in bulk, or else you make them frequently, you can turn nectar into agave syrup by mixing 2 parts agave with 1 part hot water, which makes it more workable for drinks (0.25 oz. if using syrup).
Bitters: Ward used Angostura, the classic aromatic bitters necessary in Old Fashioneds and Manhattans the world over. I’ve read that Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters weren’t available in 2007, which makes sense—I don’t know what he’d use now, but I strongly urge you to procure a bottle of the mole bitters; its dry dusty chocolate flavor perfectly supports the eccentricities of the spirit. Other chocolate bitters tend to be sweeter, which is why I get inflexibly particular about that specific brand. I consider them essential to this drink.
Garnish: Again, a riff—the original used a flamed orange twist, but I think a grapefruit peel absolutely makes the drink.