Mezcal, a liquor distilled from the heart of the agave plant, has been around and in use since the 16th century. But you probably didn’t notice it on the cocktail menu at your favorite bar until about 10 years ago, when the Mexican spirit exploded in popularity.
As usual, the Bay Area got on the mezcal trend early, and many local bars carry anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred mezcal varieties. Some even specialize in mezcal and mezcal-based cocktails.
More than 70% of mezcal is made in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and exports to the U.S. are growing by leaps and bounds. While mezcal devotees insist that the drink won’t cause you a hangover because it’s so pure, we’re not sure that’s totally true — but served solo or mixed into a drink, it sure goes down smoothly.
I asked Susan Coss, the director of Mezcalistas, an East Bay company devoted to spreading the mezcal word across the nation, to point me to the best mezcal cocktails in the region. While this isn’t an all-encompassing list, these six spots pour some tasty cocktails in convivial settings, and produce some of the best mezcal drinks I’ve tried.
If you’re planning on hanging out with the hipsters in Uptown, don’t miss this spacious Oaxacan restaurant with an expansive bar.
The spot’s bright palette — the intense blues, greens, oranges, yellows and pinks of Oaxacan art — are mirrored in the floral and herbal garnish Agave adds to its cocktails. And, like the décor, Agave Uptown’s specialty cocktails are bright, tropical, and herbaceous.
The weekend before Día de los Muertas, Agave Uptown featured a special cocktail called Brujas (witches). A witch’s potion of mezcal, gin, blackberry puree, pomegranate shrub, rose vermouth and citrus, the glass was rimmed with mole salt and finished off with a marigold and a sprig of thyme.
Other favorite mezcal cocktails include the Fresita (mezcal with strawberry shrub, thyme and citrus oil syrup, aperol and lemon) and — named after the great Oaxacan singer-songwriter — the Lila Downs (mezcal, morita pepper, guava shrub, grapefruit, pear liqueur and citrus).
Agave Uptown, 2135 Franklin St. (at Broadway), Berkeley
This upscale Mexican restaurant and bar has slick interior and a super stylish back patio. Indeed, just stepping through the door (on busy Shattuck Avenue) makes you feel like you’re on vacation. Comal features a changing daily menu of regional Mexican food with emphasis on Oaxacan cuisine. The food is top-notch; even their chips and guacamole are to die for.
Comal’s bar features dozens of mezcals served straight with a traditional side of fruit and sal de guasano (a combination of ground up agave worms, sea salt and chiles). Their most popular mezcal cocktails include the Palomaesque (a Paloma with mezcal instead of tequila), the Comal Swizzle (pineapple, passion fruit, lime and mezcal), the Quince Essential (mezcal, genepy des alpes liqueur, quince, bergamot and morita chile), and Abuelo Sucio (mezcal, tequila, pomegranate syrup and bitters). You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Comal, 2020 Shattuck Ave. (between University Avenue and Addison Street), Berkeley
This dark, sophisticated, woman-owned cocktail bar next to Umami Mart on Broadway specializes in unique craft cocktails and mezcal.
Copper Spoon’s inventive cocktails come with clever names in an incredible array of cocktail glasses. Down the Rabbit Hole (mezcal, carrot-tumeric shrub, the medicinal herb ashwagandha and lemon) marks the first time I’ve had carrot juice in a cocktail (and there’s a Virgin Rabbit for those who want to skip the mezcal).
Other popular mezcal cocktails at Copper Spoon are Don’t Mind If I Do (mezcal, passion fruit and lime) and Fight the Power (mezcal, bruto Americano liqueur, amaro liqueur and ume fruit). And you can even add host defense mushrooms to your cocktail, which some say will boost your immune system — good health and cocktails simultaneously!
Copper Spoon, 4031 Broadway (between 40th and 41st streets), Oakland
El Patio has a casual neighborhood restaurant vibe. Alongside Mexican and Venezuelan dishes like pozole and arepas (a pre-Colombian dish from the area that is now Colombia, Venezuela and Panama, made of maize dough and served with fillings like shredded chicken, black beans and fried plantains), El Patio serves up 175 different types of mezcal as flights, standalone drinks or in cocktail form.
They certainly love mezcal (El Patio’s website even says they “really really love it”) and their strong mezcal cocktails reflect that. The Czechzican (mezcal, cynar — a bitter Italian aperitif — hibiscus and vermouth) has a negroni-like vibe. In the mood for something sweeter, try the I Hate Math, which is mezcal, grapefruit, cynar and cinnamon.
The back patio is especially happening on weekend nights. Bring the family!
El Patio, 2056 San Pablo Ave. (between University Avenue and Addison Street), Berkeley
Tucked alongside Jack London’s Estuary Park, Nido’s Backyard is like an adult playground. A rambling and expansive open air restaurant and bar constructed out of repurposed shipping containers and decorated with about a million plants and fluttering, colorful papel picado, it’s a super hip space with super diverse clientele (they welcome humans of all ages along with well-behaved dogs) all joining together to enjoy shareable Mexican cuisine and an “agave-driven” cocktail menu.
The ability to hang out outside year-round noshing on fish tacos while drinking mezcal slushies really represents the best of the East Bay!
The cocktails at Nido’s BackYard tend toward the sweet — like the Tres Rojas (mezcal, citrus liqueur, tempranillo-hibiscus-pomegranate syrup and lime — and spicy, such as the Mangonado slushie (mezcal, mango, serrano, lime and strawberry chamoy) or La Picosa (mezcal, chipotle liqueur, lime and honey).
It’s a great spot for everything from date night to a large get-together or celebration.
Nido’s BackYard, 104 Oak St. (at Embarcadero West), Oakland
Prizefighter is tucked away in the industrial part of Emeryville right on the Berkeley city line. It calls itself a community cocktail bar, and that they are, offering tamales and chips (and an open invitation to bring in outside food) and cocktails both sweet and spiritous alongside a slew of mezcal.
Some of their most popular mezcal cocktails include an Oaxacan Old Fashioned (a traditional Old Fashioned but with mezcal instead of whiskey) and Carter Beats the Devil, which is basically a spicy Margarita with mezcal instead of tequila. The Oaxacan Firing Squad (mezcal, grenadine, lime and bitters) is also a treat.
The indoor bar is long and inviting, but the outdoor covered patio is where it’s at. Bougainvillea adds a dose of bright pink, an olive tree hugs one corner, and heaters make the space Bay Area weather–friendly. Bring your dog!
Prizefighter, 6702 Hollis St. (between Folger Avenue and 57th Street), Emeryville
Featured image: The Czechzican and the I Hate Math at El Patio. Credit: Elise Proulx