Mayahuel’s Philip Ward on Cinco de Mayo, Mezcal First-Timers, and the Next Big Mexican Drink

Ward, with a lot of tequila and mezcal at Mayahuel. Photo: Corinne Durand

Cinco de Mayo which is this Sunday is one of the world's great drinking holidays, but as with anything, there's a wrong way to do it (waiting in line for hours to go to some crowded bar serving watered-down, premixed margaritas) and a right way to do it. With that in mind, Grub Street caught up with Mayahuel's Philip Ward to get his thoughts on the proper ways to enjoy tequila, mezcal, and even pulque.

Lets start with tequila. Can you remember the first time you tried it?
The first time I tried it I drank something really shitty. And not just with tequila, it happens with most booze. So I did dumb shots of it, and thought it was hysterical. Of course I had too much of it, got sick, and threw up.

Thats probably most peoples first memory of tequila. You don't seem like someone who'd be into tequila shots.
Im not against them, but if youre going to do it, it has to be good tequila. When I bartend, well have a shot of tequila from time to time. Theres nothing wrong with it. Of course, its better to sip it and get a better sense of the flavor, but shots do happen. Its a sign of impatience and gluttony, but its not the worst thing in the world, either. You should just do it with a good spirit.

Where do you stand on the banderita? Pairing the tequila with a shot glass of lime juice and sangrita.
I think that just originated because people are drinking really low-quality stuff, so they wanted to disguise the taste.

So what's the best approach to get people started with tequila or get them to forget about a bad night they might have had?
Cocktails, good cocktails. They are the perfect vehicle to introduce people to new spirits. Think about when you were 16 or 17 and started drinking. You drank wine coolers, like Boones, or something that was not high in alcohol. I mean, you have 22-year-old Suzie coming in from Jersey on Saturday night, and even if I think El Tesoro de Plata is a fantastic tequila, I cant just give her a shot of it because shes never really had anything neat. Its too strong, and its going to overwhelm her. So thats where cocktails come in. You can introduce people to things like whiskey or mezcal or cognac that are really big, and full in flavor and body, without overwhelming them. Because if you do, theyre going to decide that they dont like it for the next ten years.

And its very hard to change peoples minds once they decide they hate a drink.
Yeah, think about this country. Whats the two biggest alcoholic beverages? Light beer and vodka. And the reason is because people dont have to learn how to like them. They dont taste like anything. So they just get drunk.

True. So whats one of your favorite tequila cocktails here at Mayahuel?
I like the Spicy Paloma. Its our take on the classic paloma, but instead of grapefruit soda we use fresh grapefruit, and then we infuse the tequila with jalapeños, so its spicy. We do a lot of spicy drinks.

Now, though, mezcal is really showing up everywhere. Do you remember getting started with that?
Same thing as tequila, actually. I was at a party in Pittsburgh, 12 or 13 years ago, and I was outside in the back porch because I was too drunk. My friend brought out a bottle of really garbage mezcal, and I had a sip of it and then I threw up.

When did you decide to give it another try?
The next time I got the chance I was already a bartender, so Id almost forgotten about that experience. I only remember it because of how close mezcal has come to my heart. The second time I tasted it, I thought, This shit is incredible.

But a lot of people dont like it when they first taste it.
Well, I think a lot of people think they dont like it because they dont understand it. You cant serve somebody a shot of mezcal neat for their first time tasting it. Like, I really love onions and garlic, but if Im going to teach a 5-year-old what garlic is, I wouldnt say, Hey, this is some of the best stuff, I put it in almost everything. Eat a whole thing raw. I would cut it up real small and put it in macaroni and cheese so they can acquire a taste for it.

But you drink mezcal neat.
Absolutely. Only way I ever drink it.

How do you feel about having it with orange slices and sal de gusano, or with a beer?
Well, the orange slices are a regional thing from Oaxaca, so Im not against that, but I dont do it. I like to taste all of my mezcal. And beer with a spirit is a great thing; I dont have a problem with it.

Which of your mezcal cocktails do you really love?
One of the ones I really like and weve had it on the menu since we started is the Division Bell. It has mezcal, Aperol, maraschino liquor, and lime with a grapefruit twist.

And you get a lot of mezcal first-timers at the bar?
People are always different. Their age, their experience in drinking, etc. But we just celebrated our four-year anniversary, and I cant even compute how many people weve given their first taste of mezcal, through cocktails or neat, so the most important thing to say is that people are extremely receptive. And were still in business, so I think its been very positive.

Ive heard some people back in Mexico saying that pulque is the next mezcal. Do you see that happening?
Well, theyre two different things: Mezcal is a spirit, and pulque is a fermented beverage, so theyre not in the same category. It would be amazing if more people liked pulque, because its really delicious if its made well. But its still so hard to find good pulque in Mexico. They have it at the gigantic market in Oaxaca, and at this restaurant called La Biznaga.

I love that place!
Yeah, theyre serving good pulque there now. But its really not that easily available in Mexico, let alone here. You have to make it from fresh, fermented agave, and the only way you could do that would be somehow bringing the agaves here, cooking them, and then fermenting them. Last time I checked, there werent any agave fields here.