A copita is just a little cup, and mezcal, as you might already know, is agave spirit—like tequila. It comes from the blue agave, a long-leafed desert succulent similar in appearance (though not related) to aloe. The plant is harvested, the leaves are hacked off, and the resulting core, called a piña, resembles a giant pineapple. These are roasted then crushed and fermented, and finally distilled. Categorically speaking tequila is also mezcal, but by definition tequila is more specific because it has to come from Jalisco. Anyway, we are talking about mezcal here which is similar in flavor, having all of the goodness you get from distilled agave, but often with additional smokiness reminiscent of the roasting process. Let’s stop right here and mention that any bottle with a worm in it is just a marketing gimmick. Today, we have better choices than that, and there is some fantastic mezcal worth collecting. But you might be wondering: what’s the big deal serving a shot of this stuff in a little cup? How is that a cocktail?
Several years ago during a visit to Portland, Oregon before we made the big move, we found ourselves enjoying a few rounds at the end of the bar at The Woodsman Tavern. It continues to be one of our favorite places for great food and cocktails. At the time, Evan Zimmerman was running the bar program and he had a seasonal cocktail at the bottom of the menu he simply called Copita de Mezcal described as an ounce of Del Maguey Vida served with spicy pineapple sangrita. We were intrigued.
In Zimmerman’s cocktail the mezcal is served neat, but in a rustic style that is apparently common where it is produced. Pouring the spirit into the cutest damned little terracotta clay pots you have ever seen allows the mezcal to spread out a bit, releasing the wonderful aromas that enhance the sipping experience. So far so good. Then, alongside the spirit we have a small glass of yellowish liquid. This is fresh pineapple sangrita, a house recipe that is, as Zimmerman describes it, traditional but somewhat improvised instead of measuring exact proportions. It is fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, lime juice, cilantro and a big dose of cayenne pepper!
Pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped
Juice of one lime, more or less to taste
Small bunch of cilantro
A teaspoon of cayenne pepper, more or less to taste
Add the ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend into a smooth pulp. Hang the result from a sieve or in layered cheesecloth over a bowl for several hours to collect the juice. Ideally, you might use a juicing machine, if you have access to one. Keep the juice refrigerated and drink within a few days.
Copita de Mezcal
1 oz of mezcal (we used Del Maguey Vida)
Sangrita (see above)
Serve a few ounces of cold Sangrita in a small glass next to a copita de mezcal.
You can make sangrita using a variety of fruit juices, but if you search online you mostly find recipes with tomato. While that may be a fine beverage, some folks think that tomato juice is an inaccurate addition that was introduced over time in an attempt to match the reddish color that should come from the cayenne pepper. Since ours is based on pineapple not tomato, this should result in a yellow-orange liquid depending on how much ground cayenne pepper is added. But, we are also tossing in a bunch of cilantro which can overwhelm the reddish tint and ends up keeping our sangrita on the green side of yellow.
Your first sip of mezcal hits your nose and tongue with smoky fruit aromatics possibly followed by honey, cinnamon, and a long finish. The alcohol burn requires quenching, so you reach for the sangrita. The cold pineapple does the job, with the fruit sugar balanced with the added lime juice. The cool hint of cilantro flavor is then overtaken by a slow cayenne pepper burn! Whoa! What do you do next? You reach back for the copita again, and so on and so forth. You get the idea. One sip reinforces another, and another, for a cocktail that that is as much about the experience of slowly sipping as it is about the fine and fresh ingredients themselves.
The whole point of this is to provide a sidekick for the spirit—a deconstructed cocktail experience. It is both exhilarating and refreshing. This is also chance to sip a nice spirit and and experience the fresh flavor paring. Good mezcal can be smooth, creamy, complex and aromatic, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. Vida is a sipping and mixing mezcal that is delicious at a reasonable price point.
We realize the sangrita recipe above is far from exact, but that’s what we got, even after trying to nail down some measurements. Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to find success. You can taste your sangrita right out of the blender, pulp and all. It will be a little frothy at first, but you can test the flavor. Is it too sweet? Add some more lime juice. Can you taste the cilantro? If not, add more. Remember, the stems contain a lot of flavor, so toss them in too. Do you get some heat from the cayenne? If not, you are missing the best part. Add a little more until a small sip ensures you get some burn.
We have served this two-glass cocktail without taking the time to strain the sangrita, but we find that it separates in the glass as it sits and that tends to be distracting. Make it ahead of time so you can strain it, knowing your total volume will be less, but the result will be more refined. We used a metal strainer and the juice dripped clear like a gravity filtered fruit juice. If you can’t find a copita for mezcal service, try a small tea bowl or espresso cup. Little ceramic cups for sipping sake are also perfect for this, but the flatter the design, the more surface area you will have to enjoy the spirit’s aromatics.