We first ordered the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned back in April of 2012 at Eat Street Social in Minneapolis. Created several years earlier by Phil Ward at New York’s Death & Co, this cocktail is effectively an Old-Fashioned with an agave spirit base. While most of us think of the Old-Fashioned as a whiskey drink, you could technically make it out of any spirit. The historic definition of a cocktail is spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. The innovation here is the fantastic combination of mezcal and aged tequila.
Not too many years ago the only mezcal any of us knew about was a bottle with a worm in it. This was hard to take seriously, but as interest in craft cocktails began to grow, good examples of mezcal started becoming available. Yet, the uptake of mezcal cocktail recipes was slow, partly due to the lagging shift in attitude toward this product, but also because the often intensely-flavored agave spirit was difficult to mix. That’s when Phil Ward had the inspiration to use it as a modifier, splitting the base spirit to restore flavor balance. Death & Co opened in 2007 with this inspiring creation on the menu kicking off a worldwide mixology trend.
Oaxaca Old-Fashioned by Phil Ward
1.5 oz reposado tequila
.5 oz mezcal
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 to 2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters (substitute Angostura)
Stir with ice and strain into chilled coupe or an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel.
If you do a little research about this drink, you find that most published versions from official sources (such as the Death & Co cocktail book, or an article published in the NY Times) list the bitters as Angostura. It is our understanding that back in the day, Bittermens Xocolatl Mole was in short supply and difficult to find. You should feel free to use Angostura as that is accurate, but our first taste of this drink back in 2012 used the Xocolatl which the Death & Co book categorizes with other “binding” bitters that unite ingredients or rescue muddy flavor profiles. Xocolatl Mole appears in many of their recipes that feature multiple base spirits, so we aren’t sure why it wouldn’t be listed for this if it was indeed the original design. Angostura serves a similar purpose, but we love the chocolate notes in this drink.
Presentation is apparently flexible too. As written, the documented recipe calls for serving this up, but photos show it served in a rocks glass with an ice chunk in alignment with typical Old-Fashioned traditions. We like it both ways but enjoy showcasing clear ice for guests. It’s also a great opportunity to try your hand at the flamed orange peel garnish, a technique that sounds over-the-top, but it’s worthwhile and fun. Simply slice a disc of peel off an orange and set it down next to the drink. Strike a match, then with your free hand, pickup the orange peel, gently warm the skin next to the flame, position it near the rim and squeeze the oils through the match flame. With a nice snap, it will burst with fire and shower caramelized oils over the drink. Rub the peel around the rim of the glass and drop it in.
We love the smooth balance in this drink. A mere teaspoon of agave nectar is just the right amount of sweetener. All at once you can taste the smokiness, the chocolate and the orange. And with a decent reposado tequila and a controlled amount of mezcal, the base spirits are not overwhelming—no wonder this drink helped boost a global following for mezcal in cocktails. It’s one we will come back to often.
So, there you have it. Almost a decade in the making, we have been meaning to feature this drink for a long time. There is something to be said for trying the split-base mezcal/tequila cocktail that started it all, and it was fun to relive the smoky chocolate mystery we remember from our first sip so many years go. Our first experience back in Minnesota was proof then that this and similar concoctions have appeared on menus all over the world, so we are curious: Have you seen it or tried it yourself? If so, let us know in the comments. Do you like it better with Xocolatl or Anogostura bitters?