Palenque Mezcaleria became Denver’s first bar specializing specifically in mezcal, tequila’s smoky sibling, when it opened in April. After a few months of experimenting with mezcal drink recipes, bar manager Chris Wingate has released Palenque’s first cocktail menu, which offers a small collection of his staff’s creations.
While Wingate and his bartenders prefer to drink mezcal straight, they agree that placing the spirit in a cocktail makes the often-complex spirit more approachable. “First and foremost,” Wingate says, “we wanted to keep it simple, because we wanted to encourage the creativity of our bartenders. Every night, they come up with one or two cocktails and write them on three-by-five cards so we can revisit them, or tinker with them, or put them on a list later. We wanted to keep it simple and not overwhelm people.”
Those notecards, which now form a small library of recipes, became the foundation for the new drink menu. “There was time to slowly develop ideas and put the pieces together,” Wingate says of the months-long cocktail experimentation phase. Finally, he and bartender Nathan Schmit revisited the cards to look back on all of the recipes.
“We sat down with all those index cards," Wingate says, "which were a summer’s worth of drinks. We looked at them and asked ourselves what was working. We whittled them down and played with the recipes that we thought we liked.”
Here are a few of those recipes:
The Ave Negra contains an Italian vermouth combined with coffee-infused mezcal.
2 ounces coffee-mezcal infusion
1 ounce Contratto Vermouth Rosso
1 large ice cube made from water and vermouth with a Luxardo cherry in the center
“This recipe is from bartender Skylar Wood,” Wingate says. “What he’s done is take Corvus coffee, which is from a local coffee company, and cold-infuse it with mezcal.” The infused mezcal is shaken with Contratto, an Italian vermouth containing more than thirty different botanical ingredients, then strained into a glass containing the prepared ice cube.
Vermouth and water are frozen, with a cherry, to make the ice cube for the Ave Negra.
“There’s vermouth in the liquid part of the cocktail,” Wingate says, “but as the ice cube melts, it really softens up the drink and mixes really well with those heavy coffee flavors. It’s a pretty sophisticated drink.”
Roasted bananas and rosemary top this four-spirit cocktail called Mano de Mono.
Mano de Mono
.75 ounce Nuestra Soledad mezcal
.75 ounce Bear Creek rye vodka
.75 ounce Giffard Banane du Brésil
.75 ounce Plantation Three Stars rum
.5 ounce lime juice
.5 ounce agave nectar
“This is sort of a lighter drink,” Wingate says, “appealing a little bit more to the first-time mezcal drinker.” Since it contains four spirits, it could appeal to many different types of drinkers. Wingate adds a few rosemary leaves to the shaker tin before shaking, adding an herbal note to the drink.
“There’s a lot going on,” Wingate says. “The rosemary and the banana really balance well. The Bear Creek rye vodka is interesting in and of itself, because it has a banana aroma to it.”
La Ultima Palabra (Spanish for "the last word"), is a mezcal-based version of a classic gin-based recipe.
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La Ultima Palabra
1 ounce El Jolgorio mezcal
1 ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
1 ounce Green Chartruese
1 ounce lime juice
This recipe is a favorite of Palenque bartender Rodrigo Weber, who hails from Mexico City. “It’s always been his favorite drink,” Wingate says. This recipe is a version of a classic cocktail called the Last Word; Weber simply uses mezcal instead of the gin used in the original recipe, shaking it over ice with the other ingredients. “I just wanted to put it on the menu because I feel like it’s a good introduction to mezcal,” Wingate continues. “The mezcal really makes this classic drink, in a lot of people's opinion, particularly those who don’t like gin. It’s so much better.”
Wingate says the first edition of Palenque's cocktail program is still new, “but I think people are really enjoying it, and the simplicity of it. There’s a lot going on in the cocktails, but it’s not a twenty-drink cocktail menu. I think having just these basic recipes, which are so different from each other, is a nice foundation, because the show here at Palenque is all about the mezcal.”