Chef Alexis Samayoa and owner Josh Phillips
Chef Alexis Samayoa and owner Josh Phillips

Espita Mezcaleria owner Josh Phillips saves a small shelf to the side on the backbar for his 10 bottles of tequila. But an overwhelming amount of real estate at the just-opened Oaxacan restaurant in Shaw is devoted to mezcals—around 85 of them.

The ratio flips that of most restaurants serious about Mexican agave spirits. Tequila and mezcal are almost always uttered in the same breath with tequila getting top billing. But mezcal has become a bartender darling in recent years and is growing in popularity around the country. While places like Oyamel, El Centro D.F., and El Chucho already have formidable mezcal collections, Espita Mezcaleria is the first bar in D.C. devoted first and foremost to the spirit.

That said, Phillips isn’t necessarily interested in amassing the city’s largest collection. He says there are around 40 bottles his distributors carry that he turned down. Rather, Phillips wants the best, with an emphasis on the most artisanal offerings.

“I know the word artisanal gets a bit of a backlash,” Phillips says. “My theory on that is that if there’s a donkey involved in the process, you can call it artisanal.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves, what exactly is the difference between tequila and mezcal? Technically, tequila is a style of mezcal, which according to traditional definition is an umbrella term for agave spirits produced in Mexico. Like Champagne, which can can only be made in the Champagne region of France, tequila can only be made in the Mexican state of Jalisco and other smaller, select areas of the country.

There are also differences in how the two spirits are produced. While mezcal can be made with a wide variety of agave plants, by law, tequila must be made from blue agave. And while some types of agave plants can take 20 to 40 years to fully mature, blue agave only takes five to eight years. Blue agave also has high sugar content, which means it yields more distillate.

Phillips’ shorthand history lesson on tequila: “Wealthy landowners had giant fields of this incredibly fast growing, high sugar plant, and they made the denomination of origin [a geographic area from which a product originates exclusively—again, think Champagne] only that plant, so everybody that was growing everything else had to basically burn their fields because they couldn’t call it tequila,” he says. “They were also, again, really wealthy dudes so they had really wealthy European friends, and they were like, ‘Let’s [bring] in these fancy European stills and these fancy ovens.’”

Bartender Megan Barnes

Tequila is usually made from agave roasted in a masonry oven or an autoclave, which is basically a pressure cooker. This process means the tequila can be produced in a matter of days. It takes anywhere from two weeks to a month, however, to produce a single batch of traditional mezcal. The agave hearts are cooked underground in a pit heated by a bonfire—where the spirit gets its smoky character—and then fermented in wooden open-air vats.

While smokiness is a hallmark of mezcal, Phillips says the cheaper mezcals tend to be the smokiest. “Good pastrami, the smoke penetrates the meat, whereas shitty pastrami it’s a surface flavor,” Phillips says. “It’s the same thing with mezcal.” A lot of the mezcals intended for cocktails tend to be smokier, Phillips says, but others can be delicate and floral, and he plans to use those in cocktails as well. Like wine, agave can taste different in different years. Espita Mezcaleria will offer several flights of mezcal, including one highlighting the spirit from a single producer bottled in different years.

Mezcals today aren’t mass-produced in the same way many tequila brands are, says ThinkFoodGroup Beverage Development Manager Jasmine Breedlove, who helps oversee the mezcal collection at Oyamel. “The bigger names in mezcal, their distilleries—or palenques, as they call them—they’re still really tiny,” she says.

Breedlove, Phillips, and Phillips’ wife and partner Kelly Phillips are among the few dozen master mezcaliers in the world. The certification took Phillips about a year and a half to complete but is nowhere as time-consuming or intense as becoming a master sommelier. The process involves learning about the spirit’s history, styles, how it pairs in cocktails, and more. It culminates in a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where most mezcal comes from, to actually harvest agave and make mezcal. Phillips says he had to walk through a field of agave and identify the species of plants and whether they were mature.

Phillips was first introduced to mezcal seven years ago by Colin Shearn of Philadelphia cocktail bar Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company. The two often swapped weird and rare bottles of liquor. “When the first bottle of Del Maguey came, he smuggled it from New York,” Phillips says. “He wasn’t selling because he wasn’t legally allowed to.”

“He poured me a glass, and it was that kind of that ‘holy fuck’ moment. It was like, ‘This is better than what I’m drinking,’” Phillips says. “I immediately went online and scoured the country to find whatever mezcal I could find.” At the time, though, there wasn’t much variety available.

El Chucho General Manager Kevin Zieber has likewise quickly become a fanatic. He says he didn’t know much about mezcal when he first started working at El Chucho. Now? “It’s a big part of my life,” he says.

“Mezcal is like tequila’s cooler, older brother,” Zieber says. “People who are into mezcal feel like they’re into something that other people don’t know about.”

Mezcal has made its way onto many of the city’s top cocktail bar menus, regardless of whether they specialize in Mexican cuisine. Meanwhile, El Chucho has almost doubled its collection of mezcals since it opened in 2012 to around 60 unique bottles today (plus 80 or so tequilas). At Oyamel, Breedlove remembers the bar stocked around eight bottles from two different brands when she joined the team in 2008. Today, the library consists of more than 65 mezcals (and 150 tequilas).

A rise in demand has led to increased imports of mezcal. “The sheer number of brands available in the United States is now significantly more than it was eight years ago,” Breedlove says. “We actually now have the luxury of being a little more selective.”

José Andrés’ restaurants have been ahead of the curve. A couple years ago, ThinkFoodGroup partnered with mezcal producer Del Maguey to create a mezcal made with Spanish ibérico ham. And from March 21 to April 3, Oyamel will host its ninth annual Tequila & Mezcal Festival with menu specials and tasting events featuring producers from Mexico. “José is kind of a pioneer,” Breedlove says. “He was doing the Tequila & Mezcal Festival at Oyamel before mezcal was really a thing yet.”

Despite the growth of the mezcal market, the spirit still isn’t as readily available as tequila, especially given that producers are often so small and make limited quantities. And because of how it’s produced, mezcal tends to be pricier than many tequilas. “We’re doing our damndest to make it affordable here,” Phillips says. Prices at Espita Mezcaleria start at $6 an ounce.

El Chucho’s Zieber says he’s bracing for a possible spike in pricing because the demand has exploded while the production takes so long. (Just look at what happened with bourbon.) “I’ve heard rumblings from reps and people who import the spirit,” he says. “I hope that people don’t lose interest if it becomes more expensive, because it’s really a small price to pay when you think of how many hands touch a single bottle and a single plant and all the time.”

Breedlove and Zieber add that tequila still outsells mezcal, but both agree the underdog is gaining steam. Phillips, at least, is betting his livelihood on it.

“Our hope, serious hope, is that by exposing people to this, you’ll be able to go to the corner store and get something cool,” Phillips says. “It will never be like, ‘I always go and get Bacardi’… But I’m hoping it gets to a point where people start to trust producers to make cool stuff.”

CORRECTION: This story initially referred to Jasmine Breedlove by her maiden name, Jasmine Chae.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery