Words by: Ian Cameron
Some bartenders wait entire careers before they succeed in making a name for themselves. Phil Ward seems to have achieved that already with his first bar, Mayahuel, and he can be credited with helping transform not just the image of mezcal and tequila but of Mexico itself.
"We've probably sold more mezcal in the last two-and-a-half years at Mayahuel than in the entire history of mezcal in the United States." Phil Ward's talking about maguey-derived spirits, rather than the mezcal category as a whole, which obviously includes blue agave-derived tequila. But that's still no mean feat. "Probably between 10,000-20,000 people have had their first taste of mezcal in Mayahuel."
While 20,000 in a city of more than 8 million might not seem like much, that's a huge boost for a category that's pretty much unknown and hails from a country that's still seen in a largely pejorative sense north of the border. America's relationship with Mexico is still hugely clichéd: it's Ugly Betty, illegal domestic workers, dumbed-down spicy food and lost weekends in Tijuana. "People don't expect very much out of Mexico, and especially Mexican food and drink, and in some ways with Mexican, Thai and Chinese food tend to expect mediocrity. We are out to break the clichés," he says.
His own mezcal epiphany came when he was working at Flatiron Lounge on West 19th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues). He'd just moved to New York and, aged 28, was working as a bar-back. "I was like everyone else when I was younger, I shot cheap tequila with lemon and salt. The first time I tasted the tequila in Flatiron Lounge, I was like 'damn, this stuff is amazing'. It had the body and balance that I had always wanted."
It was Flatiron's dynamic owner Julie Reiner who, unknowingly at first, nurtured Phil to become a bartender. He had started as a bar-back so he could, you sense, have an easy life. Having worked in restaurants waiting tables after studying business management at college, he saw it as a means to an end in his new-found hometown. "I never wanted a career. I thought it was a stupid concept and I just wanted to 'exist'. Bartending to me was vodka-Cokes and I hated waiting tables. I really was not keen to bartend."
Somehow, he got curious. The new city, the more educated and demanding drinkers compared to Pittsburgh, and the talents of the staff around him piqued his interest. He might have been a near 30-year-old bar-back, but suddenly he was determined to be the best damn bar-back in the whole of Manhattan. "I worked out how they made all their drinks. If they ran out of something I would be there ready to hand it to them. I figured everything out just by watching them."
Julie saw his potential, and gave him his big break when one Sunday a bartender called in sick. "Getting someone in on short notice is hard anyway, and it's a whole other thing when it's a Sunday. I was there and ready." It seemed to work and the first tequila drink he succeeded getting on the menu was at Flatiron Lounge and was a variation on a Diablo, he can't remember which.
Phil stayed at the bar for three years, and credits Julie as the most influential person in his career. "The only way I could learn was by watching her being a bartender, but more than that, she taught me about business sense, how to staff a place, how to run a place, finding good waiting staff and even plumbing. In a way I'm more thankful for everything I learned business-wise."
He left Flatiron to work at Audrey Saunders' Pegu Club on West Houston Street, where he would remain for more than a year, before he moved again, to help open Death + Company on East Sixth Street in the Lower East Side, now something of a mecca for the speakeasy trend. It was here that his mezcal epiphany 'clincher' occurred. "That was when I first used mezcal in a cocktail. I actually don't remember the one. Maybe it was the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, with reposado tequila and mezcal, or maybe it was the Cinder, which had jalapeno-infused reposado tequila and mezcal, simple syrup and smoked salt. I can still remember one particular customer, Larry, and the Cinder. That was how he had his epiphany. That's how it works - he tasted a really good simple drink and he just knew."
After two years at Death, he'd found a business partner and says he took about ten seconds to decide that yes, he wanted in, and secondly, that it should be a bar specialising in Mexico's finest. A former Moroccan venue a short walk down the same street from Death was transformed, though it was, says Phil, a bit of a 'clusterfuck'. Bijou might be more proper word but doesn't quite carry the need to combine bar, lounge, kitchen and back-of-house in such a small space.
From the street it doesn't look exactly like a bar. With a kind of mysterious wooden carbuncle that juts out into the street, ceramic slate on the roof and decorative ceramic tile on the walls, bars on the windows, a heavy wooden door, it's probably the right balance to attract interested fans and keep out the stag parties. Named after a goddess of fertility, there's not a sombrero, comedy moustache or mariachi band in sight. Inside, candle light, bare brick, just the bare minimum of Day of the Dead macabre. Ersatz Mexicana need not apply.
Phil's just released a new drinks list at Mayahuel, further demonstrating exactly why the bar is so distinct. Mayahuel's cocktails have basically redefined the world of mezcal mixology, the drinks the antithesis of the lurid fruit-flavoured slush that masquerades as margaritas the world over, streets ahead of the Silk Stocking and much more than a Matador.
