The three-month-old Mezcaleria Las Flores isn’t Chicago’s first agave-focused bar—Masa Azul predates it—but so far it’s the best known. La Mez Agave Lounge, in the basement of Mercadito, followed hot on its heels, and another mezcal bar, Quiote (from former Garage owner Dan Salls), is in the works. With mezcal and its cousins becoming more familiar to consumers, agave-based cocktails are going to have to succeed based not on novelty but on their own merits—and that’s already happening at Mezcaleria Las Flores.
At first blush, the Logan Square spot seems like an unlikely stand-in for a Oaxaca mezcal bar. The rap playing over the speakers on a recent Tuesday evening, though, could’ve made a sailor blush; although the bar was mostly empty the music was blasting as if it were 2 AM at a packed nightclub. After several songs with increasingly explicit lyrics, I asked if the music could be changed, and it quickly shifted to comparatively demure 90s classics like “Baby Got Back” and “No Scrubs.”
The bar, formerly known as Flower Shop (the flower store Fleur used to occupy the space), seems to have struggled with its identity since it opened last August. Connected to Johnny’s Grill next door by an open archway, it had the same menu as the diner but a completely different feel. The physical transformation to Mezcaleria Las Flores wasn’t dramatic: a door has been added between the two spaces, along with some wall art like an antelope skull—but the vibrant teal walls, blue stools, and abundant hanging plants remain, creating an atmosphere somewhere between tropical and southwestern. The diner menu also remains, somewhat incongruously (though we happened to be there on Taco Tuesday, which fit nicely with the drinks).
The biggest change is behind the bar, where the standard lineup of bottles has been largely replaced by mezcal, tequila, sotol, raicilla, and bacanora; the cocktail menu, accordingly, is focused entirely on agave-based spirits. A handy scale below each drink listed indicates how smoky, spirit-forward, and “adventurous” it is—the last, our server explained, means that the drink breaks the conventions of a standard cocktail. In the case of the Magnetic Pole Reversal, made with sotol, cucumber, coriander, basil, and Suze (bitters flavored with genetian root), that means an intensely herbal, earthy, grassy-tasting drink with a touch of salinity. It’s like drinking a garden, which is more pleasant than it might sound.
The cocktail list is brief, consisting of just seven drinks, plus two margaritas (which, oddly, are on the beer and wine list rather than the cocktail menu). There’s a wide range even within that short list, though: the Shook Ones Pt. 1 (Del Maguey Vida mezcal, coconut liqueur, lemon, and absinthe, with a cocoa and sesame rim), sweet with notes of anise, is as warm and rich as the Magnetic Pole Reversal is cool and refreshing.
The only disappointment was the Five Unlucky Days: the fernet and nutmeg oil overwhelmed the other ingredients, and the tequila, cognac, and sherry in the drink weren’t discernible. Fortunately, my date did like it, so I was able to keep the Illuminati Handshake—my favorite of the drinks we tried—for myself. Mina Real mezcal, Old Overholt Rye, Lustau oloroso sherry, rooibos tea, and Angostura orange bitters combine to create a nutty, barely sweet cocktail with layers of flavor and a hint of orange; a sal de gusano rim (salt with chiles and dried agave worm) adds a welcome spicy salinity.
The one word that didn’t come to mind with any of the cocktails at Mezcaleria Las Flores is the one people most associate with mezcal: smokiness. The Shook Ones Pt. 1 is the smokiest drink, according to the menu, and it’s pretty restrained; others have no smoky flavor at all. What beverage director Jay Schroeder seems to be telling Chicagoans is that there’s more to mezcal than smoke.