The food at Cala, Chef Gabriela Cámara's high-end Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, is quite memorable (and quite delicious). There are tostadas topped with fresh crab, and others with silky raw trout and crispy fried leeks, reminiscent of the ones Cámara serves at Contramar in Mexico City. There's a giant sweet potato, cooked until black on the outside and smoky within, meant to be stuffed into fresh-masa tortillas smeared with bone marrow–enhanced salsa negra. But after my first visit, the flavor I couldn't get out of my mind was the first sip: Cala's Martini Oaxaqueño, a savory, briny shaken mezcal cocktail.
This complex-tasting drink is a distant cousin of the martini—after all, there's no gin here, and no vermouth. Some might claim it's really closer to a sour—a margarita, for example—since there's a fruity liqueur and lime juice involved. But if you're a fan of the filthy, sopping-wet martini, I'm guessing that you won't be too worried about the categorization, and that you're going to like this salty-refreshing cocktail.
Mezcal makes sense in a martini. Sure, the spirit isn't steeped with botanicals, like juniper berries or green herbs, but since it's made from agave instead of a neutral grain base, it often has some of those flavors—resiny, floral, sometimes grassy, sometimes cinnamon-y, plus a subtle smoke that tastes a bit like you lit your bay leaves on fire. Perhaps if you took your gin hiking and drank it around the campfire, it would eventually get some of that flavor, but why bother?
In this drink, the mezcal—which can taste a little salty on its own—gets a generous pour of Castelvetrano olive brine, which is savory and a little sweet, with a good dose of olive-y richness. It's a smart pick, boosting the earthy side of the mezcal and giving the drink a little extra body. One warning, though: The salt level of different olive brands varies significantly. At Cala, they use Divina, which I've found at Whole Foods and my local health food co-op, and I recommend seeking them out or starting your drink with a little less brine in the mix and adding more to taste if needed.
The cocktail is sweetened with aromatic Mandarine Napoléon, a cognac-based liqueur that's flavored with mandarin oranges. Can't find it? Cointreau or fragrant, orangey Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao works well, too. Lime juice adds a balancing brightness to the drink, and the final touch is a few dashes of fennel bitters, made by Greenbar Distillery in collaboration with bartenders Adam Stemmler and Dustin Haarstad. The bitters amplify the herbal, vegetal side for a mix that's fresh and saline, the perfect thing to sip with seafood this summer.
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