The Mezcal Martini Problem
A notable case in which a gin/mezcal substitution doesn't work.
From time to time, I have argued that most high-quality cocktail recipes that call for gin can be productively swapped with mezcal — the earthy, often smoky cousin to tequila.
We have seen the mezcal-for-gin swap work in drinks like the Mezcal Negroni, the Mezcal Last Word, and the Mezcal Espresso Martini. All of these drinks are not just good. They are so successful that one might reasonably argue that they are superior to their gin-based predecessors.
But I have always hedged on the point with qualifiers like “most” or “usually.” While mezcal-in-place-of-gin is often a good bet, it doesn’t always pay off. And perhaps the most prominent example of when that swap fails is the Mezcal Martini.
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Consider the conventional 2:1 gin Martini. It’s two parts gin, one part dry vermouth, and a dash or two of orange bitters. Removing the gin and using mezcal instead should just give you a hotter, more prickly drink — just like it does in a Mezcal Negroni.
Instead, it just…doesn’t work. It’s not quite undrinkable, but the herbal dryness of the vermouth clashes with the smoked intensity of the mezcal. Instead of harmony, it results in conflict, like two scenery-chewing actors yelling over each other.
Typically, then, efforts to engineer a Mezcal Martini have taken the drink in one of two directions. Some versions make it either salty and spicy, with additions like olive brine or chili liqueur. Others cut the intensity, making it sweeter, with blanc or sweet vermouth.
Cocktail journalist Robert Simonson, who wrote excellent books on both the Martini and mezcal cocktails,1 makes a Sweet Mezcal Martini that uses a Reverse Martini structure, with twice as much vermouth as mezcal. He also uses a somewhat sweeter blanc vermouth, softening the mix.
Bartender Phil Ward, meanwhile, is someone who helped pioneer the use of mezcal in cocktails. And in early 2020, he was reportedly focusing on the Martini. So you would think the Mezcal Martini would be his domain. Yet Ward once told Punch that the prospect of a Mezcal Martini “offends” him.
He does, however, have a recipe for a Martini-esque cocktail with mezcal and sweet vermouth.
Both are great drinks, and I would encourage any fan of mezcal cocktails to try them.
But Ward’s sweet vermouth version reads a little more like a mezcal version of the Martinez or even the Manhattan to me. And Simonson’s reliance on a base of blanc vermouth makes for a drink that is — by design — considerably more mellow than a conventional, no-frills gin Martini.
Like I said — these are both excellent cocktails. But neither of them quite capture the sharp, pointed sensibility I have long wanted from something called a Mezcal Martini.
I wanted a cocktail with a little more of the dry bite I tend to associate with gin Martinis, but that showcased a little more of the moody vigor of a capable mezcal.
The Mezcal Martini is, frankly, a problem. And it demands new solutions.
So for the last year or so I’ve been tinkering with a recipe designed to make that drink idea a reality. It expands on the Martini format just a little bit, with a couple of additional ingredients. But the result is a drink that satisfies my desire for a dry, sharp Mezcal Martini.
If you like Mezcal and you like gin Martinis, I think you’ll like this drink. It’s also useful as a case study in how to adapt a cocktail when straightforward ingredient swaps don’t work.
Small Steps Toward a Better Cocktail
Obviously, I started by making a very straightforward Mezcal Martini just so I could understand what didn’t work.
2 dashes orange bitters
1 ounce Dolin Dry vermouth
2 ounces Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
Served up with a lemon peel garnish
You could say a bunch of things about this mix and why it’s so frustrating. It lacks cohesiveness. The two primary ingredients clash but don’t contrast enough; it’s like listening to two trombones play the same note just slightly out of tune. The mezcal smoke seems to get lost in the herbal intensity of the dry vermouth.
But mostly it just doesn’t taste quite right. It’s not awful, but it’s clearly off.
Judging cocktails is sometimes like drafting Supreme Court rulings about major constitutional questions. There’s a lot of jargon and argument and complex, specialized knowledge involved, and there’s a pretense of objectivity. This is good. That is bad. And so forth. But in the end, a lot of it is just cover for your initial gut feeling. And my gut feeling is that the unadorned Mezcal Martini just doesn’t come together.
My task, then, was to unite the clashing ingredients, keeping the overall balance dry and bracing — which meant retaining some amount of dry vermouth in the equation.
This meant I was going to have to add another flavor — something designed to connect the mezcal and the dry vermouth, to smooth out their differences.