Adorned with stunning artwork, Espita Mezcaleria stimulates the senses with a sophisticated atmosphere and powerful, stunning cocktails.
Overall Rating: 4.25
A couple of months ago I was walking around Shaw and observed some interesting Mexican window art going up in a restaurant space. Intrigued, I began reading up on this new restaurant Espita Mezcaleria, which promised to celebrate two culinary traditions I knew almost nothing about: Oaxacan cuisine and mezcal. Espita has a fun backstory: I’d recommend Jessica Sidman’s (@jsidman, very much worth a follow) great article earlier this month on the genesis of the restaurant.
Now, I have to be honest, I’m a mezcal sceptic – I’ve had it several times but never embraced the earthy, smokey taste. But my hesitancy melted away as I spent more time at Espita. The dark-hued and good size bar conveys a nice, subtly sophisticated vibe and features really great service; the two nights we were there it was packed to the gills, but the bartenders and waiters held up very well and were very pleasant to deal with.
While drinking at Espita, I was also lucky enough to chat with Kelly Phillips, one of the partners in the restaurant and a real-life “Mezcaliers” – a mezcal sommelier. Ms. Phillips gave some great background on the spirit and how she was first introduced to it at Franklin Bar in Philly, one of my favorite cocktail spots in the world. It was so heartening to meet a restauranteur with such passion for the work!
That passion can also been felt in the stunning artwork that adorns the walls of Espita: vibrant murals painted by Yescka, a Mexican street artist, pay homage to Frida Kahlo and Dia de Muertos, and utilize eye-catching color schemes and techniques. The guerilla feel and energy of the aesthetic stuck with me, and I found myself taking time away from friends and cocktails to stare and study. Beautiful.
Drinks drinks drinks! Again, mezcal is a hard sell with me, but I still had a great time with Espita’s cocktail list, forged from fire, smoke, and peat by bartender Megan Barnes. Out of the eight cocktails we tried, I loved three standouts and didn’t find one boring mix. Sure, some of the tastes and mezcals tested my tolerances, but cocktail drinking isn’t always about finding pleasant drinks you can quaff five at a time. If it were, I never would have moved on from Moscow Mules. To me, learning about cocktails means drinking everything, sipping them slowly, and mulling intriguing and daring ingredients. And there are plenty of opportunities for that at Espita.
The party started simple and sweet with the “Ginger and Cucumber” featuring, well, ginger, mezcal, and club soda. In most bars this would be an airy, pleasant, and forgettable summer drink, but with that mezcal fire added in, there’s a peaty pop under the fresh ginger, agitated by carbonation. Simple and forgiving, it’s a good introduction to mezcal for the uninitiated. Things get a little more complicated with the “Guajillo” with mezcal, mango, and watermelon. This standout was very nice — I’m not a fan of watermelon in cocktails, but it is incorporated so well here, lending a sugary and fresh cover to the mezcal bite. The mango was also delicious, strengthening and energizing the drink’s tropical character.
The next two standouts were my favorites at Espita. The striking “Smiling Rabbit” with Siete Misterious Doba Yej, Suze (a French bitter often sipped as an aperitif), lemon, pineapple, and cinnamon. This drank sang to me with a peppery citrus cut that syncs with the smoke and earth for a consistent, easy sip. So well-balanced, this combination of fruit and smoke is one of my favorite cocktails this year. The quality level stayed high with the “Que Onda” with Espadin mezcal, rum, lemon, and cold brew! Yep, coffee and smoke, a marriage made in heaven. Loved this looker with an extraordinarily complex and harmonized set of ingredients, with the smoke cascading into the sharp and strong citrus. The rum props it all up, and the coffee is perfect seasoning. It’s one of those drinks that makes your mouth water when you write about it.
On to the “Mayahuel” with Espadin mezcal, lime, raw agave, and Legit Triple. This is an up-front heavy hitter, naked mezcal flavor, with only a light tinge of lime and tropic zest for distraction. Ok. The fire rose with the “Quiet Rebel” with Espadin, cognac, sweet vermouth, absinthe rinse, and maraschino. This was clean and pretty smoky, but I didn’t love how the vermouth came on after that initial hit of mezcal. Looked gorgeous though, and an interesting if somewhat “off” taste, in my very humble estimation.
We ended in utter darkness with the “Por la Sangre” with sherry, sweet vermouth, Reposado tequila, and orange bitters. This was a decent, dark mix with a light touch from the sherry and vermouth. Dense and resonant, it is one to sip slowly and appreciate the contrasting flavors. Our finale was the “La Llorona” with Espadin mezcal, bitter spirits, vermouths, and Mexican fernet. Another in-your-face, mezcal on the front-end wallop, this is for mezcal fans only with a harsh, bitter, smokey heat that dominates. I suppose that sort of genuine and uncompromising mezcal drink was a good way to end the fun evening at Espita!