Mexico City is layered. And I mean that literally, as the modern city sits atop an Aztec city that was once the biggest and most vibrant in the pre-Columbian Americas, and all of it is sitting atop the remnants of Lake Texcoco, which was drained in the 17th century (a situation with serious present-day ramifications as there is now a massive metropolis in a seismically active region sitting on a lake bed). I also mean layered culturally, as it has a vast diversity of people and influences and traditions. The surface never tells the whole story (even street murals can be dialogues, with multiple artists painting over each other’s work in a kind of call and response). Walk through a door from the street and you’ll find yourself, not inside a building but surrounded by trees in a three-story courtyard. Sometimes you can walk through, say, a refrigerator door, and find yourself in a swanky nightspot disguised to the casual eye to be a rustic taco joint.
You cannot apprehend anything in this town with a casual look. There is almost always something you’re not seeing.
As to how your vision and discernment might be affected by the fact that you had an extensive tequila tasting at lunch? I can make arguments for it being an inhibitor, or an enhancement. Let’s not go there and just say that our subject of study in this case was Milagro and that the bottle I’d give to a tequila nerd as a gift is the Select Barrel Reserve Reposado, which has a beautiful bottle with a glass agave plant “growing” out of the bottom, a lovely straw-gold color and a silky, very sippable character (layered, if you will: Citrusy, spicy, woodsy, with traces of vanilla, resinous herbs, honeycomb and something that just registers as “agave”). That said, the silvers and añejos are also very much worth your time.
Let’s start with the fact that one of the best bars in town (in the eyes of some, one of the best in the world) is in one of the places you’d least expect: The Four Seasons. Not that I have anything against The Four Seasons, they have some stunning properties and Mexico City is no exception-but honestly, a lot of the time there are bars, and then there are hotel bars. But wandering into Fifty Mils expecting “a hotel bar” will set you up-well, honestly, it’ll set you up to have your hair blown back so maybe you should stop reading this so you don’t spoil the surprise. Fifty Mils is beautiful, eclectic, both sleek and cozy, with an intimate atmosphere, elegant décor and most importantly, absolutely delicious cocktails. It’s a barman’s bar where internationally known mixologists frequently drop in for a guest stint, but if you don’t happen to be an insider in the ranks of elite mixologists, believe me, you will not feel out of your depth, you’ll just be psyched by what you were served. Standouts included an “oh my God I want six of these” pina colada riff that included Milagro Silver tequila, sparkling wine and fresh coconut cream, and a drink called “Billy the Kid” that looks like some kind of Dark Arts mug of steaming cocoa from a distance, but is actually bourbon, vodka, caramel tea, lemon, cinnamon, saffron and bitters served on a charred wood plank that’s been torched so it arrives smoking (and filling the room with an unbelievable toasted marshmallow scent). It’s balanced as a prima ballerina and absolutely decadent.
Hidden in less-than-plain-sight are an upwelling of speakeasies-not just in Mexico City, to be sure, but there are some pretty awesome ones here. Hanky Panky in the La Juarez neighborhood is perfect for anyone in need of insider thrill factor, as it’s by reservation only and hidden behind a slightly decrepit looking taqueria. Walk into the “storage closet” and you’ll find yourself in a jam-packed and enthusiastic crowd of Beautifuls being fed beautiful drinks by some absurdly beautiful bar-deities. One of my companions and I got arguably more altered by the mesmerizing hand movements of our mixologist than by the palomas and tequila Manhattans he was serving (I’m normally a bit of a Manhattan purist, but my friend’s allegiance to Milagro proved influential and as it turns out their reposado is a damn fine variant on bourbon).
