Mexico City — If you’re looking for a cocktail built with bourbon in the heart of Mexico City, where hides one of the most satisfying speakeasies we’ve encountered in an age of looking, you’ll need to pack your patience for the trip. We were pages deep into the library of house offerings at Hanky Panky before we discovered The Frontier Cooler sitting coyly in the seasonal cocktails page. It’s the only bourbon cocktail on the long list of what we had been led to believe in whispered conversations across this city’s thriving drinks scene was one of the hottest, and most exclusive, places to spend an evening.
Mildly alarmed and more than a little surprised, I began scanning the wide shelves of liquor behind the bartender as we took the seats reserved for us at the bar. Bartender Daniel O’Connell greeted us with the friendly confidence that one always looks for in someone upon whose shoulders the outcome of an evening of exploratory drinking so tightly depends. Above and behind him, a couple of lonely bottles of Woodford Reserve sat amid a handful of misplaced scotches and a stout pot of Buffalo Trace, which was no doubt grateful to be kept company by an unambitious cousin from Kentucky, Wild Turkey Rye.
Such a skinny bourbon list seems a strange oversight for a speakeasy we’d heard rumor of throughout several days of investigation, an effort that had left us belly up at some of the toniest establishments in town – think Gin Gin, where bottle service is the norm, or the ancient San Angel Inn — and some delightfully dilapidated dives, as in the Roma Norte neighborhood stalwart La Nuclear, where pours of the traditional, low-proof agave drink known as pulque can smell like last month’s laundry and still can’t be missed.
So, to be clear: Not an auspicious start for two editors of a bourbon-filtered rag like ours, but then if Bourbon Story Magazine stands for anything it’s that the story behind the pour can be as interesting as the liquid it leaves, and so we determined to give the place a fair shake – bourbon or no bourbon.
We’re glad we did. The place immediately felt right and just kept getting warmer. We knew within 30 seconds of stepping through the secret entrance that professionals were on hand and ready to make drinkers like us feel right at home. So if you’re reading this thinking about a booze-forward trip to Mexico’s capital, allow us to suggest you’d be foolish if you neglect to make a new entry on the itinerary.
As young Dan the bartender set us up with waters and a hello, we perused the menu. The Bulleit-based cooler looked tempting, but we were ready to get out of our Kentucky-bred comfort zones. The list tilted heavily toward scotch and gin, with loads of mescal and offer. Dan told us he’d arrived from Chicago just three weeks ago, and was feverishly ready to explore the flavors, plants and attitudes in the Mexico he’d grown to love on previous trips. For the moment, he tells us, he has no plans to return to the United States.
“I came down here with the intent of changing a few minds” – that is, the minds of folks back home to too often believe stereotypes about Mexico – “and you know, maybe discover new views of my own, too.”
He’d later walk us through a round of hand-picked pours of mescal — a bar stool journey that helped explain just why he had packed his bags in the still-snowy upper Midwest to head south ready to indulge his passions as a self-described booze nerd.
Finding and sharing the enthusiasms of knowledgeable strangers is four parts out of five of the joy of traveling, so we’ll keep Dan’s mescal wisdom to ourselves. It’s the kind of little detour that will make your own journey to Mexico City that much better, should you get there. We’ll leave it at this: Coupled with some excellent tequila sampled across town at the ancient and stately San Angel Inn, our trip left us ready to return for a graduate course in native Mexican spirits anytime.
We eventually got around to Dan’s take on the Frontier Cooler, and it was — well, fine. My notes are a bit vague on what precisely we ended up drinking that round, but I can tell that the recipe on the menu called for 50 ml of Bulleit infused with tocino (read: bacon), half that much Lillet Blanc, pineapple and passion fruit juice (jugo de pina maracuya), and Angostura bitters — topped off with ginger beer.
But after a fast pass through the menus our inclination was to get weird in the best way possible, so we turned a deaf ear to the home state siren to try something we might have skipped elsewhere. For me, this was the Nomad, a perfect mix credited to bartender Liz Furlong in Costa Rica on Hanky Panky’s superbly curated “global menu.”
The Nomad is 3 parts Johnny Walker black and two parts tawny port – which immediately recommended it to us, given that our most recent visit to Porto left it permanently etched near the top of our list of favorite cities to drink. Rounding out the flavors in the Nomad are orange and Angostura bitters, with a touch of cocoa somewhere in the mix.
The scotch and the port pair nicely and I could have had several, if there weren’t so many other combinations I wanted to try. Hudson – he’s a former Western editor for Bourbon Story, and still a favorite companion (works out nicely, since we’re brothers) – zeroed in on Scotch, too.
He tried the Saru No Katsa, a creation of bartender Juan Diego of Peru and worth every penny of the ritzy 220 pesos required. (Unlike my drink, the scotch in this cocktail wasn’t toned down with much in the way of competing flavors – 60 ml of Monkey Wrench, some fungus sugar and Angostura bitters.
Our evening progressed, as such evenings tend to, toward a hazy warmth of new faces, new flavors and a new appreciation of the rewards of travel. As noted above, we took a detour around mescal, sized up some of Dan’s bottles brought special from Chicago, and then tried more than a few of items on the signature cocktail list. If you get to Hanky Panky, look for the Bitter Soul (a mix of three perfect varieties of vermouth, plus a dose of the Italian amaro, fernet). Or take a chance on the slightly pricier Secret Deer, which sits on top of a base of 12-year-old Glenfiddich and Ardbeg scotches, and is splashed around with bubbly.)
If you go, you’ll need to plan ahead a bit. Hanky Panky is not a speakeasy in name only. It requires a little advance work and the good luck to get a reservation. But it is easier to access than was advertised in the hushed whispers throughout the city’s cocktail scene. Our strategy? Call ahead and ask for a spot. Seats were scarce, and we were given a choice of 6:30 p.m. (an unheard of early hour in Mexico City) or 12:30 a..m. We took the early bird option and prepped by working our way through some of the tequila and Mexican wine offered at San Angel Inn — where the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico had told us ahead of our trip to look for the city’s best margarita. We arrived early and stayed late. Smart move on our part.
Getting inside was a trip. At the address we had been given stood a tiny taqueria, but once we presented our names to the young man at the counter, he spoke into his headset and a smiling young woman came in through the back and asked us to follow. She opened the door to a closet and we walked in after her one at a time. When the front door was closed, we were standing in the dark in a space about the size of a large refrigerator when a small door in the back opened. Crouching, we exited the closet and stepped into the cozy bar we’d be looking for.
I was in the lead and once through the door, I was no more than a yard from the long bar, where about eight or 10 seats were arrayed in a line. Nearly all of them were full, but we were shown immediately to the two reserved for us. There were small tables for another 12 patrons as well, and a semiprivate room off to our left had room for maybe another 10 seats.
The coziness, of course, was part of the charm, and when we finally took our leave we were directed the far end of the bar and through a door that turned out to be, once we emerged on the other side, nothing more than the freezer door in the taqueria.
Walking back onto the streets of the city, now nearing midnight and coming alive in ways that had only been hinted at when we stepped inside all those hours before, we were ready to say that young Dan’s mission to civilize – or to at least break down stereotypes – was working already.
With or without bourbon, here was a city that knew how to build a cocktail.