It’s no mistake that when you sit down at a tequila bar the first thing the bartender does is pour you a glass of water. And boy, did we need a couple of glasses when TLK scoured New York City to come up with our five favorite Latin inspired bars.
Our top picks are not the kind that serve shooters, lime, salt, and a side of neon and kitsch. These spots are a bit more sophisticated, serving complex cocktails made with tequilas and mezcals, each with their own unique flavors. “People used to think tequila was just for margaritas… but not anymore," said Phillip Ward, partner at Mayahuel and the brains behind their elaborate beverage program. "Throw mezcal into the mix and you get all those smoky and earthy flavors. They are both very versatile and we mix them with all sorts of unexpected ingredients such as fresh herbs, sherry, red pepper, or carrot juice."
Take, for example, Ofrenda’s The Naturalys (shown above), which is made with silver tequila, fresh beet juice, ginger, pressed lime juice, agave nectar, angostura bitters, and served with a smoked salt rim. Cocktails like these can be found around glorious NYC, you just need to know where to look. Here’s our list of the five best Latin cocktail bars in NYC.
A Latin speakeasy, Mayahuel opened 4 1/2 years ago by Phillip Ward and the mixologists who made sister cocktail bars Death & Co. and PDT famous. At Mayahuel, however, the focus is tequila and mezcal. But don't ask this legendary mixologist, Ward, for his favorite. He says, “There is only one thing you should have a favorite of, and that's who you have sex with, with everything else you are just being lazy.”
You certainly cannot be lazy when you open Mayahuel’s drink menu and have the choice of more than 50 cocktails. “We take pride in making each one the best, so if a bartender tells you they have a best drink, they are not doing their job.” He did explain that he sees more and more people craving spicy or savory cocktails over sweet. But for one that satiates both, try That’s All Folks ($13.00), made with a mezcal that is infused with chile de arbol, fresh lime, carrot juice, and cilantro.
As much a restaurant as tequila bar, Añejo Tequileria does both exceptionally well.
“People don’t come in here asking for Patron, and if they did, I would try to sell them on something else,” says knowledgeable bartender DJ Brown. “I want them to try so many of the other great tequilas, and we have about 65 different ones here.” They also have a very extensive mezcal list. “For an introduction to mezcal, start with a reposado by Ilegal Mezcal,” advises DJ.
Margaritas are still a popular mainstay at Añejo. Their two best sellers are on tap, made daily. The Blanco ($10) consists of un-aged tequila (Milagro blanco), fresh lime, Combier (an orange liqueur), and agave. But don’t leave without trying the Añejo ($13). It's made the same way, except they use El Jimador tequila that has been aged in old bourbon barrels and gives the drink aromatic and flavorful vanilla notes.
Ofrenda features an extensive selection of tequilas as well as mezcals that range in price from $10 to $85 a shot. Their cocktail menu, created by Jorge Guzman, changes seasonally, and often incorporates his latest ideas, but mainstays include a traditional margarita and the Smoky Jalapeno Margarita ($12) made with Pavoneo tequila infused in-house with morita peppers, orange liqueur, fresh lime juice, agave, and a house-made smoky salt rim.
“These days a lot of customers are looking for an introduction to mezcal, because it's becoming more popular,” says bartender Igor Sokol, “and we are happy to educate them.”
Casa Mezcal is one of those places you never want to leave. With an intriguing list of specialty cocktails crafted with house-made juices and rimmed with signature salts, we wanted to try them all. But we knew with a place with mezcal in the name, we needed to stick to learning more about Mexico’s latest spirit to cross the border. “That is the beauty of mezcal,” said Casa Mezcal’s multi-tasking bartender between pours. “Mezcal is starting to get refined, becoming more and more like wine. The menu is organized by the region that it grows so you can begin to understand its flavors.”
For beginners, house label Los Amantes ($12) is highly recommended. It's made in Oaxaca and served with an orange slice and sal de gusano, or dried pepper and worm salt, a traditional Oaxacan flourish. Your instructions? Take a sip and then eat the fruit as a chaser. Prefer a mixed cocktail? No problem. For something refreshing, try Juchitan ($14) with rosemary infused mezcal, gin, mint, ginseng, and lime. Prefer something spicy? We (and everyone else) loved Llano En Llamas ($13) with mezcal joven, basil, lime, pineapple, Serrano pepper, and St. Germaine.
Downstairs at midtown restaurant Zengo, you'll find the spacious and inviting Biblioteca tequila bar. Once settled, we asked bartender Devon Chiappetta her thoughts on where to start with their vast menu, and she pointed us to the Cucumber Serrano Martini ($13) with Scorpion Silver Mezcal mixed with Serrano, cucumber, and a Serrano/lemon/lime simple syrup. As she explained, “this one is made with a mezcal which is only a little smoky, but if you want it with more smoke, I prefer Fidencio Classico Mezcal.”
Biblioteca’s menu is filled with cocktails that use interesting flavors and fusions from pumpkin and banana to fig and nutmeg. Another keeper? The Tamarind-Togarashi Margarita made with Avión Silver tequila, tamarind, and a lemon/lime simple syrup. The best part of Biblioteca is its commitment to its customers. Here, you can buy bottles, store them in their tequila locker for up to six months, and come in and sample your bottle anytime you want, at no charge. Now, that’s some serious Latin-style service.