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Josh Phillips is helping to usher in Mezcal's moment in a big way in D.C. with his 62-seat Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw. Designed by REID & TAYLOR Studio from New York with the help of muralist Yescka (an internationally renowned Oaxacan street artist), the Southern-Mexican inspired restaurant focuses on the many varietals and production styles of mezcal. (Image: Rey Lopez)

Mezcal is having a major moment and we love it

Mezcal. It's basically Tequila's way cooler older brother, which until very recently was relegated to being an industry drink. But thanks in large part to D.C. newcomer Josh Phillips and his Mezcal-loving operation, Espita Mezcaleria, Mezcal is having a huge moment right now and has caught on with the general public. I have to admit, as someone who had never heard of Mezcal but fell head over heels for it during a trip last December to San Antonio, I am super pumped for the Mezcal creativity that is happening right now in the District. With more than 100 rotating selections of mezcal available at Espita (in one or two-ounce pours, a six-ounce carafe to share, as a choice of flights or in one of the 9 cocktails offered on the menu) there really is something for every taste.

First, the basics you need to know about Mezcal:

  • Mezcal is not Tequila, but tequila is technically a Mezcal.
  • Like Champagne, mezcal and tequila can only be called such if they are produced in specific regions of Mexico. For Mezcal, that is most Mexican states, including Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan, but the majority of it is produced in Oaxaca. Tequila can only be produced in 5 states: Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas, with the majority of production done in Jalisco.
  • Mezcal can be made from over 30 different kinds of agave; Tequila is only made from blue agave. This accounts for the greater variety of taste in Mezcals.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's get to the fun part and talk to the master mezcalier (seriously, it's a thing!) himself and find out from Josh what's so great about this spirit.

So let's get right to the point. Why Mezcal? What it makes it so special to you?

At heart, I'm a giant nerd and there's no nerdier spirit than mezcal. I guess the next closest nerdy thing would be wine, and mezcal has the complexity of wine times 10. When you go down to Oaxca and meet the people who are making it, you see they aren't making it for the money because there is very little money in it; it's for respect of heritage and there's a lot of romance there.

How did we get to the point where Mezcal was "cool" beyond the service industry?

Bartenders are always the first people to grasp something new. Fernet used to be a bartender's handshake, which I never understood -- it's fine, but not great. But with mezcal, we are going beyond smoky tequila and people are appreciating it for how versatile it is. It blew my staff's mind when I'd suggest something floral instead of smoky and I think it got them really excited. You can take pretty much any cocktail across the board, based in any spirit, make it with mezcal, and it's going to be more interesting.

What's the best way to try it if you are new to the spirit?

If you aren't used to it, start with a cocktail. A lot of purists think you should never mix it with a drink, but I think that's bullshit. You can sub it in for pretty much any spirit that you like.

Do you have any signature drinks at Espita that are particularly popular?

Our version of a margarita is the most ordered drink, but we knew that would happen. If you are a Mexican restaurant, even if you don't put a margarita on the menu it will still be your most ordered drink. So we wanted to be able to control it and make sure we offered an awesome margarita, which we do. But if I had to pick the signature drink, it would be our smiling rabbit. Beyond tasting good, it's just the cutest damn drink I've ever seen -- it looks like rabbit ears in a glass.

And what is your personal favorite drink?

Right now, there is a watermelon highball. Megan [Barnes] is going to kill me for saying that because it is so much work to make, but it's great.

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