Sips of the week: Mezcal cocktails

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

"Did you just order the mule?" the server at the next table asked my husband with an air of excitement. He nodded, and quickly the waiter at the new Mezcal Cantina & Grill warned him it wouldn't be anything like a traditional Moscow Mule-but it would be amazing.

It was clear he was right on both accounts when the bright pink cocktail was set on our table, the rim of the highball glass garnished with a lime wedge. This Mezcal Mule ($8) subs traditional vodka for a combination of Cazadores Reposado tequila and Del Maguey Vida mezcal. It's finished with ginger beer, lime juice and a touch of Crème Yvette. Just like mezcal is oft referred to as tequila's smoky cousin (think what scotch is to whiskey), Mezcal's version is like a Moscow Mule's second cousin once removed. It's slightly smoky, sweet-tart like a grapefruit and slightly floral, no doubt thanks to the addition of the violet-flavored liqueur, which also gives the cocktail its pastel hue. Whereas a Moscow Mule is simply refreshing, this cocktail was refreshing and complex-a mule for the cocktail connoisseur.

We stopped by Mezcal, which opened in late August, this week specifically for the cocktails, since the bar-eatery promised to pay tribute to its namesake by featuring the rarely seen smoky liquor in a variety of cocktails. Admittedly, it's not an easy thing to do without overpowering the drink. I've seen bartenders do little more than spray a touch of mezcal on the rim of a cocktail only to shroud the drink in campfire-like flavor.

But the mezcal cocktails on the small list of house specialties toe the line well, using smoke as an asset, not something that needs to be hidden. Local cocktail consultant (and all-around bar master) Cris Dehlavi is behind the creation of this initial list. Her knowledge of mezcal (she was instrumental in bringing the Ilegal brand of mezcal into the state) shows.

Take the Flor de Oaxaca ($8). It's essentially a martini without the vodka. The drink combines Ilegal Joven with sweet and floral St. Germain, tangy and slightly bitter orange marmalade and finishes with bright lime. Smoked salt on the rim is a playful touch.

Of course there are plenty of non-mezcal cocktails, too. There's sangria made the traditional way-liquored up with brandy and sweetened (but not too much) with orange liqueur. The Corazon ($9) is basically a quick Old Fashioned with Maker's Mark, blood orange and bitters.

If you're a fan of spice (like my husband, who puts Sriracha on everything) order the Margarita Caliente ($8). El Jimador Reposado tequila infused with jalapenos for 24 hours gives the drink a peppery burn, not a tequila burn. And while it's hot, it's got a sweet edge from agave nectar, an herbaceous note from cilantro and a cooling touch from cucumber and lime.