If Phil Ward's previous success — that confection of a bar, Death & Co. — was a meditation on classic cocktails, then Mayahuel is an exercise in serious spirit spirituality, focusing on one in particular: tequila. Forget frozen margaritas churning behind the bar at the Midtown Chili's, Ward wants New York to know the liquor's true potential: he puts it in punch, sangria, tea and a couple dozen other cocktails. The bar is an altar to tequila and its bewormed little sister, mezcal. The backlit bottles look so tempting when set aglow, it might wipe clean memories of that Patron-soaked party in college when you swore off the stuff.
The things Ward gets this booze to do in cocktails (all $13) are nothing short of magic: it ranges from smoothly sweet in the Whoopsy Daisy (blanco tequila and joven mezcal blended with pomegranate molasses and lime) to alternately spicy and savory in the Slight Detour (jalepeño-infused tequila, reposado and joven mescal, agave nectar and molé bitters). When infused with strawberries, it blends well with a rosé sangria, but the most surprising concoction is the Loop Tonic, a blend of blanco tequila, green chartreuse, vermouth and celery bitters. It's sharp and refreshing and exemplary of the totally unexpected offerings at Mayahuel.
The downstairs bar is casual and crowded, while the upstairs lounge, with plush couches and red lighting, could be Manhattan's newest date night destination. Small tables make it easy to swap cocktails and share snacks: Ward and partner Ravi DeRossi, who also has his hand in Desnuda and the Bourgeois Pig, have also recruited Luis Gonzales to produce a menu of light fare that includes beef empanadas and sweet corn tamales. Of course cozy quarters mean you have to hear your neighboring table blather about their "time abroad in Mexico" (read: spring break in Cancun). Luckily, even when crowded, weekend nights don't veer into Señor Frog's territory. Guests are all seated, which might mean a wait, but also means you can enjoy your drink without an elbows-of-the-East Village infusion.
The cocktail menu is a breath of fresh air for a bar scene that's been on a steady whiskey diet for the past couple years, and I plan on a few return visits to try the concoctions I missed the first time around. Mayahuel, as the back page of the menu will tell you, is named for the Aztec divinity from whose grave the agave plant sprung up. Something tells me even the goddess of tequila couldn't have predicted its possibilities.