July 31, 2011
Rock star mixologists, potent drinks and artisanal tequilas rule at Escorpion
By Nancy Staab
- Photos by Tim Redman with assistance by Christian Moreno
Old School Cocktail Stickler Adam Fox and Tequila Whisperer Gilberto Marquez preside over one of the most unique drink menus in Atlanta at Riccardo Ullio’s new “bandito-meets-brasserie” Mexican cantina in Midtown, Escorpion.
…And these guys aren’t painful too look at either as your savoring barrel-aged anejos or thoroughly original cocktails featuring the distinctly smoky profile of, say, a mezcal. Banish all thoughts of banal spring break Margaritas or Horny Toads at this establishment. At Escorpion these consummate cocktail slickers mix up complex, sophisticated tequila-based sips that will have you rethinking all your notions of this Mexican spirit.
They could be the hipster, bartender’s versions of that ‘70s sitcom The Odd Couple. Neat, vested, Adam Fox, a stickler for vintage cocktail history, precise techniques (“you must double strain all shaken drinks to remove the ice chips or it will destroy the mouth-feel of the drink”), tools, and nerdy-chic cocktail tomes like David Wondrich’s Imbibe would be the finicky Feliz. Gilbert Marquez would play the more free-wheeling Oscar--the inked up California native (he roguishly sports a tattoo of an ancient sacrifice scene of an Aztecan holding up a Spanish Conquistador’s heah) with an emotional, blood/heritage connection to indigenous ingredients like agave. As a Native American from the Yaqui Tribe, Marquez grew up near the Mexican border. But upon closer inspection, there is no sloppy Oscar in this formula, because both Marquez and Fox are Felix-like perfectionists when it comes to their drink mixing. And the way their bartending personalities and interests both compliment and bounce off each other (they are also great personal friends and plan a tequila-sourcing trip to Mexico next month) is perhaps the secret to the unique cocktail mojo they have created at Escorpion.
The vibe for Escorpion’s respectful but slightly twisted take on tradition begins at the door with artist Thomas Prochnow’s giant scorpion sculpture made out of found metal. Restaurateur Riccardo Ullio (who also owns the critically acclaimed Sotto Sotto and Fritti) was supposedly inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s rock’n’roll bandito flicks like El Mariachi when setting the tone for his latest joint.
The ceilings are tatted up with Mexican gang insignia and giant Day of the Dead skulls courtesy of local artist Tommy Taylor, and a rustic Mexican saloon atmosphere was created by designer Patty Krohngold with cow’s hide banquettes and and walls hung with Mexican folk art.
The kitchen helmed by executive chef Edgar Cruz (Fifth Group, Restaurant Eugene, and NYC’s Gramercy Tavern and Daniel) serves up authentic octopus ceviche, cinnamon-spiced chicken mole, homemade tamales wrapped in corn husk by sous chef Maria Palma, and they supposedly can’t keep the goat’s meat tacos in the house. They also serve up mean vegetarian and fried shrimp tacos as well. And breaking news...we hear chef Jose Rego (Sotto Sotto, Lupe) is taking over the kitchen and further amping up the menu. For all these reasons, Escorpion has enjoyed a packed house and a lively weekend night crowd since its opening. The popularity of the place is also due to Fox and Marquez’s encyclopedic tequila menu.
The five-page tequila menu is not only a devilish temptation list, but a crash course in agave-based spirits—tequila and its lesser-known cousins mezcal and sotol—all appellation based spirits that are heavily regulated (like Champagne and Cognac) and can only be made in specific regions of Mexico, specifically the state of Jalisco.
Fox and Marquez also like to stress the historic, cultural, ceremonial, medicinal, and mystical aspects of these sips. As the menu explains, agave (a cactus-like plant native to Mexico, U.S. Southwest and Central America) has been “the lifeblood of indigenous Central American culture for thousands of years.” Their love and respect for this central ingredient shows in their drinks, which Fox explains are complex but also very pure:
“Preserving the integrity of the agave is one of the guidelines I set up when creating this menu….A cocktail should be true to how it reads on the menu. The cocktails at Escorpion are all clean—you can taste every ingredient and nothing is fluff or added just to look or sound cool.”
( Though we do love those sage-wrapped blackberry garnishes they use for some of the house cocktails!)
You would think that limiting an entire bar menu to one kind of spirit would be a challenge (no vodkas, rums, cognacs etc. on the premise), but Fox and Marquez have come up with a rainbow array of tequila/mezcal/sotol-based libations for any tippler’s tastes. Many are clever riffs on cocktail classics like sours and daisies, auga locas or “crazy waters” (i.e. traditional Mexian punches with tequila/mezcal, fermented sugar cane and agua fresca) and fizzes or brillantes, which include the addition of some kind of bubbly. For example, their reinterpretation of a classic Parisien is the Jaliscan Parisien concocted of blanco tequila, lime, St. Germaine and sparkling wine. Meanwhile, El Chamuco, “the devil,” is a play on the classic cocktail El Diablo, featuring blanco, ginger, blackberries, lime, crème de cassis, and a sage/blackberry garnish. (It is worth nothing that Marquez picked up quite a bit of Prohibition cocktail lore during his stint at California chop house and watering hole 320 Main, while Fox honed his cocktail prowess at Bacchanalia, Beleza—famous for its Brazilian libations, and Flat Iron Lounge in NYC.)
