No one knows a bar better than the people behind it. For “My Bar in 3 Drinks,” the people running the best bars around make and discuss three of their bar’s most representative cocktails.
You can certainly order a house Margarita at Kol Mezcaleria, but don’t expect it to include even a drop of fresh lime juice. The subterranean cocktail bar in London’s West End, housed below Kol Restaurant, channels the essence of Mexico with a hyper-seasonal British twist.
The bar is found down a spiral staircase and through a rippled glass sliding door that opens into a dimly lit concrete cellar livened with rattan furniture, frayed woven basket light fixtures above the concrete-and-wood bar, candles resting in jícaras, Mexican flora, and clay pottery. “The bar is designed to feel like you’re in a house in Oaxaca,” says Maxim Schulte, the bar manager, who was previously the head bartender at The Savoy’s renowned American Bar. “The concrete, the plants, the colors, everything plays on this idea of being in a living room, almost. It’s comfortable and gives you this sense of escapism.”
The Mezcaleria focuses on spirits of Mexican origin, mostly agave-based spirits such as mezcal, tequila, bacanora, and raicilla, in addition to less-common Mexican rums, whiskeys, pox, and sotol. “We love to offer mezcal neat to guests that would like to explore the complexity and variety of our range,” says Schulte. “We have mezcals from almost every state in Mexico, which can really take guests on a journey through the terroir of the country.” The bar also bottles its own mezcals, technically considered destilados de agave since the spirits are bottled in the U.K. rather than Mexico.
Schulte was approached by chef Santiago Lastra, previously of Noma Mexico, with the opportunity to collaborate on a bar that would showcase the best of Mexico and Britain through a seasonal beverage program. “Something that’s always been really interesting to me is working with really seasonal products,” says Schulte. “Having always worked in hotels, there was never really an opportunity to work with small suppliers and seasonal ingredients because of how hotels operate, so this was exciting for me.”
Instead of using fresh citrus—an ingredient that doesn’t flourish in the U.K.—most of the Mezcaleria’s cocktails use alternative forms of acidity such as house-made kombucha, verjus, wine, and other sustainable acid sources for balancing drinks. This is the case with Kol’s house Margarita, which instead of lime juice uses verjus and yuzu sake to mimic the classic’s sour component. (Citrus juice is available for use in some classic cocktails, but it’s employed sparingly.)
The cocktail list is split into five seasonally rotating flavor profiles, which recently have included bell-pepper-and-jasmine and cucumber-and-pine. For each flavor profile, guests can choose between two cocktails, each of which is a twist on a classic; one of the two drinks contains a Mexican spirit as the base, while the other uses a different spirit such as gin or vodka. “We want [the cocktails] to appeal to everyone, from mezcal geeks to complete newcomers,” says Schulte.
Schulte explains that Kol Mezcaleria doesn’t abide by seasonality in the traditional sense of changing the drink menu four times a year. Instead, the bar rotates cocktails and flavor profiles depending on what’s in peak season at a particular moment. The goal is to keep ingredients fresh and in line with what chef Lastra is doing in the kitchen, which means an ongoing creative process for the bar team. Some drinks have proven so popular, however, that they’ll likely stay on the menu all year long.
These are the three drinks Schulte feels best represent Kol Mezcaleria.
1. Cucumber & Pine Martini
Volcan Blanco tequila, Dolin dry vermouth, pine distillate, crème de cacao blanc, cucumber
Tequila Martinis are notoriously difficult to balance, which makes Kol’s signature Martini exceptional. “We really wanted to tackle the challenge of having an agave-based Martini on the menu,” says Schulte. “We contrasted the freshness and green flavors of the cucumber with the woody but citrusy flavors of the Douglas Fir pine.” The resulting drink, garnished with an olive marinated in the leftovers of the pine infusion, is so refreshing that it defies the usual Martini cocktail parameters and expectations.
Perfecting this masterpiece took a bit of effort, however. “The R&D was difficult, as we had trouble balancing the drink,” says Schulte. “But when we finally got the flavors right, the Martini immediately became a best-seller in the Mezcaleria. Our guests love it as it is so approachable and easy to drink, with a flavor that’s wonderfully complex.”
2. Fig Leaf & Gooseberry Batanga
Fig leaf mezcal, gooseberry, kola tonic
Similar to the rum-based Cuba Libre, the Batanga is essentially a tequila-and-Coke. At Kol, the team reinvents this elementary classic with premium seasonal ingredients. “We approached the Batanga in a unique way while making sure to not lose sight of the original,” says Schulte. “We infused some mezcal with local fig leaves for over a month, creating a super-intense aroma of coconut and tonka that comes naturally from the fig leaf. We then made a kola-tonic syrup with Claytons kola tonic and muscovado sugar. This gives great depth and complexity to the drink.”
Schulte continues, “The gentle acidity comes from local gooseberries, then it’s topped up with a splash of good old Coca-Cola and garnished with a salt rim of gooseberry salt. We use the leftover pulp of the gooseberry juice and dehydrate it, blend with salt for that extra bit of zing. We like to highlight the Mexican soul and tradition with the use of local ingredients while remaining fun and playful. The Batanga definitely falls into this category.”
3. La Cigala
KOL Azul mezcal, The Singleton of Dufftown 12-year whisky, rhubarb, hibiscus, verjus, carbonation
The La Cigala was developed to pair with a signature dish at Kol Restaurant in addition to working well as a standalone drink, according to Schulte. “We wanted to combine the best of Mexico and the U.K., so we blended single malt scotch whisky with our house Azul mezcal, hibiscus cold brew, local rhubarb, and verjus,” he says. “The mixture is then carbonated to bring a beautiful palette of flavors reminiscent of a fruity pet-nat wine.” The cocktail is batched and bottled as if it’s a sparkling wine, which is how it’s served to guests.
“The cocktail pairs beautifully with our langoustine taco in the restaurant, but it has also become a hit off-menu,” says Schulte. “I would say this drink hits the nail on the head when it comes to the Kol concept: It has Mexican soul and British ingredients. Two worlds combine with spectacular results.”