Bartenders are happy to report that Americans are ordering the classic cocktails: manhattans, old-fashioneds, daiquiris and so forth.
They are a little more conflicted, though, about how those drinks are being ordered: with mezcal.
“It used to be, ‘Can you use vodka instead?’” said Todd Thrasher, a bar owner in the Washington D.C., area, recalling customers who asked that a particular cocktail be made with vodka rather than the spirit traditionally used.
Now the all-around substitute is tequila’s smoky cousin. “People are going absolutely crazy about mezcal,” said Michelle Sordi, the bar director at Colonie in Brooklyn. “Any cocktail that hits our list with mezcal in it seems to sell with great vigor, but there is also a big calling for people mixing up classics.”
Mezcal margaritas, an easy leap of logic, are common orders. But Ms. Sordi also gets requests for mezcal Negronis (instead of the usual gin), mezcal old-fashioneds (in place of the bourbon or rye) and mezcal Last Words (gin again).
The practice is not confined to cocktail centers like New York and Los Angeles. Gary Crunkleton, who owns the Crunkleton bar in Chapel Hill, N.C., fields frequent requests for mezcal Aviations and Negronis.
“I can remember when the spelling of mezcal was debatable,” he said, “and now it is becoming the spirit of choice.”Charles Cerankosky, an owner or partner at several cocktail bars in Rochester, says customers have asked for mezcal instead of rum in daiquiris, instead of gin in gimlets and —his favorite twist — in place of gin in a Corpse Reviver No. 2, a cocktail made of Curaçao, Lillet and lemon juice that dates back a century.
Gin, another liquor with assertive flavors, is typically the ingredient that gets kicked to the curb in favor of mezcal. But whiskey, too, has taken a back seat in cocktails like the manhattan and the Boulevardier. And in a remarkable reversal of fortune, even vodka sometimes yields the floor.
“We’ve often been asked to substitute mezcal for the normal vodka in a Moscow Mule,” said Ben Sinon, the general manager at Geordie’s, at the Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix.
Many of these mezcal transplants work surprisingly well, given the volatile flavors of the spirit; the mezcal Negroni is an easy and felicitous switcheroo. But smoky mezcal, made like tequila from the agave plant, is hardly one-size-fits-all, and sometimes an experiment fails.
“It can work, and it can totally not work,” Jon Santer, the owner of Prizefighter, a bar in the Bay Area, wrote in an email. “Our policy for all drinks is, if you ask us specifically to mess up your drink — e.g., a manhattan well shaken, etc. — we’ll be happy to. It’s your drink, I’ll make it any way you want. Otherwise we’re going to make it correctly.”
On a recent night, Prizefighter offered, as a special, the Ideal Swizzle, an old drink that called for gin, dry vermouth, green Chartreuse and pineapple juice over crushed ice. One customer insisted the drink be made with mezcal, even after the bartender advised against it.
“They tried it and returned it, and we made them something else,” Mr. Santer said. “That’s usually how these things go.”
“The good news is that very few people, still, understand cocktails,” he added. “That keeps me employed. The bad news is many people feel comfortable enough with cocktails these days to insist on bad ideas.”
Brian Law, 51, a worker in the tech industry and a regular at Prizefighter, has a few drinks he likes made with mezcal, including an old-fashioned and a whiskey sour.
“The main reason I like to switch out a spirit for mezcal is for variety,” he said. “For instance, switching out vodka for mezcal in a Bloody Mary gives the drink a smokiness that I enjoy.”
“That,” he said, “and I’m not a fan of vodka.”