This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
The prospect of another agave-based spirit may lack allure, given the tequila tales most Londoners have to tell. But mezcal — tequila’s sophisticated and smoky sibling — is different.
Mezcal started gaining popularity on east London’s cocktail scene around 2014, flying in on the coat-tails of tequila, the latter is now facing crisis because the agave varietal it is produced from — the blue agave — has been severely over-harvested. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from the more than 30 different agave plants native to Mexico; seeds are roasted in underground pit ovens to produce its characteristic smokiness.
It is a spirit steeped in history: the Aztecs started distilling it 500 years ago — until it was banned by the Spaniards during colonial times as they wanted a monopoly on alcohol production. So it became an underground home-brew used by Mexicans to celebrate weddings, grieve deaths and as a toast on Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Mezcal production is widely considered to be Mexico’s most matriarchal industry, with family recipes often passed down the matrilineal side. Today, families and villages are still at the heart of mezcal production, with each adding their own unique flair and flavours.
In the UK, our nearest equivalent in strength and flavour are probably whiskies from Scotland’s west coast. Mezcals are just as diverse — and sipped by the tot as a digestif, traditionally with a slice of orange and worm salt. (That is, salt with ground agave-plant larvae in it.)
Mezcal may lack the fire and vim of tequila, though it redresses the balance with a floaty feeling of happy nonchalance. It can also be enjoyed year round: mezcal can spice up a Margarita in summer, though it reaches its apex in a Negroni, in which it can be used instead of gin. It also makes a warming wintry drink, with its rich palette of smoke, coffee and chilli chocolate.
Equally snug are the bars where mezcal can be found in London — some are painted in warm ochres, others offer candlelit jazz. They’re conscious that mezcal is not for everyone, so most have good cocktail selections and serve excellent Mexican cuisine too. But the curious will be rewarded: bartenders are passionate about the drink and its history, and will guide you expertly past the layer of smokiness that pervades most mezcals to the deeper notes beneath.
Below are five mezcal bars spread across London where you can linger, dance and explore the new flavours that are exciting the capital’s ever-expanding palates. Indeed, these multipurpose mezcalerias roll every aspect of London nightlife into one.
92 Stoke Newington High Street, London N16 7NY
Good for: Everything from late-night food to live jazz
Not so good for: Its events can be quick to sell out — it’s a popular spot — so book early via its Instagram account
FYI: The women behind Doña co-founded London Mezcal Week, and the bar also operates as a cultural space
Easily distinguishable by its sequin-clad entrance, Doña has rapidly become one of the highlights of Stoke Newington’s bar scene. Founders Thea Cumming and Lucia Massey also use it to provide a platform to up-and-coming women artists. Here, they primarily serve female-owned brands such as Quiquiriqui and Cumming’s own, coffee-infused Dangerous Don.
Doña is an underground, womblike space, with its long curved bar, red banquettes and sultry lighting. Though the decor is based on Harlem jazz clubs and Mexican bodegas, it also has a distinctly parisienne after-hours feel. Instead of absinthe, however, one’s spirits are lifted by the mezcals and agave-based cocktails, from the light, orange-infused Destilado con Mandarina to a deeper, darker take on a Margarita.
Between Tuesdays and Saturdays, Doña hosts live jazz, comedy, poetry readings, life-drawing classes and DJ sets. It has teamed up with the fun taqueria above it, Tigre, which serves Mexican food with a hearty dose of spice. You can eat upstairs at Tigre, or have your meal brought down to the moody depths of Doña while watching a show.
Decimo at The Standard
10th Floor, 10 Argyle Street, London WC1H 8EG
Good for: A mezcal-fuelled date night with excellent food
Not so good for: A casual lunch — Decimo’s prices merit an occasion
FYI: It also offers spectacular views across London
In Mexico, there is no drink without food. And food is truly where Decimo excels. Though small, each plate packs a satisfying punch. The lamb with a smoky chilli chocolate sauce (of alleged 27 ingredients) is an ecclesiastical triumph of a dish, tasting like Christmas and Easter all in one. Charred vegetables hide soft insides. Best of all is the simple yet perfectly cooked hake, which showcases Decimo’s mastery of the fundamentals as well as the fashions.
