When you pull up a stool at Espita in Washington, D.C., you immediately notice three things: the bowls of fresh fruit (for garnish); the small bottles of bitters (for cocktail-building); and the incredible cocktail list (for you to drink). Three of the excellent menu options include:
- “Ginger & Cucumber,” served tall with a cucumber slice and mezcal.
- The “Nocino y Vino,” a mix of rum, red wine, walnut liqueur, mulled wine and mezcal.
- And “Apples to Apples,” consisting of rum, cardamom, cider tonic, berry cider, a sherry foam and mezcal.
You stop for a moment: Wait a second, all three of these cocktails involve mezcal!
Actually, that’s just the start.
Every cocktail at Espita features mezcal. And every bottle on display on the lighted shelves behind the bar is mezcal.
Now, if you enjoy mezcal — tequila’s smoky, much more complex cousin — you’ll think, What is this strange, magical land?
But if you don’t, you’ll probably think, What the hell am I doing here?
The cocktail renaissance hasn’t necessarily jumped the shark, but it’s certainly become ubiquitous. Craft cocktail bars now line nearly every corner of the globe, and the average alcohol consumer knows not only every component in a Negroni but also which styles of gin best pair with Campari; what happens if you split the base spirit in a classic cocktail; and what exactly genever is.
So where do we go from here?
One answer may be the single-spirit bar. Smuggler’s Cove (rum), perhaps the most highly regarded such establishment, opened in 2009, and since then, numerous others have followed: Mosto (agave) in 2011, Smuggler’s sister bar Whitechapel (gin) in 2015 and Espita (the aforementioned mezcal) in 2016.
Not that they haven’t been a foreign land in a sea of booze. When Smuggler’s Cove first threw open its doors, there was definite pushback. The cocktail menu, which today has 105 drinks on it, is nearly exclusively rum-based. There are rum punches, rum fizzes, rum swizzles, rum daiquiris, rum coolers, rum grogs and rum flips. Finding a drink on the list whose first ingredient isn’t rum, rhum or rhums is like searching for Waldo.
“I don’t have any Bloody Mary mix. I can’t make you a Cosmo. What I can make you is a rum drink,” says Martin Cate, Smuggler’s Cove’s owner.
“Bars in America historically are expected to be everything to everyone and to have every spirit,” he continues. “They’re supposed to be able to make this standard baseline of drinks. But no one ever expects restaurants to do that. You never go to a Japanese place and say, ‘What do you mean you don’t have burritos?’ So we said, ‘Why do bars have to be able to do everything to everyone?’”
The answer is obvious: They don’t.
“I love tiki bars, and I wanted to do a classic tiki bar — with the torches, the pineapples, the glassware, the old booze-smuggling ships. But I also wanted to tell a bigger story,” Cate says. “The golden era of tiki is about 40 years long [right after the repeal of Prohibition in 1934 until the mid-1970s], but the story of rum is three centuries long. To honor that, we have a drink menu that covers all three centuries — Royal Navy drinks, pirate stuff, regional specialties, tiki. But also want to keep it modern — what are people doing with rum today?”
Not only does Cate showcase this history through his menu, he’s also created a Rum Club at Smuggler’s Cove to further learn about it (or better put, taste it). “Guests sign up and have an educational journey through rum,” Cate says. “They track their progress and drink their way through our whole list. It’s extraordinarily popular. They achieve new ranks and earn trips to distilleries. It’s a heck of a lot of fun.”
Cate does the same with his business partner, Alex Smith, at Whitechapel, the duo’s gin-focused joint on Polk Street. “Gin can be looked at as kind of stuffy,” he says. “But a gin bar was a great concept. We needed to create a themed experiential space that makes gin exciting. So we gave it the Smuggler’s treatment.”
Named for London’s Whitechapel Station, the bar is designed with Cate’s personal obsession with England’s abandoned underground stations in mind. (Yes, Whitechapel is still functional, but if it weren’t — and if someone had turned it into a speakeasy circa 1910 — Cate’s gin-focused bar concept would be its twin.) It has the largest selection of gin in the country. So, not surprisingly, all of its menu options feature gin or genever, the 16th-century Dutch precursor to the gin we drink today. And as at Smuggler’s Cove, guests can enroll in the Gin Club to explore new distillations of the classic English spirit.
“What that means is that we have a real stubbornness on my part,” Cate says. “We push the guest: This is what you came here for. That’s a real thing with a single-spirit place. You have to be able to commit not just whole-hog with your concept, but you have to stick to your guns. You have to let people know we aren’t going to be everything to everyone.”
For me at least, that’s just fine — especially when it comes to mezcal. And so, when I visited D.C. recently, I wasn’t going home until I made the pilgrimage to Espita, the mezcaleria that’s been credited with spreading the gospel of mezcal to the nation’s capital. Before it opened last spring, hardly any bar had a bottle of mezcal. Now, every cocktail menu has at least one mezcal drink.
Personally, I love mezcal. Made from agave, like tequila, but not limited to the blue varietals of the plant, mezcal brings the flavors of a region together with the personality of a single village and distiller. The hearts of the agave plant — called the piňa, because it looks like a giant pineapple once the large, fibrous leaves are hacked off — are cooked in pits before being crushed, combined with water and allowed to ferment. Along the way, the taste of the land, the weather and the horses (because donkeys make the spirit taste bad, I’m told) that drove the giant grinding wheel across the roasted piňas — the terroir, for foodies and wine enthusiasts — seeps in. Every single mezcal is different.
“Mezcal is generational,” says Josh Phillips, who, along with his wife Kelly, co-owns and manages Espita. “You talk to people about how they make it, and it’s how their parents made it. It’s not visiting a distillery, it’s visiting someone’s home. You have dinner with them, play with their kids, go to the field and do some work.”
The entire staff at Espita has been trained in Mexico and put through a rigorous program designed by Phillips that teaches every bartender how to differentiate between varietals, how to produce mezcal, how to cook with it and how to understand the flavor profiles by region and terroir. “The knowledge about the variety of mezcal has been an expected thing from us,” Phillips says. “If you want to hang out with experts in mez, you hang out with us.”
And while Espita carries a whiskey, a vodka and a couple of gins, “what we do is mezcal,” he reiterates.
Like Whitechapel and Smuggler’s Cove, Espita is very much focused on the story of its chosen spirit. Phillips even partners with the distillers who make El Buho mezcal for three different house mezcals. “We wanted to have a house spirit in the same way they have a house spirit in Oaxaca,” Phillips explains.
Because in Oaxaca, where most mezcal originates, when you go to a bar, there’s always a house-distilled mezcal readily available. Mezcal is a way of life. That authenticity is essentially what Phillips is selling at Espita. “It’s how the category is evolving,” he says. “Availability and knowledge are blowing this thing up. There are some really talented and knowledgeable people all over the country right now.”
“This is the next evolution of bars,” he continues. “It used to be that cocktail bars were special in and of themselves because cocktails were hard. But cocktails aren’t hard anymore. The basics of the cocktail revolution have happened.
“This is the next special.”