April 29 2016 04:50 PM

The best most spirited way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo

La Niña del Mezcal
Photo by Eugene Lee

While gringos and gringas party it up for Cinco de Mayo because they think it's Mexican Independence Day (for the love of Quetzalcoatl, it's not) you can independently celebrate one of Mexico's finest creations: mezcal. This spirit, with its rich, smoky flavors and handcrafted quality, is steadily gaining in popularity.

Willem Van Leuven knows a thing or two about this south-of-the-border nectar. The San Diego brand ambassador at Cornerstone Marketing for La Niña del Mezcal, he's worked in the hospitality industry for 17 years, educating bar and restaurant staff on the qualities of mezcal.

Why is mezcal is so hot right now? "I think mezcal is gaining popularity because it's such a unique and different product from anything else in the market," he says. "There are many different varietals of agave along with many different production methods. Mezcal can be produced from any of 30 agave species, and can come from many different regions."

Tequila is technically a mezcal, but there is a difference. Van Leuven points out that it all comes down to production. Tequila uses only the Weber blue agave species, while mezcal primarily uses the Espadin agave species. The agaves of mezcal are typically cooked below ground in cone-shaped pits using volcanic rocks or burning oak embers, giving it that signature smoky and cooked agave flavor.

Van Leuven says the biggest misunderstanding about mezcal stems from a lack of information. "The general public simply does not have that much correct information about mezcal, or agave spirits in general," he says. "There is a lot of hearsay and bad information out there regarding such a beautiful and unique product."

The best way to learn more about the spirit is to go out and drink some. La Niña recently partnered with Puesto (1026 Wall St., and at downtown's The Headquarters) on a mezcal infusion collaboration. Other local restaurants that have done the same include Kettner Exchange (2001 Kettner Blvd.), Madison on Park (4622 Park Blvd.) and The Patio on Goldfinch (4020 Goldfinch St.). They all share infusions with each other to create unique mezcal cocktails. These are available for a limited time only, basically until they run out of infusions.

So how does Van Leuven prefer to drink his mezcal? "Neat, sipped slowly with a slice of orange, with a bit of spice or tajin on top," he says. "Good friends and conversation are always a great addition."

LAST CALL: Events that pair craft cocktails with food can be run-of-the-mill, but Small Bar (4628 Park Blvd.) in University Heights has found a unique twist. On May 24, a Mug Shots and Mules dinner will pair mug shots from real criminals with a mule (served in a mug) that's inspired by the crime committed by the suspect in each mug shot. Yes, food is also paired. It's $60 per person, and you get to keep the copper mug. Get more information at smallbarsd.com.


See all events on Wednesday, Oct 26