Last May, Mezcal went dark, but the closing of the venerated East Colfax restaurant wasn’t a permanent one. After a three-month remodel, a new incarnation of Mezcal reopened with a few tweaks to the decor, a few splashes of fresh paint and a revamped menu. When the doors opened again in late August, candles once again flickered on every table in the dining room. The drink menu was also given new life from bar manager Jen Mattioni, who was brought on as part of the reboot. One of her new cocktails is a blend of mezcal, chipotle-spiked agave syrup, and a sweet blueberry-vinegar infusion. She calls the drink 400 Rabbits ($9).
Delving into mezcal’s history, Mattioni came across the story of Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of the agave plant, from which mezcal is produced. The Aztecs believed that the sap that flowed from the agave plant was Mayahuel’s blood. Mayahuel was also associated with fertility and is depicted as having numerous breasts to feed her many children, the Centzon Tototchin — or 400 rabbits — who were gods associated with drunkenness.
“I love working with mezcal,” Mattioni says. After experimenting with several varieties behind the bar (she had 22 to choose from, not to mention 65 tequilas), she settled on Vida, one of a family of mezcals from producer Del Maguey. “It’s a cocktail-friendly mezcal,” she adds. “It’s really versatile. It has a lot of smoke on it, but definitely some bright citrus comes through.”
Del Maguey produces a range of mezcals, each one from agave grown in a specific Mexican village. This practice allows for the unique characteristics of a certain place to be expressed in the taste of the spirit made there. Del Maguey’s Vida is produced in the tiny town of San Luis del Rio, where fewer than 500 people live. The hearts of the agave plant are cooked in underground pits before fermentation, which gives the spirit its characteristic smoky nose and flavor.
“All of their different expressions are indicative of the villages that they come from, or the type of agave,” Mattioni says of Del Maguey mezcals. Vida has aromas of honey and vanilla and flavors of ginger, cinnamon and tangerine. “I wanted to play with the smoke and the citrus,” she continues, “and incorporate some more sweet elements and some more spice to kind of balance out the smoke and the citrus.”
Mostly, she chose Vida because she felt that it would be easy to work with. “It’s very versatile," she adds. "The quality is great, and Del Maguey is focused and committed to putting out a great product.”
Working with that smoke and citrus in the base spirit, Mattioni created a shrub, or a vinegar-based syrup. Shrubs were common in Colonial-era America and are experiencing a resurgence in popularity as an ingredient in beverages. “I always thought that they were very interesting,” Mattioni says. “Back before refrigeration was really widely used and available, shrubs were a great way to preserve fruits and different produce.”
To make her shrub, Mattioni mixes two cups of of chopped blueberries with a cup of sugar, allowing the two ingredients to soak overnight. “What the sugar does is pull out all of the juices in the blueberries,” she explains. She gets about one cup of sweetened blueberry juice from the initial infusion, to which she adds a cup of apple cider vinegar.
“I do think that using shrubs is something that you have to be careful about, because they’re syrupy,” Mattioni says. “I used apple cider vinegar, which is a sweeter vinegar. It definitely added the sweetness that I wanted to cut the smoke of the mezcal.”
Her search for more sweetness for the recipe led her to Mezcal’s kitchen, where she found chipotles, the smoked chiles often used in Mexican cuisine, and agave syrup. She combined the two into a syrup by boiling equal amounts of water and agave syrup and then adding the chipotles. “I let that sit for a day, so it picks up the smoke and the heat off of the chipotles,” she says. “They’re only about a five on a one-to-ten scale of spice level, so they’re not too spicy — but there’s still a nice little smoky bite in there.”
At first she thought the shrub and agave syrup added too much sweetness to the cocktail, which is why she decided to add more spice, in the form of serrano peppers. When preparing the cocktail, she muddles a few slices of serrano in the bottom of the mixing tin. The crushed peppers leak their flavor — and heat — into the rest of the liquid ingredients. The result is a spiciness that stands up to the sugar and agave. “I think it needed the peppers, for sure,” she says.
Mattioni recommends enjoying 400 Rabbits with Mezcal’s salmon adobado ($15), which comes with black beans, Mexican squash, spinach, pico de gallo, crema, and a corn quesadilla. “The fattiness of the salmon goes well with the acidity of the drink,” she says.
Mattioni’s new role as Mezcal’s bar manager has given her a new perspective on mezcal, and she wants more people to experience this oft-misunderstood spirit. “I think people are getting more interested and inquisitive about mezcal,” she says, “and I think that if people are apprehensive about drinking it straight, then a cocktail is a great introduction to it.”
“The feedback is great,” she says of 400 Rabbits. “It appeals to people who are looking for a sweet drink, and to people who want a little bit of spice. I want people to get excited about not only cocktails, but mezcal cocktails.”
Mattioni aims to keep introducing people to mezcal by talking passionately about it over the bar top or making cocktails that play on the various aspects of its flavors to uncover the spirit behind the smoke.