The World of Del Maguey

Mezcal so good, I forgot how to count

By Tony Cross

Back in June, I was invited to dinner and a mezcal tasting by my good friends Bo and Suze. I first met the couple six years ago when I was tending bar. Bo and I bonded over our love of spirits and cocktails. He was one of the few people I knew at the time that shared the same knowledge and appreciation of everything from cocktail books, to bars across the United States and the great drinks they are known for. Needless to say, we’ve been pals ever since.

In the time we’ve known each other, we’ve shared lots of great drinks, many of which were imbibed in his bar, The Bo Zone. That’s right. He’s got quite the selection, and almost everything on hand for most cocktails across the board. Along with his invitation, he informed me he’d just received a huge delivery of spirits online. Yes, you can order spirits online and have them delivered to your home in North Carolina. I’m not going to name names, but do your research and thank me later.

The majority of bottles from Bo’s latest shipment was mezcal from Del Maguey. Pronounced ma-gay, the single village Mezcal was founded in 1995 by Ron Cooper. Each bottle is made by individual family producers and, as the website states: “We are the first producer to credit each product after the village where our liquid is made. When you see our beautiful green bottles, you know it’s Del Maguey.”

After the three of us enjoyed a fabulous dinner, we retired downstairs to The Bo Zone, where many beautiful green bottles awaited us. Here are a few of my favorites from that evening. I’m including the tasting notes that Bo provided, along with my recollections. I took pictures so I would remember just in case I time-traveled — I didn’t, but I’m glad I have the pictures to remind me. They were all excellent. The mezcals, I mean.

Del Maguey Tepextate ($115)

This was the first bottle we got into. What a great start.

Bo’s notes: This glorious mezcal made from wild agave is the work of the same master mezcalero that produces the legendary Tobala (see below) bottled by Del Maguey. Tepextate expressions are rare, to say the least, and the extreme conditions that the plant grows in result in mezcals with concentrated, sweet tones of pure nectar.”

My recollections: Honeysuckle. It was a touch sweet. The problem with all of these great mezcals is you want to have another taste — there’s so much going on that you need one more little sip to figure out what your palate is picking up.

Del Maguey San Pablo Ameyaltepec ($130)

Number three on the list was this beauty from Puebla. For “mezcal” to be printed on a label, the agave has to originate from one of eight Mexican states. Puebla is now on that list.

Bo’s notes: With this extraordinary bottling from master mezcalero Aurelio Gonzalez Tobnon, Del Maguey takes a big step forward with their first official bottling from the state of Puebla. The wild Papalote agaves for this spirit were harvested after 12 to 18 years maturing to full ripeness in the remote hillsides outside the city limits. Showing off an incredible range of complexity, the spirit resolves to an umami-like level of intensity and harmony with notes that hit on the tropical, floral, spicy, savory, salty, mineral and more.

My recollections: We all agreed that the Ameyaltepec left a savory, umami flavor on the finish. What’s fun about tasting mezcal (or spirits or wine) is how there is no right or wrong. You taste what you taste. Over the years I’ve looked at tech sheets on spirits/wine provided for staff by a distillery/winery and thinking, “Nope. That’s not what I taste at all.” This was one of the times where we all thought the notes hit the nail on the head. What a finish.

Del Maguey Madrecuixe ($110)

Bo’s notes: Not far off the banks of the Red Ant River in the dense, green village of San Luis del Rio in Oaxaca, Paciano Cruz Nolasco produces some of the most traditional mezcals on Earth. This rare bottling was made from the wild grown agave species of Madrecruixe. The opening notes are herbaceous and green in nature, then slowly, layers of tropical fruit are revealed spiked with earthy, edgy flavors that all seem to fit together thanks to the gorgeous texture and elegant medium body.”

My recollections: I remember loving this. I also remember humming some Jimi Hendrix tune that was on in the background. Let’s go with: What tastes like bananas, silk, and something green for $300, Alex?

