By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Photo by Kristina Yamamoto
Mezcaliers are a rare breed. They are the academic aficionados of mezcal, a high-octane spirit that, like tequila, is distilled from agave plants (see sidebar).
San Diego mixologist-about-town Jen Queen is a full-time bartender at Little Italy's new Juniper & Ivy and a part-timer at Puesto in The Headquarters at Seaport Village. She's also one of only 14 people in the world who carry the Mezcalier title. In California, she's the only woman to hold it.
Queen earned her "Level 4 Master" status through CONOCER and COMERCAM, governmental organizations in Mexico focused on the nation's educational and economic development. The process involved learning about mezcal's 27 varietals, pairing them to cuisine and then undergoing a labor-intensive practical in the agave fields.
"I play with mezcal wherever I go," Queen says. "People expect that from me." In addition to having tended bar at La Puerta (Gaslamp), Monello (Little Italy), Prepkitchen (Little Italy) and Saltbox (downtown), Queen is also a partner with San Diego mixology consulting group, Queen.Conner.Ward., which has developed spirits programs for Searsucker (Gaslamp), Blue Ocean Sushi Bar (Carlsbad) and Puesto (downtown), among others. She's also president of the San Diego Chapter of the United States Bartender Guild.
"I don't get a lot of downtime," she says.
Queen was working at a celebrated restaurant and tequila lounge in San Francisco nearly 10 years ago, when the owners took her and some of the other bar staff on a mezcal tasting tour in Jalisco, Mexico.
"I loved their big, bold, smoky flavors," she says, recalling that the "sweeter, softer flavors of tequila" ultimately became the gateway to her love affair with mezcal.
At Juniper & Ivy, Queen introduces new mezcal cocktails daily to match what the chef is creating. At Puesto, which carries five varietals from Oaxaca, she spearheaded "mezcal Mondays" (4 p.m. to close), when the boozy fluid takes center stage in margaritas, flights and a select trio of cocktails.
When pressed to name her favorite of all the mezcals she pours, she pauses. "That's like choosing a favorite child," she says, and then finally admits being smitten with a new varietal called Arroqueño, which has "honey, green apple and floral notes."
"It just came on the market," she says. "I fell in love."
Making a Difference
Distilling the distinctions between mezcal and tequila
Mezcal refers to any spirit distilled from agave plants. By Mexican law, tequila, a form of mezcal, can be made only with Blue Agave.
Mezcal and tequila are produced in different but overlapping regions in Mexico.
Mezcal's smoky flavor stems from its agaves being fire-roasted in an oven. In contrast, plants used to make tequila are cooked in autoclaves, enormous pressure-cookers that use water.