Although San Francisco has long been known as an epicenter of the culinary world, only within the last 10 years has it emerged as a leader among mixologists. The city’s cocktail scene is flourishing and bartenders from across the nation are looking toward SF for trends and inspiration.
A new bandwagon that everyone in San Francisco seems to be on is the one powered by mezcal. An agave-based beverage native to Mexico (specifically the Oaxaca region), mezcal is similar to tequila — the differences being mezcal’s distinctly smoky flavor and more complex character. While tequila is made from the fermentation of blue agave, mezcal comes from the fermentation of roasted maguey agave. Translated to English, mezcal means “oven-cooked agave.” This underground baking technique is what gives the drink its signature smokiness. Local bartenders have fallen hard for the unique taste, too, working it as both a base in spirit-driven cocktails or as a flavor enhancer.
According to Lucas Ranzuglia, an Argentine mezcal expert who recently helped open La Urbana, the city’s first official mezcaleria on Divisadero Street, mezcal is beloved by bartenders for its core values. “Mezcal is an authentic spirit that empowers the people who make it. It gives them freedom to create a product that’s essential and honest. Mezcal is made by real people with the purest intentions.”
Ranzuglia says there’s a positive vibe associated with the spirit, a trait that he and La Urbana owners Eduardo Rallo and Juan Garduño hope to instill at the restaurant. In fact, five of the eight cocktails on La Urbana’s menu feature mezcal. The bar offers more than 70 different varieties of the spirit, many of which are hard to find outside of Mexico. La Urbana also has monthly mezcal master classes.
When asked how he initially got into the beverage, Ranzuglia quickly recites a Spanish phrase that loosely translates to “mezcal finds you, if you don’t find it.” Once a tequila brand ambassador who fell in love with mezcal on one of his many trips to Mexico, Ranzuglia is now quick to share the spirit with anyone who will listen to his passionate discourse on tobola, pechuga and other types of agave plants.
Matt Stanton, the bar manager at Sabrosa, a just-opened farm-to-fork Mexican restaurant in the Marina district, relays a similar introductory experience. “Bar people love tequila and love agave,” he says. “Here in California, everyone loves going to Mexico. When bartenders started going to Oaxaca and seeing all the artisanal, small-batch mezcal, they couldn’t help but fall for the spirit.”
Crowds at Sabrosa are responding well to the mezcal-based drinks, and it’s not just the local foodies who are taking note. “People like mezcal for its uniqueness,” Stanton says. “They talk about it in the same way that people talk about wine.” He acknowledges that the smoky, often minerally and complex mezcal is an acquired taste, but in the end, “most people fall in love with it. It’s similar to Campari [liqueur] in that respect.” Sabrosa serves flights of mezcal as well as several signature cocktails. One of those custom concoctions, the mezcal margarita, is made with fresh lime and roasted jalapeño and is not to be missed.
Over in the Mission, at Mosto, a tequila and botanas (Mexican snacks) spot from the team behind San Francisco’s wildly popular Tacolicious, the bar staff credits the authenticity and traditional aspect of mezcal for its popularity. Many there consider mezcal to be a more laid-back, less pretentious spirit. The crew enjoys mezcal for its complexity and originality, citing the “My father made it this way, and his father made it this way, so I’m making it this way” mind-set behind the quality in its production. Mosto offers mezcal cocktails in clay shot glasses with side chasers of sangrita and escabeche — the traditional way the liquor is served in Mexico. Mosto bartenders believe mezcal is the only spirit that makes people salivate and gives drinkers an immediate endorphin rush. It’s no wonder San Francisco has fallen so hard for the spirit.
Photo Courtesy of Sabrosa