Del Maguey Tobala ($120)

When we finished tasting the recent acquisitions, Bo pulled two more off the shelf. I’ve had this one before, but it had been so long I was forced to say, “Hey, man, lemme taste that one again” out loud.

Notes from Del Maguey’s website: The Tobala maguey is found growing naturally only in the highest altitude canyons in the shade of oak trees, like truffles. It takes about eight piñas (agave hearts) to equal one piña from either of the more commonly propagated and cultivated magueys. Our Tobala has a sweet, fruity nose, with a mango and cinnamon taste and long, extra smooth finish.

My recollections: “Ahh, man, that’s awesome!” At this point I was texting certain friends (who could care less) with pictures of the different, beautiful green bottles I was sipping from. My laugh was getting audibly louder and somewhat obnoxious, even in text form.

Del Maguey Pechuga ($200)

This is the showstopper. Bo had a little more than half a bottle of the Pechuga that had been on the shelf for five years — or did he say three? — and I was honored he would share this beautiful spirit with me. The first thing I learned about Pechuga involved the use of a chicken. Don’t be afraid. A whole skinless chicken breast (pechuga) is washed thoroughly to remove any grease, then hung by a string within the still for 24 hours while a second or third distillation happens. It’s not voodoo, it balances the native apples, plums, plantains, pineapples, almonds, and white rice that were already added to the 100 liters of mezcal.

My recollections: I remember taking a few sips, smiling, saying something brainy, and then tuning out. I was transported immediately to Santa Catarina Minas. I’m a donkey. Kind of like Eeyore, but not melancholy; my mood was the equivalent of being in a commercial for unwanted facial hair where everyone is really, really, happy. Oh, and I was a cartoon. I’m in the middle of grinding piñas during mezcal production. And then I came to. Maybe I did time-travel a little. This mezcal is classy.  OH

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

In The Spirit

Rum Discovery

Straight up sugar cane

By Tony Cross

In the spring of 2018, I was able to get into the five-year anniversary party at the mezcal bar Gallo Pelon in Raleigh. It was a fun night shared with close friends at one of my favorite bars. What made the evening even more special was my introduction to Oaxacan Agricole rum.

Near the end of every year, I place my order online for different spirits that aren’t available through our state’s ABC system (which would be many). It’s basically my Christmas present to myself. Copious amounts. It never dawned on me to search for rums from the Oaxacan region until that night. So I did, and grabbed a bottle from Haiti while I was at it. I drank both bottles bone-dry, and couldn’t remember my name or how to do times-tables for three days.

I’m lying. I was the first kid in my third-grade class to remember their multiplication tables; that will never fade from my memory.

Paranubes Oaxacan Agricole Rum

“Made in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, where a sparsely inhabited sub-tropical climate produces some of the best sugar cane on Earth. Third-generation distiller Jose Luis Carrera works with several local varieties of cane grown organically and minimally processed during distillation, using only the fresh, lightly pressed cane juice.”

That’s the first thing I read about Paranubes rum. The next thing I noticed is the whopping 54 percent alcohol by volume. Yeah, I had to give this one a go. When it arrived (along with the other types of spirits I purchased), it was the first bottle I opened. On the nose, I could definitely smell sugar cane as soon as I popped the cork. But once in the glass, there was a peppery smell to it that I couldn’t quite nail down.

The next day, my buddy Carter gave it a go, and before his first sip, he said, “Hmm . . . smells like ketchup.” That’s it! I should’ve gotten that; I eat ketchup on almost everything. We both agreed it was a beautiful rum, from the nose, to the back of the palate. Just straight-up sugar cane. No additives. I read on their website that Jose Luis Carrera is able to produce 85 liters a day — the bottle is one liter. He could distill more for a faster production time, but doesn’t want to compromise the balance of his rum. Talk about quality.

The first drink I made with this was the classic Ti’ Punch: just a touch of organic cane sugar, lime, and Paranubes rum made my holiday week a little less stressful. I’ll give a recipe below.

