The Smoking Barrel at Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina
Just one look at the drink menu at Adelitas and you quickly come to this realization: It’s not just margaritas anymore. At this Platt Park Mexican restaurant and bar, Nathan Schmit is taking tequila — and especially the increasingly popular mezcal — to new places, creating drinks that resemble the more austere, understated cocktails of New York and Los Angeles. His new cocktails are stripped-down blends of spirits that are unadorned with syrups and juices, allowing them to speak for themselves. In fact, for his latest cocktail, the Smoking Barrel ($10), he reaches out even further — across the world and back in time — to bring the spirits of Italy, France and Scotland into a boozy union with mezcal.
“We want to pay tribute to where the world of spirits comes from,” Schmit says. “As far as the sophisticated cocktails that you find on the east and west coast, and in fine dining establishments, you’re going to be working with old-world spirits. What we’re trying to do is build an association with mezcal.” In his tribute to worlds old and new, Schmit acknowledges the relevance of the legendary aperitifs and digestifs of Europe, but seeks to integrate them in the same glass with mezcal.
To bring all those divergent elements together, Schmit combined mezcal with a blended Scotch, an Italian amaro and a French aperitif to create the Smoking Barrel. By doing so, he succeeds in showing that mezcal can coexist with centuries-old spirits from across the globe. After all, he says, scientists are unearthing evidence that mezcal has been produced a far back as 1,500 years ago, dating back to Aztec and Mayan civilizations. “What we’re trying to do,” he explains, “is equate it all in people's minds with those old-world offerings that you get from places like Italy and France.”
Schmit chose El Buho, a Oaxacan mezcal, primarily because of its easy incorporation into cocktails. El Buho is made in the traditional mezcal method: the hearts of the agave plant are roasted in pits — in this case for a full week — over mesquite wood. The agave plants are then crushed and pressed to yield a juice that is fermented and then distilled. The smoky aroma and taste is mezcal’s most characteristic trait, separating it from its cousin, tequila.
“I chose a mezcal that uses espadin,” Schmit says. Espadin is the type of agave most commonly used in mezcal production (tequila uses a different species). He believes El Buho is a good for use in mixed drinks; it might not convey all the subtleties of the agave plant like other mezcals do, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “A lot of those subtleties will be lost in a cocktail when it’s mixed with other ingredients,” he says.
“We use Dewar’s for the same reason,” Schmit says. “It’s more of a mixing Scotch, but you do get those smoky elements. I wouldn’t say it’s over-the-top smoky, but it’s definitely smoky enough to complement the smokiness of the mezcal.”
Schmidt uses Dewar’s white label, one of the world's most popular blended Scotches. It’s been produced using nothing but Scottish barley, yeast and water at the Aberfeldy distillery in central Scotland since 1899. A blend of 40 different Scotch whiskies, the white label is known for its familiar flavors of heather and honey, but also apple and cinnamon. The production process entails smoking the malted barley over peat fires — not to dissimilar from the method by which El Buho mezcal is made. “The smoke is about the same,” Shmit says. “They complement each other really well.”
Continuing his blend of new and old, Schmit adds Bonal Gentiane Quina. “It’s a French aperitif,” he says. “It has a little bit of a sweet characteristic to it. It adds elements of sweetness, but also roots and vegetation that bring out those things that the mezcal also has.”
Bonal begins as a fortified wine, made by adding alcohol (usually brandy) to unfermented grape juice. The resulting mix is then infused with gentian root and cinchona — two botanicals with bitter flavors — as well as other herbs from the mountains in southeastern France, where Bonal has been made and bottled since 1865. The technique of adding brandy to grape juice results in a sweeter, fresher flavor, since the fructose in the grape juice is never converted into alcohol.
The Italian overtones of Schmit’s cocktail come from the addition of Nardini Amaro, a bittersweet liqueur flavored with gentian root (like Bonal) and also peppermint and bitter orange. The citrus flavors of Nardini complement the food at Adelitas which Schmit points out is based on the cuisine of Michoacan. Tomatoes are a common element in many dishes, so the bartender notes that the acidity of the tomatoes harmonizes with the citrus notes not only in the Nardini, but in the Bonal as well.
Schmit recommends enjoying the Smoking Barrel with Adelitas’ molcajete de mariscos ($34.95), a bubbling stew of mussels, shrimp and tilapia steamed in a broth of tomato, onion, garlic and white wine and topped with cotija cheese.
Not only is Schmit trying to educate people about mezcal, he has opened up a conversation about what mezcal can be paired with. His cocktail is, he says, “an expression of those subtle flavors that you get from those digestifs and aperitifs against the smokiness from the Scotch and from the mezcal.”
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“We’re looking to kind of change or move away from a shot and a beer, to spending a little more money to get a quality experience,” he says. “So, having a cocktail like this, maybe two of them, is really going to open you up. For me, it’s like drinking a French chardonnay — you spend the extra money to do so, and it’s like your head is floating in the clouds.”
The Smoking Barrel
.75 ounce El Buho mezcal
.75 ounce Dewar’s white-label blended Scotch whisky
.5 ounce Bonal Gentiane Quina
.5 ounce Nardini amaro
Pour all ingredients into a double Old Fashioned glass filled with with ice and stir. Rub the rim of the glass with the outside edge of a grapefruit peel, then drop the peel into the drink.