And then there’s the mezcal. Amid the rich furnishings and open fireplaces, here they really smoulder. The barstaff are very helpful with the extensive list — called “The Agave Programme” — which ranges from floral and accessible varieties to a Montelobos with an ashy pepper hit that goes straight through the nose. Last Palabras, a mezcal, lime, maraschino and Green Chartreuse cocktail, beautifully combines citrus and smoke.
Lower Ground Floor, 9 Seymour Street, London W1H 7BA
Good for: Really getting to grips with mezcal
Not so good for: A filling meal (there are small plates available, but greater sustenance should be sought at the restaurant upstairs, which earned a Michelin star in February)
FYI: There’s an events space and a long table to book for large groups
Hanging basket lights are all the rage — and at KOL most of all. Wooden ceiling fans and wicker lend a tropical vibe to the bar, despite its underground location. The crowd is youngish, professional, artistic. The mezcal sommeliers here are very serious.
Ingredients for the food and cocktails are sourced from around the UK, resulting in a novel blend of British flavours grafted on to Mexican concepts. Sorrel, juniper and quince combine with chilli, smoke and mezcal. Best of all is the special agave martini containing pine distillate, and the breakfast martini infused with rhubarb. Food comes as an assortment of small plates, affectionately called antojitos (“little cravings”) in Mexico. Most intriguing of all is the octopus tostada (no doubt sourced from local British octopodes).
Bar manager Maxim Schulte believes there is no such thing as a bad mezcal, as it still retains its community spirit of brewing and flavouring in Mexican locales. His personal favourites at KOL are the pechuga mezcals, which are traditionally made by hanging a chicken or turkey breast and dried fruit above the still to add to the drink’s final flavour.
103 Hampstead Road, London NW1 3EL
Good for: A hearty lunch
Not so good for: Location. It’s not in a particularly exciting area, near the HS2 construction dead zone
FYI: There is an attached supermarket where you can pick up all sorts of Mexican goodies, and dancing and tacos downstairs on Thursday evenings
Mestizo is the perfect place to come the day after you’ve perhaps visited too many mezcal bars and need a fortifying meal. The first thing you’ll be offered is an enormous tankard of beer, lime and chilli, a Mexican remedy called a michelada — “my cold beer”. Once that is out of the way, you will feel ready for food and, of course, more mezcal.
The food here is authentically Mexican. Portions of quesadillas and slow-pulled pork tacos are grand and filling — and reasonably priced. You could happily do an evening lock-in here too, given the extensive cocktail menu and convivial atmosphere. Try the tamarind and lime mezcal concoction, or a 25ml nip of Amores limited-edition mezcal that tastes floral and precious.
Manager Alvin Ziwa Nyombi, who did a mezcal-tasting apprenticeship in Mexico, recommends sipping the spirit with a slice of orange in your mouth to “open up the flavours”. He says the best mezcal he’s ever had was a uniquely inventive home-brew, spooned from a large vat filled with moss and fungi. At Mestizo, the closest to this was an earthy, clay-pot-distilled Pierde Almas Dobadaan.
El Pastor, Borough Market
7A Stoney Street, London SE1 9AA
Good for: Upbeat, post-work drinks
Not so good for: Quiet intimate catch-ups
FYI: There are also branches in Soho and King’s Cross, but to my mind the best one is Borough Market
Tucked in a buzzing corner of Borough Market under the railway arches, El Pastor’s warm, vaulted brick chamber feels as though you are imbibing in a giant pizza oven. (Seating is also available outside in a covered and heated area.)
El Pastor was one of the first places in London to serve Mexican food and mezcal together, and its signature cocktails such as the Negroni El Pastor and the Mezcarita have become classics. The packed restaurant means the bar staff here are extremely busy, so they have provided mezcal guidance on the menu instead — choose between “silky and smooth” or “dark and smoky” varieties. Tasting notes are added too, but it’s more fun to guess whether you can detect grapefruit or peach, copper or volcanic ash in the mezcals. My personal favourite is the Mezcales de Leyenda Durango, which the menu describes as tasting like “a stroll through Borough Market on a spring morning”.
El Pastor unleashes scorched-earth tactics on its food, with most dishes either barbecued or smoked. But balance is achieved — the deep, slow-cooked meats and spiced vegetables are cut through with the coolness of guacamole, a slice of citrus and a drink.
What are your favourite places to drink mezcal in London? Tell us in the comments
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