Clairin Sajous Haitian Rhum Agricole

What struck my curiosity with this bottle were two things: One, it’s only been on the market for a couple of years; and two, I’ve never tasted clairin before. It was introduced to me as an eau de vie, similar to white Agricole rhums. So, what exactly is clairin? In a nutshell, it’s a distilled spirit made from sugar cane juice that is produced in Haiti. It gets its name (kleren in Haitian Creole) from its clear color. This clairin comes from an independent distillery that sits in the northern high-altitude village of Saint Michel de L’Attalaye and is run by Michel Sajous.

Just like the distillery of Paranubes, the Sajous Clairin is organically cultivated. Sajous uses the cristalline variety of sugar cane. This type of sugar cane doesn’t yield as much juice when pressed compared to larger production rum companies, but the juice that it does hold has a ton of character. In fact, this type of cane comes from small villages that use machinery without electricity. The sugar cane is also cut by hand and transported by ox carts or donkeys to the distilleries.

Wild beasts and sugar cane. That’s it, folks. It smells stronger than it tastes: grassy, slightly fruity, and very clean. Don’t let the 107 proof on the label scare you — indeed, this is high-octane, but there is so much flavor to decipher, and the clean finish makes this a new staple in my bar. I’m ordering three bottles next time. I recommend the Clairin Sajous definitely in a daiquiri, or on the rocks.

Are you a fan of rum? I feel like there are two groups: Those that like common, molasses-based rum (Molasses is made by boiling sugar cane juice, and then skimming off the top while it’s boiling. After this process is repeated many times, the end result is a thick and sweet liquid.) and those who like Agricole rhums that are made from sugar cane juice. I say that the first group likes “common rum” because that rum is everywhere and is always sweeter. Agricole rum can be more effluvious or funky, and that’s the rum I prefer.

Ti’ Punch

1 teaspoon organic cane sugar

1 fat lime wedge (not that half-moon, sliver-of-a-lime nonsense)

2 ounces rhum agricole (I use Paranubes)

Place sugar and lime into a rocks glass. Gently muddle lime into the sugar. Release the oils of the lime into the juice without pulverizing it. Add rum and ice. Give it a quick stir. Take your time and enjoy. OH

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

In the Spirit

The Bare Necessities

Keeping it simple keeps it delicious

By Tony Cross

Last month I confessed to being behind on a number of books that I had barely started or hadn’t opened at all. One of those books is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Yes, that’s right. It’s blasphemous to say that I adore the man, yet have not read his epic first book. Embarrassing, I know. Anyway, the book is amazing. One of the chapters, “How to Cook Like the Pros,” has Bourdain giving tips to those at home who want to cook well enough to amaze their next dinner party guests. Good stuff. He starts with tools: chef’s knife, other knives, plastic squeeze bottles, pots and pans, etc. He then moves on to ingredients: butter, stock, shallots and more. So, in this episode, I’m going to blatantly rip off Anthony. It’s OK, we share the same first name.

When it comes to making drinks, people always ask me questions like: “What’s your favorite drink to make? Do you really like egg whites in cocktails? What’s a good recipe?” (I get that one a lot.) Or: “How do you make your old-fashioneds?” and “Do you really like mezcal?” I usually respond to the last one with “no” and a grin on my face. One time, a married woman (claiming to be newly separated) actually messaged me on social media late on a Saturday night to find out what my favorite rye is. It’s Rittenhouse, but that’s not all she asked.

The point is, you only need a few tools, and a few ingredients to make a ton of delicious cocktails. And in no particular order, so let’s go.

Angostura Bitters

There are a ton of bitters on the market. They’re everywhere. And by all means, experiment and check them out. But I’ve never lost it in my kitchen when I’ve run out of cardamom bitters. It’ll never happen. Angostura is the essential bitters that should always be stocked in your place. Plain and simple. Plus, it’s available everywhere, and it cures hiccups (doused on a lemon wedge). Just saying.

