Joshua Huston
I had a mezcal at Mezcaleria Oaxaca , the subject of this week's review , that I liked very much. But I'm pretty


Reviewing the Review: Charting a New Spirits Menu

Joshua Huston
I had a mezcal at Mezcaleria Oaxaca, the subject of this week's review, that I liked very much. But I'm pretty sure I'll never have it again.

As I write in my review, the bustling Queen Anne bar's name and liquor collection projects a mezcal seriousness that's unmatched elsewhere in Seattle. Every mezcal approved for sale in Washington is available, which means no matter how much mezcal you've been drinking, you're likely to find a novel brand here. But if you're wondering what to expect from an unfamiliar mezcal, you'll probably have to consult your smart phone: The staff is far too slammed to parse the list, and the menu doesn't offer any clues.

When I ordered a mezcal flight, the bartender shoved three cups my way, reeling off their names before I could grab a menu to help steady my comprehension. He seemed kind, so I'm sure he would have willingly repeated what he told me, but I didn't feel right monopolizing the only bartender's attentions when half a dozen people were waiting to place their drink orders. I don't know what I ended up drinking.

I think it's terrific that so many affordable restaurants are overhauling their drinks programs, replacing Bud and Glen Ellen Zinfandel with smart, daring selections. But since it's not realistic for these restaurants to hire dedicated cicerones and sommeliers without also rewriting their business plans, I wish they'd issue more explanatory lists.

That's especially true when the specialty spirit is somewhat esoteric, such as the sake at Momiji - where I voiced the same complaint - or the mezcal at Mezcaleria Oaxaca. Despite a mustachioed bartender's griping in "Shit Mixologists Say" that "mezcal's kinda played out," I'd bet most civilian drinkers still couldn't describe the tastes of five different mezcals.

Upgrading a menu is a fairly cheap proposition - and both customers and restaurants stand to profit from it. Restaurants with busy bartenders and fast-moving servers tend to be restaurants where there's a wait for a table, meaning most impatient diners would welcome the reading material. More importantly, informed drinkers are bound to buy. Alcohol is expensive, so if a customer goes awry on the first try, he or she is unlikely to order up another mystery drink. But if the first drink is a pleasant revelation, curiosity will command a second go.

So what would a helpful drinks list look like? Many restaurants supplement their lists with brief overviews of the spirit category's history or production techniques. That's fine, but knowing bourbon must be aged in charred new white oak barrels is utterly worthless to the neophyte trying to decide between Woodford Reserve and Eagle Rare. Tasting notes are essential.

In recent years, many restaurants have tried to hip their wine lists by replacing terms such as "tobacco" and "cassis" with lifestyle descriptors. A list might tout a Malbec as "ready to ride out of here on a motorcycle...and take your girlfriend with him." That's moderately useful, at best.

Better, I think, would be to ditch the verbiage and embrace a graphic solution. Jameson Fink, wine editor for, is a fan of the "vino chart" used by the Vino Volo chain. He e-mails: "The chart doesn't get too esoteric (I'm fine with "brooding") or cornball, and I think the example of how to use it to differentiate between a Northern Rhone Syrah from a Australian Shiraz is aces."

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Vino Volo

I hadn't before seen this chart, which Fink says functions as a coaster at Vino Volo locations. But I'd love to see a version of it - or something similar - on menus. Since my visual sense is fairly stunted, I asked our art director, Jane Sherman, to help me create three different kinds of menu charts I think could help drinkers who are stuck making choices without a staffer's assistance.


The food chart

It shouldn't be surprising that many restaurant patrons are more interested in eating than drinking. They're searching for beverages which will complement what's on their plates. I know wine educators have worked very hard to move the drinking public past ironclad "fish with white wine" prescriptions, but there are plenty of strong spirits which don't belong with subtle dishes. If a menu lists a dozen dishes and a dozen mezcals, why not help patrons make the right matches?


The aroma wheel

Most spirits worth drinking are too complex to be summed up by one dot on a tasting wheel, but there's an appreciable difference between mezcals with fruity characters and mezcals that intentionally taste like dirt. A comparative chart such as this one would be especially helpful to a drinker trying to construct a flight.


The scatter chart

Like the aroma wheel, this chart is strong on comparatives (at the expense of nuance, perhaps.) Most aged spirits have woodsy, smoky flavors, but this chart would help convey degrees. Many drinkers who can't make sense of elaborate flavor descriptors know which extreme appeals to them.

Would any of these charts actually simplify drink decisions? I have no idea. But surely patrons could do no worse than their current system of picking the prettiest-sounding brand name on a list.

You'll find the full review here. And for pretty pictures of mezcal drinks, check out Joshua Huston's slideshow here.

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