Step into Espita Mezcaleria in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, find a seat at the crowded bar, and prepare for an agave adventure to Oaxaca — without the need for the expense or travel time of an actual trip. Instead, Josh Phillips, Espita’s GM and maestro of mezcal, is available for personal guided expeditions. He’s one of just several dozen certified Master Mezcaliers, and he’s on a mission to get his guests to love mezcal as much as he does.
“When you’re sipping mezcal, there’s so much more going on, says Phillips. “It kind of gets pegged as this one-note spirit.” But the more one tries it, the less that smoke stays at the forefront. “The smoke goes away,” he says, and in its place you may be left with bright citrus or black pepper, green fruits or rustic earthiness, malted grains or herbaceous notes or something entirely different and funky.
Phillips oversees a fluctuating collection of more than 100 mezcals representing two dozen agave varietals. He’s not playing a numbers game though, refusing to simply continue adding to the bar’s collection with every release or newfound label. “If you look through our collection, it’s a very, very traditional mezcaleria style,” he says.
There are a few ground rules which must be met for a mezcal to get on his list. “We do a very specific thing here. The bottle has to fall in line with what we do,” says Phillips. “We don’t do any aged mezcals, we don’t do any mezcal that’s 40% alcohol. It’s just a flag we put in the dirt.”
Beverage director Megan Barnes, who had a previous stint at Columbia Room, is in charge behind the bar, and Phillips credits her not only for cocktail creation but also for the quality of the entire staff. “Megan attracted a team of rock stars,” says Phillips.
Despite never working together previously, Phillips and Barnes found a quick collaborative spirit. “Our palate is almost identical,” says Phillips. “We like a lot of the same stuff.”
Phillips stresses that Espita is first and foremost a restaurant, and he and Barnes found another quick point of agreement there. “This is a conversation we had, I think the first day,” he recalls. “It was the role of the bar in a restaurant. Which is very different from a standalone cocktail bar. I’m kind of old school with the theory that the beverage program makes the food taste better. If it doesn’t, start from scratch.”
While Barnes comes up with many of the cocktails herself, the rest of the staff gets their say as well. “We let the team play a little bit,” says Phillips.
They maintain four drinks on tap, including a “random highball” that serves as a weekly site of staff experimentation. “That’s kind of where we say to our staff, you know, if you think you have a good idea, we’ll make a keg of it,” says Phillips.
One of their standout cocktails, the Joya, actually evolved from a staff bar test prior to opening. The drink offers La Venenosa Raicilla – Sierra de Jalisco, chartreuse, and sweet vermouth, and is served up with a lemon peel. “It’s based on a Bijou, we swapped the gin for raicilla,” explains Phillips.
After commenting on how bright and citrusy the cocktail was, Phillips jumped back in with further explanation. “That particular raicilla is just so lemony. It’s got this crazy citrus. The only citrus in that is the lemon peel,” he says with a big laugh. “Normally a Bijou would be equal parts, 1-1-1, this is one and a half ounces raicilla. We cut back the chartreuse because we didn’t want to overpower the raicilla which has so much flavor going on. Then just a little bit of sweet vermouth.”
Another mainstay at Espita is the Mayahuel. It’s their popular take on a Margarita, but it almost didn’t make it to the menu. “We were like, do we put a Margarita on?” recalls Phillips. “The answer was absolutely we should do this, because people are going to order a Margarita no matter what. [This way] we can guide the path, and that’s an easy way to introduce people to mezcal. It’s an easy way to get people to say ‘holy fuck, this is good.’ This is better than what I’m drinking, why not do it this way?”
After trying the Mayahuel, I kicked back in imbibing pleasure and said, “This is what every Margarita should be.” I’m met with a laugh from Phillips who pointed to his menu and replied, “That’s kind of how I describe it.” Indeed, the drink has this description: If a Margarita was awesome, it would be a Mayahuel.
