Mexico City's Mezcalerias

When daydreaming of a trip to Mexico, most people I know conjure up images of seaside hammocks under palapas, Tequila cocktails at the ready, the warm sun rendering your brain and body wonderfully floppy, like the family pet lounging in the sunniest spot in the house.

By Lou Bustamante

That mental image is an ace for a "happy place," but for me there is an alternative ideal of Mexico: sitting inside a dark, loud and crowded mezcaleria, a bar dedicated to sourcing and serving mezcal. A plate of chile-spiked orange wedges and peanuts sits next to several copitas, each little glass cradling a shot of mezcal, a distillation of agave that's a specialty of Mexico's rural hillside regions—particularly those in Oaxaca, where a majority of the spirit is produced.

These sorts of places now dot the enormous Mexico City metropolis in large enough numbers that my last trip was entirely dedicated to exploring them. The best barkeeps can detail the differences between the mezcals, explaining where and when the agave was harvested, who distilled it, what variety of agave was used, the elevation at which it was grown and the location of the village where it was distilled. They'll know the source of the heat that cooked the agave, and maybe even the type of wood used if it was pit-cooked in the traditional stone-lined palenques. It is the kind of knowledge only serious connoisseurs would assemble, and the number of barkeeps who've done this depth of research reveals the seriousness that mezcal now commands in a country most associated with Tequila.

Bar hopping in Mexico City requires a bit of planning, given there are 16 distinct neighborhoods covering 500 square miles of city.

In a way, mezcal is at the place where single-malt Scotch was in the 1970s, when the general preference for cleaner blended whisky started giving way to more complex and bolder flavors of the straight malt. In another, it reflects how the country is rediscovering its roots. And in a city built on the ruins of the original Aztec capital, where modern buildings weave in between pre-hispanic ruins, the interest in the ancient ways of eating and drinking is energizing the bar scene.

Bar hopping in Mexico City requires a bit of planning, given there are 16 distinct neighborhoods covering 500 square miles of city. The best place to start is the Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal, located on the historic Plaza Garibaldi, which is the center of the mariachi music world (you can hire a band here to serenade your friends or buy a hand-stitched outfit to bring home). For around five dollars, a trip through the museum will give you a good grounding in everything from agave plant biology to distillation details, topped off with a small taste of Tequila and mezcal in the rooftop bar.

Nearby, off the pedestrian street of Regina, is El Mexicano, a tiny mezcaleria with a small but outstanding selection of mezcals, both standards and custom-sourced, like a small-batch arroqueño, a smoky mezcal made from a wild variety of agave from Oaxaca. The bar has only five stools but there are rooms off the main bar for larger groups—and great bar snacks.

In the hip Condesa neighborhood, La Botica is a tiny space with a drugstore theme that includes serum and plasma bottles filled with a selection of custom-sourced mezcal. Careful here, as quality control is all over the place—it’s best to ask the bartenders for recommendations—but the charming atmosphere makes it worth a stop.

Nearby is one of the city’s most well known mezcalerias, La Clandestina. Come early to avoid the crowds and you’ll find an entire wall of glowing carboys filled with differ ent mezcals. The menu is encyclopedic, detailing each selection with information on proof, type of agave, producer, region, flavor profile and price. It can be daunting for a novice, but the bartenders are terrific guides. The energy gets higher as bodies pack the small space; when you have had your fill, grab a couple of Mexican wrestler–emblazoned bottles of the house mezcal to take home.

One neighborhood over, in Roma, is La Nacional, worth a trip for the selection of organic mezcals as well as an array of spirits next to impossible to find outside of Mexico. Check out the sotol, made from the Desert Spoon, a pointy-leafed evergreen; raicilla, a mezcal made from the roots of an agave plant in Jalisco; and Bacanore, made from wild agave in the north of Mexico. It’s also not a bad place to grab a bite, the kitchen focused on Oaxacan classics with a big-city twist.

For a more formal night out, reserve a table at Pujol in the posh Polanco neighborhood. Here chef Enrique Olvera references prehispanic cooking techniques and ingredients for a cuisine that is new and old at the same time. His signature dish involves baby corn smoked in a gourd with a flying ant mayonnaise, a riff on the street-food staple of mayo-slathered roasted corn. Appropriately enough, at the end of the meal the waiters wheel over a mezcal cart—an experience worthy of a "happy place."

6 Places to Drink Mezcal

La Botica, Campeche 396 (at Tamaulipas), Condesa; labotica.com.mx

a Clandestina, Alvaro Obregón 298, Condesa

El Mexicano, Regina 27-A, Centro; 5709 2492

Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal, Plaza Garibaldi, Centro; 5529 1238, 5526 6540, mutemgaribaldi.mx/home.htm

La Nacional, Orizaba 161 (at Querétaro), Roma; 5264 3106

Pujol, Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco; 5545 3507, pujol.com.mx