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National Mezcal Day: Q & A With Raul Yrastorza of Las Perlas

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Raul Yrastorza sips on a cocktail at Las Perlas in Downtown L.A. (Photo via dylanjeniphotography on Flickr)
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This Sunday is National Mezcal Day, so in preparation LAist decided to have a chat with one of our city's most enthusiastic supporters of agave-based spirits, Raul Yrastorza. Yrastorza curates the program at Las Perlas in Downtown LA, where well-crafted cocktails and mezcal flights reign supreme. But even though Yrastorza is obsessed with mezcal, he wasn't even aware of the impending holiday until it was announced by "Red Solo Cup"-loving Toby Keith.

"I can get behind anything that celebrates mezcal," he jokes. "Even if it's a knucklehead who's creating it."

We talked to Yrastorza about the spirit's reflection of terroir, where to find the best in the city, and just what it is that makes mezcal so special.

How has the popularity and recognition of mezcal changed here in L.A. in the past few years? Would you say more cocktailians are interested in agave-based spirits?

Fortunately and unfortunately for mezcal, it's had a cult following for the 16 years in Los Angeles. It started way back when I helped create the program at El Carmen on 3rd and Sweetzer. We brought in mezcal because we were an agave-based bar. Back then, when you poured the real mezcal to people, they were like, "Oh my god. This is the second coming for agave!" Now, thanks to the craft cocktail movement, most people know what mezcal is.

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Why is it that you love using mezcal as a bartender? What makes it so distinct?

Mezcal is one of those spirits that you can't hide in a cocktail. Bartenders and mixologists really crave spirits that have really strong flavors. When you're mixing with citrus or amaros or tinctures and bitters and syrups, you don't lose it like you would lose vodka or some gins out there.

What makes mezcal so special in terms of its flavor profile? There really is nothing else like it.

The flavor of roasted agave and the terroir of Oaxaca is like a spice cabinet within a spirit. It transcends all of the things that you can mix with it. It's amazing how a mezcal can be blended with an Italian amaro and bitters made in Silver Lake, and then you can have three corners of the world in one cocktail, and it all works ... You also have to remember that agave is a stimulant. There's a different high you get from drinking agave-based spirits.

What makes it different from tequila?

All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Anything agave-based distilled outside of the Tequila region is called mezcal.

How can people who are still curious about mezcals learn more?

The great thing about Las Perlas is that there are introductory-level cocktails, but you can also do mezcal flights that change anywhere from one to three times per week. In terms of other spots around town, there's always Rivera. Julian [Cox] has done a great job over there. We bounce stuff off each other all the time. Bricia [Lopez, of Guelaguetza] is such an important part of what's happening with mezcal, of course, because she's so passionate about it. She's helping bridge the relationship between the hipsters and the natives.

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How will you be celebrating National Mezcal Day?

I think I celebrate National Mezcal Day day 6-7 nights a week. After this phone call we'll probably be putting together some sort of menu that will represent mezcal from all sorts of different regions and altitudes. That's the most important thing that people need to understand: Mezcal doesn't come from one central area. It can come from the middle of nowhere in a microclimate, or it can come from the heart of Oaxaca. Terrior is really reflected in the product, just like it is in a fine wine.

We'll consider ourselves schooled. Salud!