Should you find you are too much under the influence of the reposado or the sexy sexy hands of the bartender, Hanky Panky will happily help you sober up with a plate of bracingly spicy tacos al pastor, which you will probably need because Mexico City is not a sleepy town and if you feel like drinking until sunrise it is easily accomplished. For example, you might head to Maison Artemisia in the Roma del Norte area, where you’ll find a lot of expats and visitors and what I believe scientists term “a crap-ton” of absinthe. (Artemesia is the genus name for the group of shrubs that includes wormwood, credited with giving absinthe that certain je-ne-sais-craycray.) Now, personally, I learned the hard way at a certain writer’s conference that when it’s the end of the evening and your wingman is about to say “Well, I’m heading back to my hotel, wanna share a cab?” and instead says “Hey, look, this bar has absinthe!” I specifically need to not drink absinthe. You might be different. But when you’re in Mexico City and your wingman is a Milagro evangelist… hey, that’s different. Ask whoever’s pouring to make you something with that and you’re unlikely to be disappointed because honestly it’s really good stuff. Traditional but fresh, malleable, unpretentious, expressive. A lot like the city, actually.
If you’re of a more mystical bent, your night-spot is Xaman. This bar unfolds from an unprepossessing front to a deliciously spooky little universe of its own, wreathed in incense smoke, full of trance-inducing music and walled with plants in bell jars. Here you’ll find some seriously mind-bending cocktails crafted from ingredients ranging from the conventional to the eclectic to “this was conventional 1000 years ago.” Presentation is super-artsy and leans heavily into ancient motifs, scrolling curls of smoke and mysterious garnishes (I do not recommend biting into those moringa seeds. They’re wickedly bitter and it stays with you the rest of the night, and as I said, it might end up being a long night.) If Mayan Medicine were an elective at Hogwarts, this is what the lab would look like. It is seriously transporting and that’s before you start downing the painstakingly crafted drinks.
If you look at an agave plant, you’ll see an expression of the Fibonacci number sequence, the mathematical expression of the Golden Mean. It’s not unique to agaves: You can see a similar spiral growth pattern in rose petals and pine cones, pineapples and palm trees. It’s a strategy for packing density that maximizes photosynthesis by giving each leaf optimal exposure to sunlight. (Plants are smart.) And there is something really eloquent about that fundamental design, one leaf growing in response to the one before it, elaborating, twisting. Layered. The transformation of a plant to a spirit entails all the senses of the word “spirit,” really. Terroir is what we call “spirit” of place, in which what we mean is essence or soul. The word’s original meaning is breath, and by extension, life. Spirit in the sense of “alcoholic distillate” comes from the language of alchemy, and the transformative process that turns a plant into a liquor is probably as close to alchemy as anything really is.
Yes, I did get all that from a tequila-powered bar crawl through Mexico City. Tradition, and innovation. Antique and nouveau. Aztec and Spanish and Deco and Modern. Pattern and variation. Matter and spirit, mythic and kitschy and folksy and Baroque in a constant conversation (in the space of 24 hours I attended a Lucha Libre match-no, you may not borrow my hot-pink mask-and had a humbling birds-eye view of the Independence Day festivities in the Zocalo-yes, we did get ashes in our eyes because we were that close to the fireworks.) The place is epic. Parts of the city are sinking right now (to circle back to that thing about piling metropolises onto ex-lakes in a seismically feisty zone) but if pure spirit could hold a city up, it would be one of the most buoyant places on earth. Um, especially if that spirit were tequila. As it is, large amounts of Essence of Agave and suddenly shifting sidewalks are a potentially perilous combination so don’t wander into a crowd staring at your phone. Put the thing away and literally and figuratively drink in the fact that you and the ground you’re standing on are both very much alive. Then go get a cocktail.
Want to recreate a little of Mexico City’s cocktail buzz at home? Try this spicy version of the Paloma.
Spicy Milagro Paloma
recipe by Jaime Salas, National Milagro Ambassador
1.5 oz. Milagro Reposado
.5 oz. Ancho Reyes
.5 oz. Fresh lime juice
3 oz. Grapefruit soda
Grapefruit wheel for garnish
Directions: Using a lime wedge, wet the rim of a collins glass and salt half the rim. Add ice, Milagro Reposado, Ancho Reyes and grapefruit soda. Squeeze a wedge of lime and discard. Garnish with a thin grapefruit wheel.