Blustem's Andrew Olsen gives margaritas a smoky spin.
Any margarita worth its salt will have a salted rim. Olsen uses a blackened sea salt fused with vegetable charcoal. Don’t worry — you don’t taste the charcoal, and your tongue doesn’t turn black. It’s just a stunning barrier — like a volcanic crust — to the dreamy liquid in the glass.
Olsen uses just a touch of Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur — only a quarter of an ounce— to add another layer of flavor to his margarita. There’s a similar sweetness in the Sombra mezcal, and together, the spirits have a happy marriage.
Vermouth is a wine-based spirit often used in cocktails — particularly martinis. In his mezcal margarita, Olsen uses a half ounce of Cinzano Bianco vermouth to add balance and just a hint of brightness.
For sweetness, Olsen opts for a quarter-ounce of agave nectar rather than sugar or simple syrup. Agave nectar is derived from the same plant used to make mezcal, and it has an earthy, natural profile.
Don’t forget the lime juice! A hit of tangy citrus is imperative in any margarita. Olsen uses a half ounce of fresh-squeezed lime juice.
A full ounce of Sombra mezcal is the backbone of Olsen’s cocktail. The smoke coats the apricot in a way that feels like a sumptuous summer embrace.
Olsen’s garnish is a dehydrated orange slice, offering a pop of color.
There’s hot sand beneath your bare feet. When you dig your toes in a little deeper, you find the grains are a little cooler and almost wet. A short distance away — a few skips, really — ocean waves collapse upon one another. There’s the hint of a breeze, and it carries the scent of sea salt and something tropical — coconuts, maybe, or citrus. You cannot remember having a more relaxing moment than this one.
But you’re not at a beach. You’re at Bluestem, sitting at the bar in the lounge. You’ve just enjoyed the first sip of a drink bar manager Andrew Olsen has suavely persuaded you to try. It’s a margarita — no. It’s perhaps the most exquisite margarita you’ve ever had — a drink that returns the classic to its rightful pedestal, firmly separating it from the bottom-shelf bottle of pre-made (“Just add ice!”) margaritas that someone brought to your house and left for you to grimace at.
Olsen’s margarita is transportive. It’s balanced — simultaneously sweet and sour and salty, but never too much of one thing — and it takes you on the best vacation you’ve ever had, even if only for a few moments. And it contains not even a lick of tequila.
Don’t worry — there’s still an agave backbone. Instead of tequila, Olsen has opted to sub in a more muscled cousin: mezcal.
“Mezcal is similar to tequila in that they’re both made from agave plants,” Olsen says. “All tequila comes from the blue agave plant. Mezcal can be made from 11 different species of agave.”
Most fans of tequila will recognize another key difference from mezcal: the latter is almost always infused with a smoky, heady quality — similar to, say, scotch. And unlike tequila, mezcal is rarely aged. You’re meant to enjoy that raw, smoke-filled taste immediately after distillation.
“In a lot of tequila, they roast the piña [agave heart] in a wood-fired oven — that’s just to heat it up, not so much to smoke it,” Olsen says. “With mezcal, they’re adding wood to smoke the piñas while they’re roasting it.” He grins, then offers this analogy: “It’s like making a burger versus smoking a rack of ribs.”
In Olsen’s margarita, he’s opted for Sombra mezcal, which is made in Oaxaca, Mexiaco, from the espadín agave plant, the most popular species from which mezcal is produced. Olsen, who moonlights as a brand ambassador for Sombra, pours me a taste. It’s smooth, with just a hint of tropical fruit and a distinct spice. Olsen tells me he gets pumpkin spice, and I can see what he means. My mouth tingles for a few moments while he recalls Sombra’s highlights.
“The producers are very conscious of their environmental thumbprint,” he says, “so every step is very thought out, starting with sustainably sourced agave, which roasts for 48 hours in a stone pit over sustainably sourced oak wood. After roasting, the piñas are crushed in a tahona [stone wheel], and then they go through a natural fermentation process for about a week.”
This fermentation process makes for a mezcal that is both approachable on its own and cocktail-ready. In his margarita, Olsen also features Cinzano Bianco vermouth — a fragrant, bright spirit — and Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur.
“It’s just really simple,” Olsen says. “That’s really what I prefer to do — classic drinks with a slightly elevated perspective. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I don’t think cocktails need to be overdone — I’m really trying to get away from that. I think what we need more of are just simple preparations that are executed perfectly. That’s my goal.”
900 Westport Road, Kansas City, Mo., (816) 561-1101, bluestemkc.com