Phillips has fun elsewhere on the menu as well, such as the description for the Oaxacan Sour including “excessive Angostura.” Elsewhere, instead of rattling off multiple lengthy labels, the La Llorona cocktail simple includes “bitter spirits” and “vermouths” along with an Espadin mezcal and Mexican Fernet. “We’re pretty vague on our descriptions sometimes,” he says. “Like it’s good, that’s all you need to know.”
Beyond the cocktails, a lineup of flights has proven to be popular. “The flights all tell a story,” says Phillips. For instance, there’s the “elder agaves” flight, focusing on agave styles that take decades to mature, and there’s an ensambles flight of mezcal blends. There’s also a raicilla flight, which is responsible for the bar churning through so much of the stuff. “I would say we’re one of the highest, if not the highest, seller of raicilla in the country,” says Phillips. “We go through cases and cases of it, and we’ve had that raicilla flight on the menu since Day 1.”
Espita’s Educational Mezcal Mission
The staff at Espita, from bartenders to servers, has proven to collectively be a quick study, and Phillips has seen an evolution in the four months that Espita has been open. “It’s crazy, you talk to these guys about mezcal and they’re encyclopedias,” Phillips raves.
“They’re all waiting for me to certify them as mezcaliers which I’ve found out I’m legally allowed to do. I’m wielding tons of power,” he says with a laugh. “Unfortunately it’s Mexican government corruption power [another hearty laugh]. Eventually we’re going to actually go through the process of testing them.”
And with the staff increasing their own mezcal knowledge, customers are learning, too. “The first month, every night I came in I was being called over to 25% of the tables to talk to them,” says Phillips. “It was exhausting, and it was a lot of fun.”
That number has dwindled down closer to 10%, something he says is a credit both to increasing customer confidence, along with his evolving staff. “[They] started doing what I was doing. They guide. I hang out a lot these days, and it kind of drives me nuts,” Phillips says with a laugh. “I like to talk about mezcal, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed. I actually enjoy it, it’s a passion of mine, I’m enthusiastic.”
Indeed, ask Phillips just about anything and that enthusiasm for all things agave shines through. Certain topics incite a particularly fiery passion; go ahead and ask him about mezcal’s maddening Denomination of Origin or the haphazard history of how tequila came into existence and be prepared for an entertaining, fact-filled lesson.
“The mezcal D.O. is the largest denomination of origin for any product, anywhere in the world,” says Phillips. “The point of a Denomination of Origin is to protect the heritage of that origin. So the mezcal D.O. on its face, fails. 100%, fails… It’s kind of an embarrassment to the Mexican government if you ask me.”
Meanwhile, one of the reasons he loves mezcal so much — and what recent labeling legislation in part threatens — is their highly detailed labels. “There’s a trait that all good mezcal has. I call it pride. You might call it honesty,” Phillips says laughingly. “This is how we make it” — here, he points to a label which depicts all manners of production in line-by-line fashion– “That’s good labeling. To me, this is how a label should look. It should be informative, it shouldn’t hide anything.”
So please do start a conversation with Phillips, because not only are there lessons to be learned, but the poor guy is clearly bored when he’s not hands-on with guests, what with his well-educated staff taking away some of his prior duties. Oh, and he cops to rigging the menu to encourage that conversation, too.
“The menu’s kinda funny, the way we designed the menu is intentionally hard to read,” Phillips says, another hearty chuckle pouring through. “I know that’s silly. Most people think it’s because we’re trying to trick them into buying something. I’m trying to trick them into talking to us.”
He wants to guide and educate, he craves it, and as a certified Master Mezcalier, he’s earned the privilege. Skip the airfare to Oaxaca, and just start working through Espita’s mezcal list instead. With Phillips, Barnes and company offering instruction, guests surely won’t be led astray.
Jake Emen is a spirits, food and travel writer currently based in Washington, D.C. His drinks coverage has been published in Whisky Advocate, Eater Drinks, Tales of the Cocktail, Washington Post Express, Distiller, The Whiskey Wash, Tasting Table, and a range of other outlets. He also runs his own site, ManTalkFood.com, and can be followed on Twitter, @ManTalkFood.