Like all true mixologists worth their, well, margarita salt, Fox and Marquez prepare their fruit juice mixers fresh each day and there’s a “no spray gun and no fructose/corn syrup” rule for all ingredients with the exception of the occasional ginger ale spritz.
Even the ice cubes are artisanal: fashioned via an expensive cold draft ice cube-making machine that vibrates side to side to work all the air bubbles out of the cube so they come out perfectly clear and translucent, explains Fox.
During the summer months, Fox and Marquez have paired tequilas with an array of fresh fruits, with tropical ingredients lending themselves well to tequila’s flavor profiles. But come winter, they duo will adjust the menu to seasonal winter fruits and other ingredients, and add some hot tequila-based drinks as well. Fox muses, “ I’ve never tried tequila with, say, plums but I will give it a try in winter when we winterize the menu…though that may not be my first thought.”
The addition of mezcal and sotol to the classic tequila menu, broadens the flavor profiles even further. Mezcal (primarily produced in Oaxaca) is deceptively clear in color but has a thick viscosity and a decidedly smoky flavor and depth. This is a robust, manly ingredient and presumably part of the smoky, earthy flavor comes from the way in which Mezcal is prepared with the agave plant roasted in the ground for days, using centuries-old methods, before distillation. Mezcal may be a challenging ingredient to introduce to Atlanta but as our local food culture has become more sophisticated, the time is ripe for this beverage to blow up. Fox says that the cocktail concoctions they present at Escorpion make the complex spirit much more approachable to new tasters. The mezcal-based Pacifico Punch with toasted coconut milk and pineapple packs a wallop, despite its clear lemony color. However, its flavorful and a far cry from a watery margarita at your typical Tex-Mex joint. Fox ventures to say that Escorpion “pours more mezcal than anywhere else in the state of Georgia.”
Reposados (ie. “resting” tequilas that have been aged in oak barrels less than a year) and Anejos (ie. “aged” in barrels for a year or longer) are also offered on the menu, primarily as sipping tequilas and flights. These aged tequilas tend to be darker, creamer and more oaken then their purer, non-aged, blanco counterparts. Fox is particularly jazzed up about the unique sipping tequila Corralejo, “one of the few tequilas not made in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and it’s done in antique Cognac copper stills from the seventeenth century.”
Sotol, almost unknown in the U.S., is a related spirit from a particularly wild version of the agave plant known as Dessert Spoon and has been in native cultures for ages. It is cooked and distilled in a similar manner to Mezcal but less smoky than mescal and smoother than tequila.
Marquez likens Mezcal to “Mexican Moonshine” as local makers have been crafting this spirit in small batches, often backyard operations, and serving it up in unlabeled bottles wrapped in newspaper for centuries. But he quickly adds, “I would give it more respect than that though and not just throw it into a tub.”
Marquez, who claims he has a few Aztecan traditional dances in his repertoire, has recently delved deep into native Mexican culture and taken to drinking Mezcal regularly like water literally (completing the Peachtree Run with the liquid poured into a plastic water bottle, he boasts). He prefers it either straight up or with a dash of bitters. Today, mezcal is still made by small batch artisans rather than mass producers. Trying to encapsulate the mysterious allure of the smoky mescal, Marquez says,
“Mezcal is something that hasn’t been conquered yet. That’s what’s so good about it—it’s still pretty untouched and primal. It’s also challenging to mix it.”
But mix it he and Fox do into mesmerizing potables.
As Fox puts it,
“Different cultures around the world have that one thing that is central to them. For the Comanche it was buffalo, for the Inuits it was the seal, and for Aztecs it was agave. We are working with an ingredient that was viewed as positively divine to the people in that time. The Aztecs believed that a goddess gifted agave to humankind.”
And it is with religious-like reverence that Fox and Marquez have created their divine (and sometime devilish) tequila menu at Escorpion.
Escorpion, 800 Peachtree St. NE, 678.666.5198, www.sottosottorestaurant.com
Where from: Born and raised in Atlanta, attended Druid Hills High School
On the Resume: Bacchanalia, Beleza, Flat Iron Lounge (NYC)
Drink: Rosé Champagne
Fashion Trademark: A vest
Eats: Buford Highway—the Korean restaurant So Kong Dong and Tofu House
Fun Fact: Fox recently spent a year working on organic farms in Portugal and Morroco: “Oranges are a lot of fun to pick in theory but olives were the best because the branches are soft and you can sit in the tree and bend them towards you to pick them,” says Fox
Where From: Orange County, California
Nabe: Gwinnet County
On the Resume: 320 Main in Seal Beach, CA
Drink: Mezcal straight up
Fashion Trademark: Panama hat
Eats: Buford Highway: Plaza Fiesta for homemade ice creams with cucumber and chile and for Mexican sandwiches at Puras Tortas
Fun Fact: Marquez sports multiple tattoos of Aztec sacrifices and Aztec dieties, including the god of the underworld, and claims to have several traditional Aztec dances under his belt, though, alas, we did not get to see any demonstrations.