The Groni at Dos Santos Taqueria de Mexico
“I think this has been a little bit of a dark horse compared to our other cocktails,” says Raul Ramos, bartender at Dos Santos Taqueria de Mexico. Most of the cocktails he serves at the Uptown taco shop are tequila-heavy, but the dark-horse cocktail he’s referring to is a one that’s laced with mezcal — the smoke of which can pose a challenge for the uninitiated. While mezcal is rising in popularity, with drinkers warming up to it much the same way they cautiously approached the more intimidating smoky Scotch whiskies, Ramos makes it seem familiar by slipping it into a more recognizable recipe.
“We try to serve it in different ways,” Ramos says about his strategy of working the agave-based spirit into Dos Santos’ short but cunningly clever drink menu. “Mezcal is a little bit of a tougher sell. It’s not as common as tequila.” The way around that barrier of unfamiliarity was to modify an existing recipe — the classic Negroni, normally made with gin, sweet vermouth and bitter Campari. Ramos makes a mezcal version that includes a local bitter aperitif, white vermouth from Spain, and another agave spirit called raicilla, and calls it, simply, a Groni.
“It’s going to be a little smoky,” Ramos says. While six of the seven drinks on the menu are tequila-based, the Groni is made with Fidencio Clasico mezcal from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. “The way they cook it is where the smokiness comes from,” he adds. This process calls for stripping ten-year-old agave plants of their leaves and cooking them in underground pits, where they take on a distinct smoky flavor and aroma. The agave plants used to make Fidencio’s Clasico mezcal are called Espadin, the most common variety, which are descended from the variety used to make tequila. “They’re both basically the same family,” Ramos says. “It’s the process that it goes through that makes it a little bit different.”
“Some people just love it,” Ramos explains, “but it’s never an in-between kind of thing. People either love mezcal, or they don’t like it at all.”
But Ramos goes even further with his agave obsession, using a second Mexican spirit called raicilla, which hales from the southwestern state of Jalisco, to form the base of his Negroni variation. Related to both tequila and mezcal, raicilla is neither. Technically it's made in the same way as mezcal, but it’s not made in an area where it can be legally labeled as such. And while Jalisco is the birthplace of tequila, raicilla's production methods and ingredients differ enough that it doesn’t quite adhere to the legal guidelines for that beverage either.
In the 1700s, producers capitalized on this lack of distinction, avoiding taxes imposed by Spain on anything labelled mezcal. Raicilla is made in 16 Jalisco municipalities from the lechugilla variety of agave — a smaller, greener plant than the blue agave used in tequila production.
Traditionally, a Negroni is made with dark-red sweet vermouth, but Ramos uses a dry vermouth instead, further transforming the original recipe. Made in Spain, Yzaguirre is a pale yellow vermouth aged for twelve months in oak barrels. “We played with different styles of vermouths,” Ramos says. “We tested it out a few times with guests, and they liked it.”
While the vermouth adds flavors of vanilla and cinnamon, it also contains an element of sweetness. To balance the recipe, Ramos selected Leopold Brothers' bitter Aperitivo. The liqueur's base spirit is vodka, which is distilled from wheat, potatoes and malted barley. It is then re-distilled in two separate batches: one with grapefruit peel and the other with coriander. Only the best parts of each of those distillations are saved. In a mixing tank, the grapefruit and coriander distillates are blended, then allowed to macerate for two to three weeks with cane sugar and a blend of botanicals: hyssop, petite wormwood, gentian root, vanilla and sarsaparilla root.
“To me, it’s a mix of sweet and bitter,” Ramos says. “You taste it, and you get both at the same time. Aperitivo also gives the Groni its distinctive reddish tint.
Dos Santos’ food menu is as concise as its drink menu, with a half-dozen tacos and four appetizers. But Ramos recommends enjoying a Groni with an item that isn’t even listed: the squash taco ($4), containing roasted butternut squash, leek fondue, shredded kale and cilantro pesto, topped with roasted pumpkin seeds. “We’ve already had it for a few weeks,” he says of this secret taco that will be available until the end of the year.
“There was a time when we thought that the drink was a little bitter,”Ramos says. “But guests liked it exactly the way the recipe was made — and obviously, at that point you don’t want to mess with it.”
“The Groni is a simple cocktail, but it’s great,” Ramos continues. “You don’t want something that is simple to not have any flavor. You have to know what to do to keep it simple, but also have a lot of flavor.”
.5 ounces Fidencio Clasico mezcal
.25 ounce La Venenosa raicilla
1 ounce Yzaguirre Classico Bianco vermouth
.5 ounce Leopold Brothers Aperitivo
Fill a small Mason jar with ice. Add all ingredients and garnish with an orange peel.