Let me mezcal you, Sweetheart
On the rocks with Bitter Honey
For Zack Mikida, it was love at first sight, or rather, first visit. Now twenty-eight, he made his inaugural voyage to Mexico several years ago and fell hard for the country’s hospitality and its people. Originally from Buffalo, Mikida has been behind the stick as the bar manager of popular restaurant and cocktail bar The Revelry since its opening in the spring of 2013. In partnership with Revelry owner Joshua Miles, Mikida’s dream of bringing a slice of Mexico back to New York is finally coming true. That dream is Bitter Honey, a new, authentic Mexican restaurant opening this September, directly behind the Three Heads Brewing facility in the Neighborhood of the Arts.
“People are going to be intimidated by mezcal,” says Mikida. “Our staff will be fully educated, and the goal is to generate enthusiasm by making it approachable and accessible.” Mikida references the recent gaffe made by TV’s Bar Rescue host and author Jon Taffer that has the cocktail industry in an uproar. In a Huffington Post interview, Taffer mistakenly asserts that mezcal is linked to the drug mescaline, and that since tequila is made from mezcal, it could have hallucinogenic properties. Mescaline actually comes from the peyote cactus, a completely different plant than agave, from which mezcal derives. “We’d really like to demystify that stigma,” Mikida explains. “Agave is a succulent that’s related to the lily, and the distillation is a process that dates back to the sixteenth century, when Spanish conquistadors prohibited the growing of grapes in Mexico for wine.”
Much like wine, mezcal reflects the region and the terroir where the agave is grown. It can be distilled from any type of agave plant, can only be produced in eight states, and is made mostly in Oaxaca. Tequila (a type of mezcal) distillation is slightly more specific. It is exclusively composed of blue agave (agave azul) and can only be distilled in five states. Mikida’s agave education began at La Capilla, the oldest bar in Tequila, Jalisco—the region where most tequila is produced. It’s also the birthplace of the Paloma, Mexico’s most beloved tequila-based cocktail. Since then, Mikida has made subsequent industry trips to Mexico to learn more about the process. While traveling, he worked at several palenques and tended bar at Mezcalogia in Oaxaca.
The relationships Mikida has built in Mexico, nationally, and locally are playing an integral role in the development of Bitter Honey. “As a whole, Rochester is on the map as a food and beverage hub,” he says. “The resurgence has put a lot of eyes on new restaurants, tourism, and other industry professionals.” Mikida points out Joe Fee, of local bitters and cocktail manufacturer Fee Brothers, as an example of a Rochesterian who is globally known for his contributions to the beverage industry. A visit to the Revelry from two-time winner of the James Beard Award and “King Cocktail” himself, Dale DeGroff, didn’t hurt either. (DeGroff has also been a supporter of the annual Rochester Cocktail Revival.)
While ownership will be a transition for him, Mikida still plans on flexing his mixology muscles behind one of two bars slated for Bitter Honey. He has also enlisted the tipple-slinging skills of Nathaniel Hall, who will move over from Hattie’s at the Strathallan, and Abby Quatro, from Branca. In addition to a creative cocktail menu, the bar will serve flights of mezcal in copitas, which are traditional glazed terracotta vessels.
Bitter Honey will seat 120 people, excluding the bar and patio space. The focus of the menu will be fresh, honest, made-to-order Mexican cuisine. This will appeal to taco lovers thanks to the in-house tortilla press, which will be housed in the counter-service portion of the restaurant, where Mikida says customers will be able to order and wait for takeout or pick up preordered food. To make those tortillas, the restaurant plans on doing its own nixtamalization in a 600-pound kettle. (Nixtamalization is the process of preparing corn with a limewater solution to reduce toxins, produce better flavor, and make it easier to grind.)
Carnivores should be delighted with the savory meat offerings, such as chorizo and barbacoa, and will be able to order taco fixings in half-pound increments. With several competing Mexican eateries around, Mikida acknowledges they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. “Friendly competition is good—it keeps you on your toes.” He laughs and continues, “We are very aware that we are a bunch of gringos opening a Mexican restaurant in upstate New York, but we are taking our program seriously, and our friends from Mexico will be coming in advance to make sure we get it right.”
Bitter Honey’s décor will move away from “trendy hipster” Edison-style light bulbs and incorporate vibrant tile work, terracotta, and neon accents. There are also three murals planned, which will be painted by two artists from New York City and a very special muralist from Buffalo, Mikida’s mother, Laura. She plans on depicting Aztec fertility goddess Mayahuel, the divinity associated with agave and mother to four hundred rabbits. Mikida says, “The rabbits are believed to be responsible for drunkenness.” An only child who was raised by his single mother, Mikida is extremely grateful for how far he has come in the business, “I’m just a bartender, but I have the right people backing me at the right time. I wouldn’t be able to do this without the hands of so many helping me along.”
Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer based in Rochester.