Order a mezcal Negroni at any cocktail bar today and the bartender won’t bat an eye. For better or worse, just about every classic cocktail, from the Margarita to the Martini, has been co-opted by the booming agave spirit. Just over a decade ago, however, mezcal was still little seen and even less understood in cocktail circles. That is, until Phil Ward introduced his Oaxaca Old-Fashioned.
“The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned was the second mezcal cocktail epiphany,” recalls Ward. The first was a simple Daiquiri variation that he created around the same time, in 2007, which unlocked the potential of the novel spirit as a modifier for him. “I thought, How can something make a drink that delicious?” he recalls. But it was the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned that gained traction beyond its bar of origin.
Today, the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned is among the best-traveled modern classic cocktails, a popular menu item and call drink at bars across the country. To see how the drink has evolved in the decade-plus since its creation, I was recently joined at The Long Island Bar by Eryn Reece, an early bartender at Ward’s agave bar Mayahuel (who recalls serving “millions” of Oaxaca Old-Fashioneds during her tenure there), alongside Ward himself, Punch editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi, associate editor Mary Anne Porto and bartender KJ Williams, who mixed the drinks for the blind tasting of recipes submitted by bartenders nationwide.
On the whole, the submissions reflected a drinking landscape drastically transformed by the meteoric rise of mezcal in America. When Ward first put the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned on the menu at New York’s Mayahuel in 2009, the requisite half-ounce of mezcal, specifically Del Maguey’s Chichicapa, was barely economically feasible. (Del Maguey’s Vida, an expression designed at a cocktail-friendly price point and proof, did not yet exist.) Today, there are over 200 mezcal brands in the United States, a boom reflected in the submitted recipes, many of which flipped the ratio of tequila to mezcal or omitted tequila altogether.
Though Ward himself admits that today he’ll occasionally make a Oaxaca Old-Fashioned with an ounce each of tequila and mezcal, the drink was originally conceived as a tequila-forward drink. “The quarter-ounce of mezcal is like putting your tequila on steroids,” he explains. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that the most well-received recipes in the blind tasting were those that hewed closely to that original idea. Others, not faring as well, were most commonly dismissed for leaning too heavily on the sweetener—“the one thing you can’t do in an Old-Fashioned,” according to Ward.
The top vote-getter was the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned of Leanne Favre, head bartender at Brooklyn’s Clover Club and the agave-focused bar Leyenda. Her recipe retains the ratio of tequila to mezcal, but she splits the former quotient between two reposados: Siete Leguas and Calle 23, while sticking with the tried-and-true Del Maguey Chichicapa. Setting her recipe apart are a dash each of mole bitters and saline solution, both welcome additions that give the drink extra dimension and pop. Also in keeping with the classic, Favre calls for a flamed orange twist garnish. Ward himself complemented the structure of the drink, calling it “the best representation of the original.”
The runner-up was the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned from Jake Powell, of Death & Co. Denver. Upon tasting it, Ward found it to resemble the original, but with the addition of mole bitters—which proved to be precisely the case. Powell’s recipe calls for an ounce and a half of Tequila Ocho Reposado and a half-ounce of Del Maguey Chichicapa, plus a teaspoon of agave nectar and a dash each of Angostura and mole bitters. Though it was a touch sweeter than Favre’s, the judges found it to read like a true Old-Fashioned. “I like how the tequila comes through, because it really is a tequila drink more than a mezcal drink,” said Ward.
The rest of the submissions were left off the podium for overcomplicating the spirit-forward Old-Fashioned construction with too many modifiers, tilting the axis of the drink away from its original intention. For the judges, the best examples showed restraint and a true understanding of the ingredients at play. “Like the Martini, [the Old-Fashioned] is a small box,” says Ward. “There’s only so much you can do to make it new.”