Food & Drink

Around the World, Sip by Sip (Part Two)

Quench your thirst for travel without leaving Seattle

By Greg Freitas December 12, 2023

Sip by Sip - South America

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

The French concept of terroir is almost universally described as a sense of place. Though intended to describe wine regions, the term is perfectly suited to the thrill of travel — the idea that each unique location makes its own specific contribution to a spirit, a product, or a state of mind.

Like wine, mezcal and pisco have been carefully produced in their native countries, Mexico and Peru, for centuries, with each farm, grower, and distiller imparting characteristics that cannot be separated from the land itself. Step into these regions with a glass in hand and conjure the magical streets of Oaxaca or Cusco. Bring the same taste for adventure you would to travel by sampling these exotic spirits from around the globe here in Seattle.

MEZCAL (MEXICO)

Mezcal and tequila are close cousins, distillations of the agave plant, and yet very different. Mezcal is often known for a distinctive smokiness that comes from baking the agave in woodfired stoves. While tequila has been industrialized due to its massive popularity, mezcal retains its artisanal, handcrafted allure. And though tequila comes from one plant (blue Weber agave), mostly in one state (Jalisco), mezcal opens up a new world of possibilities, with multiple agave varietals scattered across nine Mexican states.

Joe & Ashley Russell at Russell’s off Stone Way in Wallingford.

Photo courtesy of Russells

Joe Russell, proprietor of neighborhood bar Russell’s on Stone Way North, was hooked by the spirit on a visit to Mexico, and sought to recreate the mezcal magic at his bar in Seattle. “It’s more than just a spirit, it makes you want to absorb and respect the culture that surrounds mezcal,” he says. “It opened up a whole different world that just blew the doors off tequila.”

Rather than a single product that could be mass produced, Russell found complexity that was endlessly fascinating. “It’s representative of its place. As with wine, different villages contain different varietals,” he says. “ A lot of the information only travels by word of mouth, and it’s hyper-specific.” He brought that passion for mezcal back and began stocking his bar accordingly.

In addition to the singular characteristics enjoyed by drinking it neat, mezcal is also surprisingly versatile, able to sub in for gin, whiskey, or vodka in many classic cocktails. Joe and his wife, Ashley, started Mezcal Monday in 2017, with weekly deals and discoveries, pours, and cocktails from their 180-plus bottle collection. For the holidays, Ashley recommends ordering La Vive Loca, with Agave de Cortez mezcal, Mr. Black coffee liqueur, cold brew coffee, and cinnamon syrup. For Joe Russell, mezcal is a voyage that he is eager to continue. “It’s hard to burn out. There’s always something new,” he notes. “It’s like wine. It’s what keeps you excited. The journey is never over.”

PISCO (PERU)

Pisco is an important symbol of identity in Peru and is shared among friends and family.

Photo courtesy of Adam L. Weintraub

The journey is definitely not over for Adam L. Weintraub, who travels regularly between his home in Seattle and the three Museos del Pisco bars he owns and operates in Cusco, Arequipa, and Lima, Peru. Pisco is a brandy distilled from grapes, but as with mezcal, that description barely scratches the surface. Pisco is also a symbol of heritage, pride, and identity for Peruvians.

Weintraub produces his own line of pisco and is an avid advocate. “Do a tasting to appreciate its complexity as a category. There is no wood, barrel, smoke, nor flavoring in pisco, other than the grapes and their terroir,” he says. “+And the hand of the master distiller in determining how best to evoke the grapes’ essence.” When asked where to experience pisco in Seattle, Weintraub doesn’t hesitate, “Anywhere Jay Kuehner is bartending.”

Star Seattle bartender Kuehner, formerly of Damn the Weather and The Cloud Room, still pours pisco at popups and private events, but has a tip for finding pisco in Seattle. “Follow the food. Wherever there is Peruvian cooking or Peruvian influenced dishes, you will most likely find pisco,” he says. “I like to keep an eye on what Siembra (the Peruvian/Colombian popup) is up to,” Kuehner says. “Chef Tamara Murphy (of Terra Plata) always has pisco close by. And Bryn down at Damn the Weather in Pioneer Square is sure to have some. I like to order a Ruidíaz cocktail on my way to and from a Sounders game.”

The patio at Terra Plata is a great place to enjoy pisco.

Photo courtesy of Terra Plata

Even as a self-described “outsider,” Kuehner recognizes the deep significance of the spirit to Peruvians. “When you do (find a bottle), it’s often a source of pride: an owner or bartender is from, or has traveled to, Peru, and they know. Travel to Peru has left an indelible impression.”

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