Tequila is technically a form of mezcal—they’re both made in Mexico from the agave plant, but that’s like saying Jenny McCarthy and Melissa McCarthy are related. (They are! They’re first cousins!) Where tequila is sharp and spicy, mezcal has a signature smoky, earthy taste that comes from pit-roasting the agave cores over wood and volcanic rock.
In fact, a more apt comparison would be to parallel mezcal and whiskey. If you’re a fan of smoky Scotch or even your regular barrel-aged whiskey, you’ll appreciate what the Oaxacans have done here. Mezcal can be unaged (joven, the equivalent of white whiskey or what marketing-savvy distillers are calling moonshine these days) or aged (reposado or añejo, varying titles that depend on how many months or years the mezcal stays in the barrels). I go with the cheaper joven variety when making cocktails with lots of citrus and other powerful flavors, since you’ll lose a lot of that aged nuance in the drink, but the smoke will still come through. Save the añejo for sipping solo, as you would a bottle of Lagavulin.
While there are hundreds of artisanal mezcal producers in Mexico, it’s highly likely that you won’t find most of them on your average liquor store shelf. Del Maguey, Ilegal, and Los Amantes are three brands that are widely available Stateside, but if you’re still hemming and hawing over which to buy, here’s another tip: if there’s a bottle with a worm floating in it, leave it on the shelf.
Obviously switching out your margarita’s usual tequila for mezcal is a stellar starting point, and highly recommended for summer porch drinking (I’ve already tested it on your behalf to make sure it works; you’re welcome). But to really enhance mezcal’s prominent smokiness, you can make one more little substitution. Don’t beet me up for suggesting—nay, demanding—that a batch of beet simple syrup come into play for a little modern margarita I like to call The Red Alert.
If you didn’t know beets were the driving force behind the stunning fuchsia drink, you’d never be able to pinpoint them within the cocktail. But the presence of the root vegetable comes through—not only in that eye-popping color, but in the sweet but robust notes that meld with the mezcal. Adapted from Eat Boutique’s golden Beet Old Fashioned recipe, beet simple syrup is just as funky as you’d imagine. Making the syrup with coconut sugar, a complex and earthy sweetener in its own right, further heightens the deep, caramelized flavor of the beets.
Tart, sweet, smoky, and a little vegetal, The Red Alert is a three-ingredient drink that’s far more than the sum of its parts. Round up your friends and sound the alarm.
Red Alert (Mezcal and Beet Margarita)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Makes 4 drinks
- 1 cup fresh lime juice (from about 8-10 large limes)
- 1/2 cup beet simple syrup (from the recipe below)
- 1/2 cup mezcal
- smoked salt
- sparkling water (optional)
Stir the lime juice, beet simple syrup, and mezcal together in a 1-quart pitcher.
Dip the rims of 4 cocktail glasses in water, then rim with smoked salt. Fill with ice and divide the cocktail evenly between the glasses. Finish each drink with a splash of sparkling water if desired.
Want to make an individual drink? Reduce the quantities to 1/4 cup lime juice, 2 tablespoons beet simple syrup, and 2 tablespoons mezcal per salt-rimmed glass.
Beet Simple Syrup
adapted from Eat Boutique
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Makes about 3/4 cup
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 pound red beets, peeled and diced into rough 1 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1/4 cup coconut sugar
- 1 pinch smoked salt
Add the water, beets, and peppercorns to a small (1- to 2-quart) saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Continue to simmer until the liquid has reduced to 1/2 cup—timing will vary based on the size and depth of the saucepan you’re using, but check after 10-15 minutes to see how it’s going.
Strain out the beets and the peppercorns, then return the liquid to the pan and add the sugar and salt. Simmer for 2-3 minutes more, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves.
Cool the syrup to room temperature and use in the cocktail above, or refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.