In recent years, Chicago's booze scene has experienced an explosion of whiskey bars, tiki bars and even more acutely focused spots like the Fernet-centric Presidio and gin-fueled Scofflaw. Nowadays, however, in Chicago mezcal looks to be in the midst of enormous growth.
Not only are bars showcasing the smoky agave-based spirit with more and more prominence (you can order a mezcal Old Fashioned at Bar Marta and The Victor Bar, for instance), but the liquor is indeed a focal point at numerous new establishments. Let's take a look at Chicago's booming mezcal scene.
Mezcaleria Las Flores // Logan Square (3149 W. Logan Boulevard)
One of the progenitors of the rising trend was Mezcaleria Las Flores in Logan Square (pictured at top). Presided over by esteemed barkeep Jay Schroeder, this marked Chicago's first official mezcal bar, where the spirit dominates the cocktail program and relegates tequila and other liquors to supporting roles.
Along with a deep mezcal list, Schroeder has implemented a slew of cocktails at his casual, Oaxacan-inspired bar. These include the Basedworld Paradise, served in a sliced beer can with Mayalen Wild Cupreata mezcal, Victoria beer, pineapple, lemongrass, Dolin Genepy, lime and chile Tajin. The Falconry Demonstration takes a lighter, more effervescent approach with hibiscus, egg white and Luxardo maraschino alongside mezcal, calvados and fresh blood orange cordial. One of the most interesting features is the Shook Ones Pt 1, which contains mezcal, coconut, fresh lemon, absinthe, cacao and sesame, fusing a bit of nutty, herbal and chocolate flavors with the heady spirit.
La Mez Agave Lounge // River North (108 W. Kinzie Street)
On the heels of Mezcalaria Las Flores came La Mez Agave Lounge. Located beneath Mercadito, the speakeasy-style nook quickly cemented the mezcal bar as a surging trend in Chicago. With more than 80 mezcals on hand and cocktails spearheaded by Dylan Stewart, La Mez serves as a glorious homage to the traditionally Oaxacan spirit. The drink list further showcases mezcal's versatility and its penchant for pairing with a wide array of spirits. Case in point, the Venadito with mezcal, sherry, piloncillo, lemon and star anise. Or the Hot Mez with a floral French liqueur called Azeve Gentiane, Grand Marnier and lime.
Leña Brava // West Loop (900 W. Randolph Street)
One of the biggest openings of 2016 (or any year, for that matter) is a restaurant with a particular significance for mezcal. Rick Bayless' Leña Brava has a mezcal list with more than 100 varieties, which we wrote about here, including a proprietary blend from Oaxaca.
Two namesake drinks are Leña Fire and Leña Ice, the former of which has the restaurant's signature Leña Wahaka mezcal, Ocho Cientos sotol, Ancho Reyes, Yellow Chartreuse, Torres orange liqueur and fresh lime; while the latter features that mezcal, Yellow Chartreuse, lime, cucumber and serrano. Other mezcal drinks include the Awesome Blossom with St. Germain, lime and Koval orange blossom, plus the Monteromero with creme de cassis, black pepper, rosemary and lime.
El Che Bar // West Loop (845 W. Washington Boulevard)
When El Che Bar, one of the year's most anticipated openings, finally lands in the West Loop, guess what one of the focal spirits will be? Considering the hearth-stoked Argentine restaurant has a heavy emphasis on fire, smoke and ash in its cooking, beverage director Bill Anderson has smartly worked to echo that with a focus on mezcal throughout the drink program. He plans on incorporating elements of smoke, heat and ash into his drinks as well, which will also contain other South American spirits like pisco and cachaça.
Broken English Taco Pub // Loop (75 E. Lake Street)
At Michigan Avenue's newly opened Broken English Taco Pub, the owner is planning his own mezcal sourced from his own father's distillery in mezcal. In the meantime, guests can sip the spirit in the form of the White Dove on a Dirty Mule, a cocktail outfitted with Jagermeister, ginger, lime and Jarritos Toronja, aka grapefruit soda. There's also the Cannonball Old Fashioned, a particularly potent rendition featuring bourbon, mezcal, fernet and chocolate bitters.
Quiote... coming soon
One of the most promising and full-fledged mezcal projects in the pipeline comes by way of Dan Salls, one of Chicago's foremost food truck pioneers and owner of dearly departed The Garage. Quiote is the name of his in-the-works mezcal concept, which will feature exclusively sourced bottles previously unavailable in the U.S. The bar and restaurant gets its name from the flowering bloom of an agave plant, and it comes on the culmination of a recent, thorough trip through Mexico where Salls delved deep into the local culture of mezcal and mezcalerias.
Photos: Mezcaleria Las Flores, La Mez Agave Lounge (Marcin Cymmer Photography), Galdones Photography (Leña Brava), and Marcin Cymmer (Broken English Taco Pub)