Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | October 27, 2009


Mayahuel, Phil Ward’s mescal and tequila project a block away from Death & Company in New York’s East Village, has been open for about six months. This past weekend I was able to visit it for the first time. I wasn’t taking notes, so this isn’t going to be much of a formal review, but it was one of the best experiences at a cocktail bar I’ve ever had, so I thought it deserved at least a brief write-up.

Taking a page from my experience of how hard it is to get into Death&Co., we got to Mayahuel shortly after it’s 6pm opening. It was a rainy night and the place was mostly empty. Coming into the bar, there is a foyer on the left that is used for a number of tables. Then you go down a few steps and come to the bar, which also has a few small booths.We were initially seated upstairs. There’s a small staircase in the back of the first floor that leads up to a square seating area. In the center of the upstairs, there was hole cut in the floor (guarded by wrought iron railings), giving you a partial view of the downstairs bar. The opening also created a real southwestern feel of a building with a plaza in the center. The nicest part of this was that it also allowed guests upstairs to hear the crack of ice in shakers downstairs.

Since it was dinner time, we ordered some snacks to accompany our drinks. We began with chips and guacamole (while not the most exciting appetizer, it was a very large portion), followed by Camaron y Vieras con Chorizo – sausage and ham wrapped scallops and shrimp. They came on four skewers and were actually really big for an appetizer. Most importantly they were flavorful and delicious. We closed out with a simple $5 plate of sweet plantains. Each dish was fairly cheap, very generous, and exceptionally tasty.

As readers know, I’m on a Campari kick. Americanos and Negronis are two of my big staples right now. But I’ve also always longed for Picon, something I’ve only had a couple times at The Gibson and homemade versions at Bourbon. Picon is not imported in the US, but it is a delicious potable orange bitter. Mayahuel has a house picon on the menu in a number of drinks, so I naturally gravitated that way.

I began with a Mexicano, made with reposado tequila, carpano antica, and Mayur’s Homemade Picon, along with a splash of club soda. It was sublime, with interesting depth and an added savoriness than the usual Americano and less force than a Negroni. I was instantly ecstatic about our decision to go to Mayahuel over another NYC cocktail bar.

I stayed with the Picon for my second cocktail, ordering a Sunset Park, which is made with Reposado Tequila, Dry vermouth, Mayur’s Homemade Picon & Maraschino. This was right in my wheelhouse for cocktails that I love. It’s strong, savory, and complex, yet incredibly smooth. It was a nice step up from the Mexicano.

Another cocktail that was a big hit was the Lil’ Jig, which my girlfriend ordered later in the night. It is made with Blanco Tequila with Thai Basil, Lime & Yellow Chartreuse. It’s tart, but not overpowering. The Chartreuse gives it both sweetness and complexity, with its spices playing well with the citrus and basil. It was her favorite and certainly a drink that I enjoyed stealing a couple of sips from.

After our second round, we moved downstairs to sit at the bar. Phil Ward, the man himself, was working behind the stick. Despite many visits to Death & Company, I’d never had the chance to sit at the bar when he was working. When we moved downstairs the bar still wasn’t very busy, so it was no problem to quickly strike up a conversation about cocktails, Mayahuel, and the process of making new cocktails. Phil made me a number of new recipes that had yet to make it onto Mayahuel’s menu. He took me through a number of other cocktails with potable bitters as a base, as well as other cool experiments. I really wish I had kept some notes, because I can’t do justice to these drinks from memory alone.

Some cool tidbits from my talk with Phil. He built the original 20 drink menu for Mayahuel in about three days of hardcore recipe creation, a feat that is damned impressive. He says the most important ingredient in any cocktail recipe is balance. I don’t know if truer words have ever been spoken by a bartender. Ward’s understanding of balancing ingredients in cocktails is superior to any bartender I’ve ever had make me drinks. Every single cocktail at Mayahuel (let alone every cocktail I’ve had by him at Death & Company or The Bourgoisie Pig) has been perfectly balanced. Even the new recipes that hadn’t yet been introduced were just as well balanced as the ones that have been on the menu since opening. The degree to which Phil’s cocktails are balanced make me think that he’s likely a supertaster and has a natural gift to help make his cocktails work right.

One thing I haven’t even mentioned is that despite having a menu consisting almost entirely of tequila and mescal based drinks. You’d think that would have been the lede. I was incredibly impressed by the range of drinks on the menu. In many ways, it looked a lot like any other cocktail menu built around gin, rum, and whiskey recipes. The diversity of the menu was impressive, with about 40 drinks or so on it. There were sweet drinks, sour drinks, savory drinks, drinks with eggs, drinks with salt and so on. It really had every sort of drink you would want, with something for every guest. Again, very impressive considering the drinks were all made with tequila or mescal, two spirits that are much maligned in most Americans’ minds.

I loved Mayahuel. From the food to the drinks to getting to chat with one of America’s best bartenders, it was a great night. I look forward to going back as soon as I can…


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