Flights to Mexico start at just $17 and are arguably the best way to introduce people to the category with three serves. Why more bars don't do flights is a mystery to us. There are 22 anejo tequilas, 21 reposados, 22 blancos, more than 25 mezcals and a handful of sotols. There are other bars with more tequilas, but that's not the point. In fact, Phil's stock answer to the oft-repeated question about how many he stocks is that he's never actually counted. "That's not important, it's how you use them," he says. There are no written tasting notes, the hand-holding comes from the staff.
Top of the list of 'Mayahuel Classics', the Randy Cocktail sets the scene - reposado tequila, with ginger, lime and a rinse of mezcal. There's the Loop Tonic, combining blanco tequila, dry vermouth, lime and Green Chartreuse with celery bitters, or the Slynx, with reposado tequila, bonded applejack, pear brandy, Whiskey barrel bitters and mezcal, or the Division Bell, with mezcal, Aperol, maraschino and lime with grapefruit zest. The common theme? Unexpected flavour pairings, mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar. It's what Phil does best.
'Strange Stirrings' widens the choice of vermouths and amaro, arrack, eaux de vie and aromatic European liqueurs, combining new and old world flavours. There are beer cocktails that render the Michelada the bartending equivalent of junior school, embodied by the Cliff Stoudt: crema de mezcal, dark rum, Pedro Ximenez, amaro, xocolatl mole bitters and Modelo Negra.
The general feeling Mayahuel's menu invokes is intrigue, curiosity, plus a feeling of wonderment and not a little 'What the fuck...?' simply because you just don't see such adventurous pairings elsewhere. Arguably most intriguing is the combination of sherry and mezcal in a dedicated cocktail section, epitomised by the Cantinflas, which contains reposado tequila, mezcal, dry oloroso sherry, amaro and Grand Marnier with xocolatl mole bitters, and the West of East India Cocktail, with its reposado tequila, demerera rum, east india sherry, falernum, amaro and xocolatl mole bitters. The result: surprisingly 'meaty' flavours - we immediately thought about umami - and lengthy, big drinks.
"I'm not a scientist so I don't know why sherry and mezcal works, but it does," he says. "They are both very dry and very savoury, a little vegetal, briny, and they both go well with food. People say similar things about sherry as they do when they talk about mezcal." There aren't too many classic cocktails involving tequila but Phil seems to have set his own agave agenda.
Ironically, for someone who is now a founder member of the Tequila Interchange Programme (TIP, created by Mexican ex-pat and Philadelphia restaurateur David Suro), and has been down to Mexico more times than he can remember in the last three years, ironically he says he previously had no real affinity with Mexico, no childhood trips south of the border, no Mexican friends. "When I moved to New York I don't think I'd ever been to a tequila bar. I can't think of one in Pittsburgh actually. It's a city of 1 million blue collar workers and in the dark ages as far as drinking is concerned. Vodka tonics were about as exotic as you get. I grew to love Mexico only after I started getting into tequila and mezcal."
Despite prevailing cultural preconceptions about Mexico, Phil says that's actually a pretty good a start for a mezcal conversion with a willing participant. Despite the cliché, there's a certain amount of mystique, or romanticism attached to Mexico, and harnessing that is relatively easy. "If you think back to the first way idiots drink tequila the epiphany is a no-brainer. Most people's impressions are doing bad shots. I get cross about that, but it makes our job really easy because of what people expect."
For all its ground-breakingness, perhaps the most surprising thing about Mayahuel is the fact it hasn't actually spawned that many imitators. I ask Phil who is trying to emulate him and his drinks and he's left scratching his head, naming two New York bars but quickly dismissing them with the caveat that "there's a different level between really serious bartenders and bars that just want to have some tequila cocktails". The message is that he'd like to see more tequila bars, but not for their own sake - the cause won't advance unless a new generation of bartenders truly understands the category.
Phil's come from nowhere - and we're talking about having had no career aspirations, rather than coming from Pittsburgh - to running a successful bar that has effectively rewritten the rulebook on mezcal. He's sanguine when he looks back at how it happened. "It was just dumb luck. When I started bartending there were only really two other bars other that Flatiron that were really selling good cocktails - Milk & Honey and Angel's Share. I happened to step into the arena the very second that the wider cocktail phenomena was starting."
Now 36, the question is really where he takes things from here. It seems to elude him but he's clearly not going to set up a chain of up-scale mezcal bars - for all his achievements it's still too early for that - though he says he does have "an idea for another place". His girlfriend is also a former Flatiron bartender, now at Clover Club, and he intimates that might be the start of a fruitful working relationship too.
Phil Ward is helping re-educate America, not just in tequila, and not just because he's also all about other types of agave, but because he's doing a better job than the Mexican tourist agency. Seeking an epiphany of your own? Step this way.