Billy Tserenbat assumes most people won’t like mezcal — at first, anyway.

When the Baja Haus owner gives customers at the Wayzata eatery their introductory taste to the Mexican spirit, he’s grown to expect an adverse reaction.

But then, 10 seconds later, something changes.

The big, potent smoky flavor that hits the tongue on impact tames, and the other elements — clean, semisweet, herbal qualities — shine through.

Wow, he’ll often hear. This is interesting.

“It’s overpowering at first, and that earthy flavor is so strong,” Tserenbat said. “But then it opens up. And that’s when you can taste sunshine in your mouth.”

Once a rare spirit locally and throughout the U.S. in general, mezcal (pronounced mehs-KAL) is emerging as a trendy drinking option throughout the Twin Cities area. With more producers in Mexico making and improving the spirit, and better distribution ushering it onto more liquor store shelves and restaurant cocktail lists, more Minnesotans are getting their taste buds on the up-and-coming hooch. And many — with perhaps a 10-second lag — are digging it.

“It’s starting to get really popular,” said Tserenbat, who stocks 27 mezcals at Baja Haus. “Because it’s different. It has a Scotch-like smoke. It has all this earthiness. There’s nothing else like it.”

Mezcal is made by roasting agave with fire in a covered earthen pit for about three days, a process that gives the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. The plant is then crushed, fermented and distilled. Production of mezcal, according to National Geographic, has roughly doubled since 2011, helped by its versatility — more than 30 varieties of agave can be used to make it — and another wave of shortages in tequila, which uses only blue agave.

Around the Twin Cities area, the excitement for it keeps growing.

Mezcal drinks are served at establishments as wide-ranging as cocktail palace Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, arcade bar Tilt in Minneapolis and scratch food restaurant Lyn65 in Richfield — along with many others.

Jesse Held — the bar director for Jester Concepts, which includes Constantine and Parlour in Minneapolis, among others — likes using mezcal because of its conversation-starting capability.

“It has such a complexity to it,” he said. “When you put a mezcal drink in front of someone, they’ll smell it right away.”

At the same time, because many are still so unfamiliar with mezcal — Held thinks there’s about a 40 percent recognition rate right now — there are no negative preconceptions to fight like there might be with other spirits.

“The second you put Scotch on a menu, it automatically scares people away,” Held said. “Certain people are just offended by all the peat [flavor] and think Scotch tastes like Band-Aids.

“But mezcal is a more approachable way to sneak smoke into cocktails, without turning people off.”

Held also likes that mezcal presents as much of a challenge for him as it does for his customers. Intense flavors make finding balance in a cocktail even more important. But, he said, bartenders should take care not to hide what makes mezcal special. “Like anything with a robust, unique flavor, you have to be really delicate with it,” he said. “If you add too many juices and syrups to it, you kind of deaden it.”

Tropical fruit flavors in particular — including pineapple, mango, guava and kiwi — mix well with mezcal, Held said, and it also plays well with its cousin tequila. At Constantine, he serves a drink called La Encarnacion, which incorporates mezcal and tequila, along with pink peppercorn honey, lemon, pineapple, a habañero tincture and a Fresno pepper oil.

“With the mezcal,” he said, “a little bit goes a long way.”

With each cocktail, awareness grows. And Tserenbat said he thinks it will continue until mezcal becomes mainstream and more approachable and duller versions hit the market. It’s the latest landmark in a cocktail revolution that has seen whiskey, gin and rum explode in waves of popularity.

Then, of course, as is the way in the cocktail scene, we’ll move on. “In the next five years, it’s probably going to be in every other drink,” Tserenbat said. “Then we’ll get the next big thing.”

Mezcal Paloma

Serves 1.

Note: If you have another simple syrup on hand, you can use it to replace the jalepeño-black pepper variety. From Amelia Rayno.

• 1 tsp. medium-coarse salt

• 1 tsp. ground chili powder (chipotle varieties work well)

• Slice of fresh grapefruit

• 2 oz. (4 tbsp.) mezcal

• 2 oz. (4 tbsp.) fresh grapefruit juice

• Juice of 1 lime (about 1 oz. or 2 tbsp.)

• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) jalapeño-black pepper simple syrup (see recipe )

• Ice

• Grapefruit peel, for garnish

Directions

Pour the salt and chili powder on a plate and combine well. Brush the grapefruit slice around the rim of a short glass to moisten it, then press the glass upside-down into the chili-salt mixture to create a rim.

In a shaker, combine the mezcal, grapefruit juice, lime juice and simple syrup. Shake well, then pour into the glass, over a couple of large ice cubes. Garnish with the grapefruit peel.

