Mezcal and other agave distillates (sotol, raicilla, bacanora) are becoming ever more prevalent. Forget about smoke and worms: it's easy to become lost in the universe of these spirits' unique flavor profiles and aromas, and in the different terroirs, plants, artisanal production methods, and personal stories behind the bottles. There's plenty of industrial-grade mezcal on the market, but when it comes to the myriad of small-batch maestros whose distillates are making it north of the border in increasing volumes, you really need someone who's been steeped in the spirit world to guide you. These days, most of Chicago's mezcalerias are stocking with an eye toward long-term sustainability of the industry, focusing on brands that give back to the Mexican communities they came from by helping with infrastructure improvements, replanting, and education. Here's where to go to find the good stuff.
The "Agave Triangle"
Along with Estereo, these three spots form what nonprofit S.A.C.R.E.D. (Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education, and Development) calls the Agave Triangle. Donate $25 to S.A.C.R.E.D. and you'll receive a receipt entitling you to a sample of a different agave spirit at each establishment.
Six years ago, due to mezcal's exclusivity, owner Jason Lerner was forced to concentrate on small-batch tequilas, but as other agave spirits started entering the market, Masa Azul became the first to stock them in quantity. Today there are 65 mezcals, eight sotols, four raicillas, and one bacanora behind the bar. "Since we are a small place with a small back bar, we have to be quite selective," Lerner says.
Mezcaleria Las Flores
Chicago's first dedicated mezcaleria has gone through some changes since opening under former Frontera Group chief mixologist Jay Schroeder, who took a dedicated approach toward stocking the bar with agave spirits. After his departure a more generalist direction was undertaken by his replacement, Caitlin Laman, who was unavailable for comment. The future seems uncertain, but a publicist says that "there are nearly 100 bottles of mezcal and agave spirits behind the bar."
There's no better place to appreciate the vast complexity of more than 90 agave spirits than Quiote's dark, womblike, subterranean bar. Bottles are also available for purchase upstairs, as are sal de gusano (worm salt), sal de chapulines (cricket salt), and the tiny handmade drinking vessels known as copitas—proceeds benefit S.A.C.R.E.D.
With some 165 nontequila agave spirits on hand, Rick Bayless's Baja-style seafood spot has the largest nonretail selection in town, going through 50-65 bottles a week. "A lot of our sales are in mezcal-based cocktails, but we continue to see more and more neat pours of mezcal being served in the restaurant," says beverage director Jeff Walters.
Starting in 1980 with a single bottle of Gusano Rojo (now out of production), Mike Moreno Sr. increased his inventory to the more than 300 bottles of nontequila agave spirits that sit on the shelves of his Little Village liquor store today—the largest retail collection in the midwest, if not the country, with prices ranging from $19.99 to $232.99. The store celebrates its 40th anniversary on May 20 with a block party and daylong tasting of craft mezcals.
Dos Urban Cantina
A latecomer to the game, Brian Enyart's progressive Mexican restaurant added some 40 agave spirits to its list after an R&D trip to Mexico City last July.
Bar manager Sam Carlton has curated more than 90 mezcals, sotols, bacanoras, and raicillas, eclipsing Dove's tequila selection by almost half.
Where to find the sacred plant
On weekends you can find fresh pencas de maguey, or agave leaves, for sale to wrap your goat for birria or pork for cochinita pibil. Sometimes roasted agave hearts are on hand, not for distilling mezcal (that would be illegal), but for making vinegar or gnawing like sugarcane.
Garfield Park Conservatory
The conservatory's Desert Room is home to approximately 30 species of agave plants, at least seven of which can be distilled into something drinkable. A large agave americana (also known as the century plant) is expected to bloom before the end of the summer, sending its flowering stalk, or quiote, skyward to spread its seeds, a rare and spectacular sight. Occasionally offsets from the conservatory's agave plants are offered for sale in the gift shop. v