Washington, D.C.’s Oyamel Celebrates Tequila

D.C. spot honors mezcal with a festival
Washington, D.C.'s Oyamel recently held a festival to celebrate tequila. Above is one of the beverages featured at a cocktail pairing dinner.

As the saying goes, “You don’t find mezcal; mezcal finds you.” Recently, at Washington, D.C.’s Oyamel, mezcal found me. For those newbies like me who aren’t sure of mezcal is, know that you are not alone. Simply, it’s tequila. Technically, tequila must originate from the Mexican region of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco, and on a more limited basis from the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas, according to the Geographical Indication, a Mexican program protecting the unique identity of Tequila. Mezcal, on the other hand, is not protected, and is a tequila-type distilled spirit produced from the blue agave plant outside of these regions. Phew. Bet you didn’t think the party beverage of choice could be so complicated?

To celebrate this popular spirit, Oyamel held a tequila and mezcal festival from March 10 to 23. This seventh annual event featured tastings and cocktail pairing dinners.  The dinners were developed specially to highlight the delicate flavors of tequila and mezcal. During the festival, Oyamel rolled out a new antojitos (literally "little cravings" or small bites) menu specially designed for sampling with one of five specialty cocktails featuring tequila and mezcal. The options were flavorful and diverse. Guests could enjoy Miramar—with Herradura silver Tequila, Yellow Chartreuse, lime, pineapple, and salt-water mist—paired with the Ceviche de Chamoy or Hawaiian Ono dusted with chile piquín, tossed in a mango and chile mulato chamoy, peanuts cucumber, onion, lime, and cilantro.

Fans of colorful beverages could down the gorgeous purple-red Rosa de Oaxaca — a concoction of Mezcal, hibiscus, raspberry, lemon and a mist of tuberose —paired with Cueritos or pork skin and chicharrones dressed with lettuce, lime, cilantro and salsa cascabel. My personal favorite drink, the Agave en leña—a mix of Mezcal, Benedictine, agave syrup, housemade bitters, served over a cedar plank smoked ice sphere—and paired with Jalapeño escabeche relleno con carne seco–pickled jalapeños stuffed with dried beef and topped with chopped tomatillos. If you’re feeling saucy (and have a hefty tax refund to spend), you can order the mezcal Ibérico. It’s a signature mezcal with an Oyamel twist — aged with Jamón Ibérico or a traditional cured Spanish pig leg.

During the festival, Oyamel hosted an evening with Del Maguey Mezcal and Siembra Azul Tequila. Ron Cooper and David Suro-Piñera have both been involved with Mexican spirits in the United States for more than two decades, and spoke to an intimate group of diners on March 11th.  Both share a passion for changing a negative reputation that has been associated with tequila and mezcal.  Cooper, who works with Del Mageuy Mezcal has been focused on introducing small-batch, single-origin mezcals to the United States. Suro-Piñera of Siembra Azul told us that protecting regional production is part of the Geographical Indication program.

The dinner was carefully prepared to highlight flavors of each of these spirits with every course.  After a seven-course meal, I was stuffed. We sampled Oyamel’s signature guacamole (which I highly recommend–they even make it in front of you), roasted kale salad with cinnamon toasted pecans, Ceviche Culiacán — a smorgasbord of pickled vegetables — tamales with huitlacoche (my favorite), and delectable desserts including tres leches (also my favorite sweet) and a traditional Oaxacan chocolate custard with passion fruit and pumpkin seeds. Each was paired with a unique mezcal or tequila.

It is uncanny how tequilas and mezcals vary in flavor. Just like wine, the flavor develops as it is exposed to air and is influenced by where it’s produced.  Many factors determine how it will taste–the soil, humidity, rainfall and other crops grown in the region. Mezcal is tasted in a copita or a small terra cotta cup that’s about the size of a quarter cup. We poured our mezcal into copitas, swirled it around, allowed the volatiles to evaporate, and tasted the intricacy of the flavors. Spicy, sweet, fruity, smoky, and salty flavors all emanated from this liquid. In my Mexican spirit naivete, I didn’t think it was possible to have such a wide spectrum.  It seems that part of what makes tequila and mezcal so special is folks like Cooper and Suro-Piñera who are dedicated to promoting the traditional culture of the spirit .

“Tequila is a spirit with deep historical roots and a spirit with tremendous versatility in flavors and aromas that can sooth any pallet,” says Suro-Piñera. “A spirit with uniqueness in the people who make it and exceptional and valued raw material that embraces time, patience and passion.”

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