Cucumber-Mint Agua Fresca with Mezcal and Chili-Smoked Salt
Nothing quite refreshes like a frosty Mexican Mezcal drink on a sweltering summer day. The new hipster “IT” drink in Los Angeles, mezcal, is shaking up the tequila market and achieving cult status. A distant relation to tequila, bacanora, raicilla and pulque, mezcal is made from the heart of the agave plant, the “pina,” which has been roasted in a conical pit lined with lava rock for several days before fermentation and distillation. In Mexico, mezcal is traditionally drunk straight up, served with a small plate of sliced citrus (lemon, orange or lime), ground chili pepper and salt on the side. In the US, Japan and Europe, mezcal is being swapped in for more traditional spirits, becoming the key ingredient in trendy craft cocktails.
Branded as an artisan distillate of the maguey plant, mezcal’s flavor is predominately smoky and earthy, with top notes that run the range of sweet and bright to savory and spicy. Produced from roasted agave rather than steamed agave (i.e., tequila), bargain brands can taste like an overpowering smoke bomb. I recommend sourcing artisanal mezcal, which leaves a subtle kiss of smoke on the tongue and nose. Descriptors for decent-quality mezcal include:” citrusy,” “floral,” “peppery,” “jalapeno,” “peppermint,” “licorice,” “nectar,” and “rubber.” I recommend getting at least a mid-range mezcal in this recipe. This drink pairs well with hard, salty cheese (gruyere, pecorino, manchego), smoked meats and grilled mild-flavored fish. Avoid pairing mezcal with strong-flavored fish (sardines, mackerel, herring or salmon) and creamy cheeses like Brie.
Cucumber and Mint Agua Fresca with Mezcal and Smoked Chili Salt
1 large English Hot House Cucumber
4 tablespoons white sugar
3-inch piece of peeled, sliced fresh ginger
1/8 teaspoon star anise seeds, about 15 seeds
4 whole cloves
4 sprigs of fresh mint
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, about 4 juicy large limes
1 cup distilled or filtered water
2 cups good-quality ice
3 tablespoons cold-smoked salt
½ teaspoon jalapeno powder
6-8 ounces mezcal
For the simple syrup:
Peel cucumber skin and reserve. Cut cucumber flesh into 1-inch cubes and set aside.
In a medium pot, add cucumber peels, ginger, sugar, cloves, anise seeds and water and heat on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves—about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to come to room temperature. Strain liquid through a fine-mesh sieve strainer into a small bowl and set aside. Throw out solids.
For the mezcal drink:
In a blender, add lime juice, cucumber cubes, simple syrup, and two cups of ice, then blend until smooth. On a small plate, add smoked salt and jalapeno powder and mix to combine. Cut a lime in half and rub the rim of the glass with lime, then dip wet glass edges in smoked-chili salt. Pour cucumber, ginger and lime mixture into a glass, top with 1-2 oz. mezcal, lightly stir to combine and serve.
Like all classic cocktails, this recipe relies on fresh ingredients to flavor the scratch-made, simple syrup, with back notes of cucumber, lime, star anise, cloves and mint lingering on the tongue. Once cooled, add the spiced simple syrup to the foundation of the drink—a strained mixture of freshly-grated cucumber, water and ice. Top with smoked, chili-spiced salt and fresh mint, then enjoy.