In his four years of tending bar at Durham's Dos Perros, Arturo Sanchez has watched his share of fools slam tequila and throw back tear-inducing shots of smoky mezcal. But aficionados of these agave-based spirits are increasingly bringing refinement bar-side.
"People want to experience these spirits much in the way they do fine wine," Sanchez says.
He swirls an amber pour of Don Julio Añejo tequila in a slender flute to observe its "legs," or the liquid that languorously drips down the glass.
"You should sniff it deeply to get a sense of the barrel—usually oak—then sip, swish and hold it for five seconds before swallowing to bring all the flavors together," he continues before doing just that. "Now that's what tequila should taste like."
Celebrity endorsements of tequila, like George Clooney's high-end Casamigos, are helping to remake the spirit's image among those who may have sworn off the stuff after a hangover-inducing experience in college. Small-batch mezcal is finding its place in the craft cocktail revolution, too, thanks locally to Raleigh's Gallo Pelón Mezcalería, the only such bar in the Southeast. U.S. tipplers remain fairly timid about embracing mezcal's smoky charms and sometimes funky aroma, especially straight up.
But manager Marshall Davis sourced more than 40 choices for the upstairs spot, including Mezcal Vago Elote. The drink achieves its Scotch-like flavor from an infusion of smoked corn. Served in a shallow clay cup with a savory pinch of chapuline (fried grasshopper) salt on the side, a pour will set you back $11. If you've got it to spare, it's cash well spent.
"Some mezcals smell like burning tires or gym socks," says Davis, whose current favorite is the mineral-rich Mezcalero Batch #5. A rare find, only 636 bottles were produced in 2012 before the maker destroyed the still. Gallo Pelón has two. "To me, and a lot of agave heads, mezcal's weirdness makes it something we really want to try."
Masking mezcal's earthy qualities with mixers distracts from its essential appeal, agrees Sanchez, who recently returned from a tastings trip to the state of Jalisco, home of the town of Tequila.
"A lot of people are afraid of drinking it neat, but in Mexico, if you ordered mezcal in a cocktail, they'd think you were crazy," Sanchez says. "A Mezcal Mule is a good introduction for people who aren't sure if they'll like it, but if you really want to appreciate mezcal, drink it straight."
Chapel Hill's The Crunkleton, famed for its deep bourbon collection, currently has seven mezcals, more than double what you'll find in North Carolina ABC stores. You can even go big with a $53 1.5-ounce shot of Del Maguey Pechuga. The clean flavor comes from triple distillation, including the last-round addition of wild fruits and a raw, skinless chicken breast.
"I know it sounds strange, but it's a classic technique," says owner Gary Crunkleton, who recently tried a variation distilled with Ibérico ham. "It's always made as the last harvest of the year, a sort of gift to the gods. Once you taste it, you get it."
Crunkleton bartender Christian Madsen is a particular fan of artisanal mezcal, which he says is affected by terroir, much like fine wine. "Mezcal from the highlands is sweeter, while mezcal from the lowlands tends to be more grassy," he says. "Factor in 40 types of agave, different water sources—you get the picture."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Upstairs, down South"