Anyone who's been following cocktail culture the past few years knows a thing or two about mezcal, the smoky, flavorful Mexican agave spirit. In South Florida, it's showing up on menus anywhere they serve Mexican food and tequila.
But at a newly renovated craft beer bar located in the heart of Miami Beach, mezcal isn't just an option — it's also the star of the show.
According to owners Emanuel “Manu” González and David "El Cuervo" Alvarez, Clandestino Pub is the city's first (and only) mezcaleria, an establishment dedicated to serving various types of mezcal with a bar program strictly focused on what its founders consider one of the oldest and finest Mexican spirits.
Distilled from a mash made out of the steamed hearts of various species of agave, the word mezcal comes from the Aztec language meaning "cooked agave." Unlike tequila, mezcal can be produced from over 30 different types of agave, and its trademark smoky flavor is produced by fire-roasting the agave hearts in giant earthen pits before distillation. As a result, crafting this artisanal often creates a wide array of colorful flavors ranging from floral and fruity, to hints of red pepper and chilies.
If that sounds like something you'd be interested in learning more about, Clandestino allows you to forget you're in South Beach for a few hours, instead transporting you to a place that offers up a bizarre mix of a Mexico City cantina and Oaxaca mezcaleria.
Despite its four-year run as a craft beer bar, Alvarez and Gonzalez have made a significant push in the past several months to transform the space into a true hidden gem (the bar's name is a nod to its secret, near-hidden, and somewhat underground vibe) despite its central location off Washington Avenue.
Lately, it's become a laid back local’s hangout that doubles as a music venue and art gallery, with a new back bar that features a custom design inspired by traditional small-town mezcalerias in Oaxaca, as well as a 45-foot mural painted by Mexican graffiti artist Smithe. "Think of it as a Mexican speakeasy of sorts," says Gonzalez.
With mezcal margaritas and cocktail names like "Cabroni" and "Bandido," Clandestino is true to its mission, serving up mezcal flavors for every taste and imbiber. The menu highlights more than 30 types of mezcal sourced from Oaxaca and other regions of Mexico best known for producing the agave-based spirit.
"Our cocktail list is devoted to all things agave, showcasing the rare finds from our travels throughout southern Mexico," says Gonzalez, who traveled with Alvarez across southern Mexico to learn about the country's mezcalero families and their products. "We personally curate each and every mezcal that we serve and we’re proud to say that we're the only true mezcaleria in Miami — and actually all of Florida. Other places carry a few mezcal options but don’t offer variety, or are not focused on providing an authentic Mexican experience."
If you’re new to mezcal, a tasting flight offers a high-end introduction. Several one-ounce pours of different varieties are served in the traditional Mexican way with chili-powder dusted orange wedges. Prefer to sample some mezcal as part of a mixed drink? Patrons can choose from over 18 original mezcal craft cocktails, some named after Mexican pop icons like lucha libre wrestler El Santo, or famous artists like Frida.
Although cocktail recipes rotate every few months, a signature drink that is also one of the most popular is the "Diablito," a combination of jalapeño-infused mezcal, hibiscus liquor, and fresh lime juice sweetened with agave.
"Mezcal is a difficult spirit to work with when making drinks. It can have such a strong flavor and personality," says Alvarez. "The cocktails help to introduce people to the wide array of flavors and types out there. And what is happening, eventually we see people willing to try it neat, or on its own. Our goal, really, is just to get more people drinking mezcal."
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El Bandido (Or the Clandestino version of an Old Fashioned)
1 oz Ilegal mezcal
1 oz Bulleit bourbon
1/4 oz Ancho Reyes chile liqueur
1/4 oz house-made simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Xocolatl Mole bitters
1. Pour the ingredients in a large mixing glass and stir with a barspoon.
2. Serve into an old fashioned glass with a big ice cube. Garnish with one cinnamon stick and one orange peel.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.