A Good Juicer

A durable, inexpensive, hand-held juicer is all you need when making drinks at home. I’ve talked to people who just “squeeze a little lime juice” into their shaker (I hope) when creating their own gimlets. Amazon has the Chef’n FreshForce model that is only $20, and durable as hell. Even if you’re hosting a 12-person cocktail party, this hand-held juicer is really convenient. Once you get the hang of it, you can juice 10 ounces in no time. Oh, and measure the stuff while you’re at it.


Use a jigger that has a few measurements on it. You know, 1/4 , 1/2, 3/4 of an ounce. I prefer the Japanese style, but whatever is easiest for you. Cocktail Kingdom has a lot of fancy plated ones; to each their own. I have the original stainless steel, and they’ve lasted me for years. If you’re not measuring, stop reading here.


If you’ve always got a half to a full cup of simple syrup in your fridge that hasn’t gone bad, good for you. You’re an alcoholic. Kidding. The rest of us probably have that “Oh, hell” moment when realizing that we’ve got everything for the drink ready except for said syrup. No worries, it only takes a minute to make, and that’s if you feel like making it. But syrup or no syrup, you should always have a small amount of demerara or cane sugar in the cabinet. It makes all the difference in the classics. Don’t believe me? Make a rich demerara syrup for your next daiquiri and tell me that the sugar doesn’t bring out the flavors in the top of the line rum you used. The color may not be Instagram-worthy, but who cares when you’ve made one of the best drinks in the world.


I can’t believe that almost every bar and restaurant in this town still has vermouth on the shelf. It’s rancid. Don’t be like most bars and restaurants in this town. Refrigerate, dammit. You’re only wasting your own hard-earned dollar and taste buds. Get a white and a red. You don’t need four of each, unless you’re using them before they spoil. Here, here! Dolin Dry for martinis and Carpano Antica for Manhattans. They’re also delicious over ice with a twist, too, ya know.


I see a lot of articles online that read something like this: “The 8 Gins You Should Have at Home!” Really? Eight? No thanks. How about two or three? Plymouth for martinis and Beefeater’s for gin and tonics. “Hey, Tony! I can’t imagine how many whiskies you have at home!” I can. Three or four? Maybe? I love rye, so I usually have Old Overholt, Rittenhouse and/or Wild Turkey Rye. Whatever bourbon I can get my hands on that’s halfway decent from the ABC. Oh, and a good bottle of Scotch. Yeah, that’s about it. Aaaaand for the rest:

Agave: If you are really just into margaritas, get a blanco; I particularly enjoy Herradura. If sipping is your thing, grab a nice anejo. A bottle of Del Maguey anything wouldn’t hurt either.

Rum: One white rum and one funky. For me, it’s Cana Brava and Smith & Cross. Actually, I’m lying. I have more. But I’m a rum-whore. Can’t help it. But the former is a good start.

Vodka: This is easily the most debated. Probably because most people who boast about what vodka they love are full of it. Tito’s, you say? Yeah, sure. I don’t care. For me, it’s always a vehicle to a destination. Just don’t let that ride be a Ford Pinto.

Brandy: Rémy Martin. Damn good cognac.   OH

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

In The Spirit

TOPO’s Whiskey and Rum

New releases from one of North Carolina’s most inventive distilleries


By Tony Cross

Four years ago, I was in my final couple of hours of wrapping up a Saturday night behind the bar. It was busy and I was slinging drinks and carrying on the type of banter that goes with the territory. Usually after 8 p.m. on a weekend night, most of my guests were relaxed enough to tolerate, maybe even laugh at, my antics. In between the chaos, two gentlemen took seats at the bar. After greeting them, I turned around to grab a bottle of rye and make a drink. “Do you guys carry TOPO spirits?” one of them asked. It had to have been some sort of divine intervention, because my first thought was, “Yeah, but you’re the only person to ask for it.” TOPO vodka was the first local spirit I carried, and I was a little disappointed that guests weren’t flocking to support a local distillery. Another way of putting it is: My feelings got hurt when guests didn’t like what I did. But instead of talking first and thinking later, I said, “Actually, yeah, we carry their vodka. It’s good stuff.” Good job, Tony. Not being a smart-ass paid off for once. I had just met the owners of Top of the Hill Distillery, Scott Maitland and Esteban McMahan.