 

Jalapeño-Black Pepper Simple Syrup

Makes about 1 1/2 c.

Note: You will use 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) of this per serving of the Mezcal Paloma cocktail. Keep refrigerated. From Amelia Rayno.

• 1 c. water

• 1 c. sugar

• 3 jalapeños, sliced lengthwise

• 10 black peppercorns

Directions

In a small pot, heat the water and sugar together until the sugar is dissolved. Add the jalapeños and black peppercorns and bring to a boil for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. When room temperature, strain the mixture into a jar and keep for later use.

 

Cucumber, Salt and Smoke

Serves 1.

Note: Simple syrup is made by heating equal parts sugar and water until the sugar is dissolved. If you prefer not to use raw egg whites in cocktails, aquafaba — the liquid found in a can of chickpeas — can be substituted to give the same frothy texture and mouthfeel. From Food & Wine magazine.

• 1 (1-in.) cucumber slice, chopped

• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) pisco

• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) mezcal

• Juice of 1 lemon (about 1 oz. or 2 tbsp.)

• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) simple syrup (see Note)

• 1 egg white (see Note)

• Pinch of salt

• Ice

• 3 drops of Peychaud’s or Angostura bitters, for garnish

Directions

In a shaker, muddle the cucumber. Add the pisco, mezcal, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and salt, and shake well. Add ice and shake again. Finely strain into a chilled glass. Dot the drink with the bitters and swirl decoratively with a toothpick.

Esplanade Mezcal Swizzle

Serves 1.

Note: From Imbibe magazine.

• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) mezcal

• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) amontillado sherry

• 3/4 oz. (1 1/2 tbsp.) fresh lime juice

• 1/2 oz. (1 tbsp.) falernum (a spicy liqueur)

• 1/2 oz. Ginger Simple Syrup (see recipe)

• Crushed ice

• Mint sprig, for garnish

• Lime wheel, for garnish

Directions

Combine the mezcal, sherry, lime juice, falernum and simple syrup in a glass. Fill the glass to the brim with crushed ice. Garnish with the mint and lime wheel.

Ginger Simple Syrup

Makes about 1 1/2 c.

Note: You will need 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) of this per serving of the Esplanade Mezcal Swizzle. Keep refrigerated.

• 1 c. water

• 1 c. sugar

• 1 large piece of ginger, peeled and cut into slices.

Directions

In a small pot, heat the water and sugar together until the sugar is dissolved. Add the ginger and boil for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. When room temperature, strain the mixture into a jar and keep for later use.

Spicy Dead Lady

Serves 1.

Note: If you don’t have the bitters on hand, use a muddled fresh hot pepper instead, then be sure to strain the drink well. From Imbibe magazine.

• 3/4 oz. (1 1/2 tbsp.) mezcal

• 3/4 oz. (1 1/2 tbsp.) Aperol or another orange bitter

• 3/4 oz. (1 1/2 tbsp.) falernum

• 3/4 oz. (1 1/2 tbsp.) fresh lime juice

• 1 dash spicy bitters (see Note)

• Ice

• Lime wheel, for garnish

Directions

In a shaker, combine the mezcal, orange bitter, falernum, lime juice, bitters or muddled pepper and ice. Shake well. Strain into a glass and garnish with the lime wheel.

 

Devil’s Garden

Serves 1.

Note: If you don’t have time to make the chipotle mezcal ahead of time, muddle a hot pepper in the shaker before combining the other ingredients. Simple syrup can be substituted for the agave nectar in a pinch. From Saveur magazine.

• 1/2 oz. (1 tbsp.) chipotle-infused mezcal (see recipe)

• 1 1/2 oz. (3 tbsp.) tequila

• 1/2 oz. (1 tbsp.) Cynar

• 4 to 6 fresh mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish

• 3/4 oz. lime juice (1 1/2 tbsp.)

• 3/4 oz. (1 1/2 tbsp.) agave nectar

• Ice

Directions

In a shaker, combine the mezcal, tequila, Cynar, mint, lime juice, agave and ice. Shake well. Strain into a wine glass or coupe and garnish with the sprig of mint.

Chipotle-Infused Mezcal

Makes 1 c.

Note: You will use 1/2 oz. (1 tbsp.) of this for each serving of the Devil’s Garden cocktail. From Saveur magazine.

• 1 dried chipotle pepper

• 1 c. mezcal

Directions

Toast the dried chile in a pan over high heat until it begins to smoke slightly, then remove from heat. Place the pepper in a jar, add mezcal and tightly cover. Allow to sit overnight. Remove the pepper before use.