There’s much to learn about mezcal—so much that even certified master mezcalier Josh Phillips admits he’s not even remotely close to knowing everything. One notion he likes to squash as quickly as possible, though, is the misconception that mezcal is tequila’s smoky cousin. “We don’t carry many overtly smoky mezcals,” he says. “Instead, we try to emphasize everything else that is going on in the category.” Smoke, it turns out, is not its most interesting characteristic by a long shot.
“Mezcal is a product that is thousands of years old and made across an entire country. Every year, we learn new things, and that is what makes it exciting,” he says. To that end, the partner and general manager of Espita Mezcaleria in Washington, D.C., replicates for his staff his master mezcalier training. While the official program, overseen by the Mexican government, teaches denomination of origin, Phillips doesn’t believe that paints the whole picture. His proprietary version certifies “Espita mezcaliers” in three levels. To date, five staff members have completed the entire program, while several others have finished the first or second level.
Level one of the program focuses on the D.O. and legal definition of mezcal. (The short version is that it’s an agave distillate from regions in nine states in Mexico made from an approved list of agaves grown in those states, bottled between 35 and 55 percent ABV in an approved pH range and produced in a number of different approved styles.) It also covers how other regional styles differ from it and ends with a written test. “Most of our pre-shift meetings touch on topics this test covers, and we also have a written primer that all staff members get upon hire so they can begin studying from day one.”
The second level focuses on mezcal’s applications in the culinary and cocktail world. During a blind tasting of varietally typical ones, staff must identify five varietals or styles. “We’re not interested in identifying a brand as those change constantly, but if someone can’t identify a Tepextate versus a Mexicano versus a Tobala, they won’t move on in the program,” says Phillips.
Next, they need to show they can competently mix up house mezcal cocktails and create an original one for Phillips, beverage director Megan Barnes and marketing and events director Kelly Phillips. “We tend to frown upon drinks that highlight smoke, instead wanting them to demonstrate a greater mastery of what the category can add to cocktails,” says Phillips. Bartenders can opt out of these last two tasks since they flex their mixology chops daily.
Finally, chef Alexis Samayoa shows participants how to use mezcal in cuisine, eschewing it as a character-stripping flambeed ingredient and instead focusing on its interactions with other ingredients—as an aromatic in shrimp tacos, for example, or as a major flavor in the borracha salsa.
The third and final component involves a field trip to Oaxaca, because, as Phillips puts it, mezcal is something that you cannot begin to truly understand until you have worked alongside the people that produce it. On the two trips he has organized so far, participants spend time in mezcalerias, experience mezcal service at fine restaurants and learn the significance of house mezcals to the economy. They also visit agave fields to identify varietals and harvest agave (if possible), and they tour palenques to participate in production at all stages. Several staff members have been so stirred by their experience that they return home with mezcal-themed tattoos.
Espita recently celebrated its first anniversary and over the past year has refined its approach to selling mezcal to guests. Phillips is no longer able to interact tableside with everyone to discover their preferences, but it turns out he doesn’t need to. “Over time, our staff has surpassed my ability to identify the right mezcal, particularly our bartenders—they have made it into a science almost,” he says. Imbibers tend to fall into three categories, he says: passionate mezcal enthusiasts (and he has been pleasantly surprised by just how many of these there), the mezcal-curious and people who are there for the tacos.
He points to the flights on the menu as Espita’s secret weapon, including those that focus on terroir (a great intro for newbies) and non-D.O. offerings (options that push the category’s boundaries). The list is always peppered with one or two more whimsical flights, too. One currently emulates a charcuterie board, with cheesy, jammy and savory pours, while another showcases whiskey-like grain notes.
In general, Phillips’ flights drive home his philosophy that mezcal’s complexity and expansive variety of aromas and flavors are more akin to wine than to tequila. The flights share similar food pairing strategies of reinforcing or contrasting. Phillips likes to partner rich pork dishes or earthy short rib mole with a powerful mezcal, snapper or scallop ceviche with delicate floral ones, and mushroom tacos with citrus raicilla.
Cocktails serve as a more palatable introduction, like the Estocada, a floral, bitter and lightly smoky drink topped with grapefruit oil; the Manatiel, an Old Fashioned stirred with a fruity and floral espadín mezcal; and the Mayahuel, a mezcal Margarita rimmed with sal de gusano. “We find that by having a Margarita on the menu we can control the conversation and get people to try things our way before just getting a tequila Margarita,” says Phillips. The Smiling Rabbit is Espita’s signature cocktail, with Siete Misterios Doba-Yej mezcal, Suze apéritif, lemon, pineapple and cinnamon and garnished with a pineapple leaf.
For sure, immersion is the best way to truly become proficient at something, but a trip to Oaxaca isn’t logistically feasible for everyone. So what’s the secret to being an expert? Turns out that the right attitude is a good start. “It requires an open mind,” says Phillips. “Anyone who claims there is a ‘best’ mezcal is not a pro, [but] anyone that accepts the changing nature is well on their way.”