Holy smoke

Bartender Matt Rainey finishes mixing a mezcal cocktail at Blind Dog Tavern.

Bartender Matt Rainey finishes mixing a mezcal cocktail at Blind Dog Tavern.

Photo/Jeri Chadwell

Blind Dog Tavern is comfortably busy most weekday evenings. Since opening in October, the bar has introduced a series of weekly events to bring in the crowds. There’s Mezcal Monday, Tiki Tuesday, Whiskey Wednesday and a few others.

Bartender Matt Rainey—who has helmed Mezcal Monday for the last six weeks—said there’s a point to the events, aside from the obvious opportunity to use catchy alliterations.

“You know, it’s always fun to have a little daily thing going on,” he said. “We get to create our own cocktails. It gives all of the bartenders a chance to experiment.”

For Rainey, playing with possible combinations of smoky tasting mezcal—a cousin of tequila—and other flavors is exciting. On this evening, he’d decided to mix up a minty, apple-flavored mezcal cocktail, a riff on a recipe he found online.

“I do what every good bartender does and just take something on the internet and change it a little bit,” he said, laughing. “Sometimes I come up with my own, you know, when I have little bursts of inspiration.”

One week, he mixed mezcal with elderflower liqueur, a flavor combination that might not spring immediately to a cocktail neophyte’s mind. And mezcal can be an intimidating spirit for newbies, too. People who’ve heard of it often associate mezcal with the larvae that are sometimes placed in bottles. But mezcal that’s sold stateside rarely contains larvae, which, according to author and Serious Eats contributor Michael Dietsch, isn’t really all that traditional and “only dates back to about 1950, when a clever marketer started adding larvae to bottles, having discovered that they could help mask the chemical taste of a poorly made product.”

The mezcal used at Blind Dog is not a poorly made product. It’s El Silencio Espadin Black Bottle Mezcal, an artisanal variety made in small batches in San Baltazar Guelavila, Oaxaca, by ninth-generation mezcalero Pedro Hernandez.

As Rainey mixed the ingredients for the cocktail, he shared some of his own knowledge about its central ingredient.

“Did you know that all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila?” he asked. “They’re very similar spirits. They’re basically made in the same way, but the difference is that tequila can only be made in five states in Mexico … and has to be made out of blue agave. Mezcal is a little bit more liberal. It can be made in eight states in Mexico, and it can be made with any type of agave.”

Another difference is that the agave for mezcal is roasted in underground, earthen pits, whereas tequila agave is often cooked in an autoclave or steam-injected oven.

“The roasted flavor adds the smokiness, kind of like peat to Scotch,” Rainey said.

The cocktail he created this evening—a blend of mezcal and apple brandy with dashes of sweet vermouth, Fernet Branca and maraschino liqueur, stirred together—had an aromatic, breathy quality. It was a boozy drink, with powerful flavors of smoke, herb, mint and apple.

It might not be for everyone, but owner Josh Callen said that doesn’t really matter. If a person tries a special cocktail and hates it, they’re welcome to something else, generally on the house. He just wants people to experience new flavors.

“I feel like if you have an experience like that, you’ll be more prone to continue,” Callen said. “And it’s fun for us that way.