In Prospect Heights, Go Beyond the Mezcal Basics at Madre Mezcaleria

If, in your cocktail explorations, you’ve discovered that you really like mezcal but haven’t moved too far beyond that initial puppy-love stage, Madre Mezcaleria has a menu that can bring you into the next phase of your relationship. Here, on an extensive, very well-designed list, you can learn about the different varieties: the popular Espadín, Arroqueño, Tobalá, Agave Karwinskii, Ensamble and more. The approachable tasting notes range from the usual (“currant, orange zest, clay”) to the more off-the-wall (“jet fuel, lime zest, sea breams”). Through flights and mezcal-inspired takes on classic cocktails like the Negroni, you can get a deeper sense of what the über-popular spirit is about.

The person behind this temple to mezcal is Noah Arenstein, who’s also a managing partner with the next-door Mexican restaurant El Atoradero, which opened in late 2015. Madre Mezcaleria’s space used to be occupied by the much darker and more divey 706 Bar—you would never know it by the bright white walls and Mexican tiles that now line them.

“My background was whiskey, beer, bourbon,” Arenstein says. Opening El Atoradero got him to dive deep into agave spirits, and he traveled to Mexico City last year to check out a bunch of mezcal bars just in time to return and open this one in early February.

When it comes to the menu, they’re going for depth and range. “A lot of this is educational—let’s do something that’s informative but also interesting and grabs your attention,” he says of their illustrated list. “It’s funny, because you’ll see in a lot of places that mezcal is sold as ‘smoked tequila,’ which is a bummer. In my favorite mezcals, the smokiness is much lower and the fruitiness of the agave is much more represented. I think in a good mezcal, it has that balance.” He points out that it’s helpful to think of mezcal in terms of wine, with its various expressions of terroir that you can get a sense of when you dive into the bar’s tasting notes.

You also have to consider environmental impact when serving mezcal, and that’s something Arenstein has kept in mind while building their bottle collection. “You think about the production, the amount of work that goes into it, you think, ‘Well, if I’m selling too much of this, am I doing damage to the environment?’ It’s a weird balance,” he says. “There are a couple of mezcal brands and producers that are doing a lot of replanting and working toward that. We want to work with responsible producers. Our first idea was, ‘Let’s have every mezcal available.’ We have 110 bottles right now, but we want to order smartly and from people who are doing it right—paying a fair wage to the mezcalero, paying a fair price for the agaves. That’s hard, because you don’t really know until you’re on the ground in Oaxaca, but to the extent that we can, we want to be responsible.”

That focus on quality and responsibility tastes especially good in the Madre Margarita, made with pepper-infused tequila, mezcal and Triple Sec. As the weather gets warmer and you’re craving agave spirits, keep this spot in mind.

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