Since that night, I’ve formed a relationship with TOPO’s spirit guide, McMahan. No one in North Carolina’s distillery game seems busier than him. If you follow TOPO on Instagram (handle: topoorganicspirits), then you know exactly what I mean. If I had to guess, I’d say that he’s doing three to four events a week across the state. The guy is everywhere. And thanks to McMahan’s work ethic, I was able to debut my carbonated cocktails on draught to a ton of people when he asked me to bartend with him at Stoneybrook two years ago. Since then, we’ve collaborated a few times and he always makes a point to let me know when he’s in Moore County. The last time I saw McMahan was in March, when he was finishing up an event at the Carolina Horse Park and wanted to link up so he could turn me on to TOPO’s new whiskey. After having a drink and catching up, he gifted me a bottle of their organic Spiced Rum and Reserve Carolina Straight Wheat Whiskey.

I first got a taste of TOPO’s Spiced Rum last fall during Pepperfest in Carrboro. McMahan had invited my friend and co-worker, Carter, and me to come out and use pepper-infused TOPO vodka with our Reverie strawberry-ginger beer. We had a blast, and our cocktail even took first place. While we were there, we got to see the TOPO crew unveil their newest spirit, the Spiced Rum. A few months prior to Pepperfest, the guys over at the distillery were still tweaking the rum. They’d given me a taste at the time, and it wasn’t bad. When I got to try it at Pepperfest, it was clear they had gotten it just right. On the nose, there’s vanilla, orange, and the slightest whiff of banana. On the palate, orange and vanilla are still present, but I can also taste spices — cinnamon is definitely there, clove is subtle, and allspice seems to round it out. McMahan says their rum is “N.C.’s only USDA Certified Organic rum. It is distilled from organic evaporated cane juice and molasses, and spiced with organic fruit and spices. Unlike most spiced rums, it is not heavily sweetened post-distillation, nor are there artificial colors and flavors.” Heck, the rum was even awarded a bronze medal at the American Distilling Institute Competition this year. I would suspect that rum purists might not go crazy about it, but I think it’s fun to play around with, and goes well in a variety of mixed drinks. You can definitely go the Dark n’ Stormy route, or you can fiddle around with something like I did below:

Kind of Blue

2 ounces TOPO Spiced Rum

3/4 ounce pineapple juice

1/2 ounce lime juice

1/4 ounce simple syrup (2:1)

2 ounces Reverie Ginger Beer

Take all ingredients (sans ginger beer) and pour into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake like hell, and then pour two ounces of ginger beer into the shaker. Dump everything into a rocks glass. Garnish with fresh grated nutmeg (using a microplane).

As much as I like to stay busy, I can do lazy, too. Case in point: that bottle of TOPO’s Reserve Carolina Straight Wheat Whiskey. I didn’t want to open it until I could take a picture of it for this issue’s column. I’ve had this bottle staring at me from my kitchen counter since March. All I had to do was take a picture of it. Well, I did. Tonight. And I opened it. Tonight. One of my friends has been telling me how good this whiskey is. I’ll be hearing “I told you so” sometime later this week.

I asked McMahan about TOPO’s new whiskey, and he had this to say: “The TOPO Organic Reserve Carolina Straight Wheat Whiskey is N.C.’s first and only locally sourced straight whiskey. It is distilled from a 100 percent wheat mash bill of USDA Certified Organic soft red winter wheat from the Jack H. Winslow Farms in Scotland Neck, N.C. It is distilled below 80 percent ABV, barrel aged in #3 char new American oak barrels two to four years at no more than 125 proof, and then it’s non chill-filtered.” I know, he forgot to tell me how smooth this whiskey is. Congratulations are in order, too. McMahan was just notified that TOPO placed gold in the San Francisco Spirits Competition. No drink recipe for this one, folks. If you must, an old-fashioned. I’ll take mine neat with half an ice cube. Cheers!  OH

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.