It came as something of a gut punch to learn that Mayahuel, the beloved East Village agave bar opened in 2009 by Ravi DeRossi and Phil Ward of Death & Co fame, will stir its final Oaxaca Old Fashioned on August 8.
A protracted dispute between Mayahuel’s partners and the landlord finally turned untenable. According to DeRossi, the building owner changed his mind about a lease extension midstream and now wants to open his own tequila bar in the same space. He has even obtained a liquor license. “He’s a special character,” Ward says sarcastically.
But while the physical space will transfer hands, the intellectual property of the Mayahuel team will not. Let’s pause to remember exactly what Mayahuel accomplished for the category of agave spirits and mezcal in particular.
How It All Began
The success of Death & Co offered Ward the validation and confidence to venture out on his own. He had been head bartender at D&C from the beginning and had previously worked at Pegu Club and Flatiron Lounge. But he wanted something less austere. Mezcal was a new passion, so when DeRossi approached him about opening a bar, “it was a no-brainer,” he says. “At that time, we were considered one of the best, if not the best, cocktail bars in the city, and over a quarter of the drinks we were selling were agave-based. It was great, because I’d always gravitated toward agave, and I wanted to do something new.”
Ward was tired of seeing nothing done with tequila beyond the Margarita. His “F you” attitude led to experiments with agave spirits that showed their range as an alternative to more established cocktail bases. “You had blancos to use in place of gin or white rum; the aged ones could be used in place of a whiskey or cognac,” says Ward. “And the shit was delicious.”
Ward had only a few days to create the opening cocktail menu. Luckily, he had a head start with the wildly popular modern classic he had created at Death & Co known as the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. But Mayahuel’s debut menu included new hits, too, the most notable a riff on the Last Word, made with mezcal, Aperol, maraschino and lime juice. He named it the Division Bell after the Pink Floyd album he had listen to while alone at the bar on many late nights leading up to the opening.
Ward hadn’t intended to include too many mezcal drinks on the first menu, but every time he created a new one, he’d find that a little mezcal would improve the recipe. “I figured we’d have a mezcal section of three to five drinks, but that went straight out the window.”
The Search for Authenticity
Soon after Mayahuel opened, Ward ventured down to Oaxaca with the creator of Del Maguey mezcal, Ron Cooper, and spirits guru Steve Olson. “When I went on that first trip and saw a palenque (a primitive distillery where mezcal is made) on a hillside with one still and a hole in the ground where you cook the agave, I said to myself, You have found the truth.”
Ward became even more dedicated to showcasing traditional Mexican spirits. “Phil immersed himself in the culture of agave through his travels, which allowed him to speak and teach from first-hand experience,” says Misty Kalkofen, a Del Maguey brand ambassador and winner of a 2017 Spirited Award at Tales of the Cocktail. “To have a true advocate who could speak from the heart and was knowledgeable about the spirits was instrumental.”
Sharing the Passion with Guests
But there was still a huge learning curve to overcome. “Our goal was to not only provide an incredible cocktail and amazing experience but also to educate our guests on the spirits that are available to them that they may never have previously tasted,” says Justin Shapiro, who is now a partner and operations manager at Mayahuel.
The decision to call the bar Mayahuel, a name borrowed from the ancient Aztec goddess of agave and fertility, added to the sense of discovering something pure. “It was about being as authentic as possible,” says DeRossi. That effort to be authentic is captured in the design of the space, too.
The cocktail bar that greets you conjures a true but sleek Mexican den down to the imported tiles. Upstairs, where a unique portal in the middle of the dining room allows you to peek at the bar through the floor, the theme is taken even further. “I read an article about tarantula spiders spawning in agave and ran with the idea, designing the upstairs chandelier to look like a spider and adding cathedral-style stained-glass windows,” says DeRossi.
Leaving Its Mark
Mayahuel was a place where bartenders could learn a lot and gain industry credibility. The drink menu changed a few times a year, and pretty soon the bar staff was contributing to the list. Ward instituted a format similar to D&C, where bartenders would workshop new drinks. Not surprisingly, a who’s who of bartenders emerged from Mayahuel. Among them were Karen Fu and Jeremy Oertel (Donna), Eryn Reece (D&C, The Wooly), Leanne Favre (Clover Club), Shannon Ponche (Leyenda), Amanda Elder and Chelsea Kaiser (Pouring Ribbons), Jordan Brower (The Wooly) and Kevin Denton (the national bartender for Pernod Ricard), among others.
The bar will be remembered for elevating the category of agave spirits. “I hope those who had the chance to experience Mayahuel firsthand will talk about it to the generations of bartenders and enthusiasts to come,” says Kalkofen. “It’s a magical place that will live on in all the memories that were created there.”