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.
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.

Let’s 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.

That’s probably most people’s first memory of tequila. You don’t seem like someone who’d be into tequila shots.
I’m not against them, but if you’re going to do it, it has to be good tequila. When I bartend, we’ll have a shot of tequila from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with it. Of course, it’s better to sip it and get a better sense of the flavor, but shots do happen. It’s a sign of impatience and gluttony, but it’s 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 Boone’s, 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 can’t just give her a shot of it because she’s never really had anything neat. It’s too strong, and it’s going to overwhelm her. So that’s 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, they’re going to decide that they don’t like it for the next ten years.

And it’s very hard to change people’s minds once they decide they hate a drink.
Yeah, think about this country. What’s the two biggest alcoholic beverages? Light beer and vodka. And the reason is because people don’t have to learn how to like them. They don’t taste like anything. So they just get drunk.

True. So what’s one of your favorite tequila cocktails here at Mayahuel?
I like the Spicy Paloma. It’s our take on the classic paloma, but instead of grapefruit soda we use fresh grapefruit, and then we infuse the tequila with jalapeños, so it’s 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 I’d 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 don’t like it when they first taste it.
Well, I think a lot of people think they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. You can’t serve somebody a shot of mezcal neat for their first time tasting it. Like, I really love onions and garlic, but if I’m going to teach a 5-year-old what garlic is, I wouldn’t 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 I’m not against that, but I don’t do it. I like to taste all of my mezcal. And beer with a spirit is a great thing; I don’t have a problem with it.

Which of your mezcal cocktails do you really love?
One of the ones I really like — and we’ve 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 can’t even compute how many people we’ve given their first taste of mezcal, through cocktails or neat, so the most important thing to say is that people are extremely receptive. And we’re still in business, so I think it’s been very positive.

I’ve heard some people back in Mexico saying that pulque is the next mezcal. Do you see that happening?
Well, they’re two different things: Mezcal is a spirit, and pulque is a fermented beverage, so they’re not in the same category. It would be amazing if more people liked pulque, because it’s really delicious if it’s made well. But it’s 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, they’re serving good pulque there now. But it’s 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 weren’t any agave fields here.

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