Don’t Call It a Mezcal Bar

March 12, 2020

Story: Kara Newman

Photo: Shannon Sturgis


Don’t Call It a Mezcal Bar

March 12, 2020

Story: Kara Newman

Art: Shannon Sturgis

Eli's Mezcal Room in Brooklyn is part of a growing crop of spirit-focused social clubs offering an alternative way to taste hard-to-find agave.

By midnight, we were six pours in at Eli’s Mezcal Room. That’s when the rattlesnake pechuga came out.

Eli (not his actual name), a magazine editor, moonlights as the proprietor of a monthly “communal table” hosted at his Greenpoint, Brooklyn, walk-up. The night I perched at his weathered wooden dining room table, I was joined by a dozen other mezcal-curious guests, mostly 30-something Brooklynites, who were invited by Eli or a mutual friend, or who’d asked for an in via his Instagram account. Few had more than a passing familiarity with the spirit in question.

Eli’s Mezcal Room is best described in terms of what it isn’t: It’s not a bar. It’s not a speakeasy. It’s not particularly organized. There’s no script, no road map. The energy is frazzled, verging on chaotic, as Eli dashes to pluck bottles from a “backbar” arranged on a table in the apartment’s entryway—a small portion of his larger mezcal collection, which he estimates at more than 100 bottles from nine Mexican states.

“I don’t decide what to serve until everyone is around the table and we decide what everyone likes to drink,” says Eli. “There’s an improvisational aspect to this.”

Eli began hosting what he describes as a “cross between a class and a dinner party” after a 2018 visit to Mexico City. He returned with about a half-dozen bottles of mezcal. “Since then, I’ve been going to Mexico an average of about once every three months, often bringing back a full suitcase of mezcal,” he says.

Although the self-described extrovert had been hosting dinner parties, sometimes themed, since graduating from college, the mezcal-focused gatherings started in fall 2019. He began to organize small groups of friends to drink and talk about mezcal, naming the project after Eli, one of his great-uncles, who had “a worldliness and curiosity about him that manifested in a love of food and drink,” he explains.

While the lively gatherings are designed for sharing the modern-day Eli’s passion for mezcal—as well as his fast-growing collection of bottles from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Durango among other states—it’s also about passing along knowledge about the spirit and the culture surrounding it. “I wanted to share with others because it’s really hard to learn about,” explains Eli.

Even amid the current agave boom that’s seen the mezcal Margarita approach the popularity of its tequila-based counterpart, the category remains difficult to parse for individuals outside of the bar world. Especially given the spirit’s high price point, Eli was particularly disappointed by the dearth of information available at bars.

“A high-end bar in America is not always the best place to learn about any spirit,” explains Eli. “Even as mezcal has become as trendy as it has, and bars offer great selections, the pricing for super-traditional high-end mezcals has become so high, that some people who would be curious to try would not be able to do it, unless it was a special occasion.”

His solution was to try to emulate the more casual tasting rooms he had encountered in Mexico; he cites Mezonte in Guadalajara as a particular influence. (Mezonte is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting, supporting and preserving the production and practices of traditional agave spirits of Mexico; it began when curator Pedro Jimenez began educating visitors about these spirits at a little bar in Guadalajara.) Although Eli offers some rare and often expensive bottlings from his collection, he keeps the price reasonable ($60 for a three-hour tasting that typically includes a half-dozen pours plus an array of homemade snacks) and the experience intimate, much like a dinner party. “It’s not an attempt to be a speakeasy or a re-creation of a slick professional experience,” Eli insists of his mezcal room. “It’s about providing a warm and inclusive environment where I am playing the role of enthusiastic host.”

Similar, informal, mezcal-focused experiences have begun to pop up independently from coast to coast, such as The Just Maguey Project, also in Brooklyn, and MezcalTing in Los Angeles. More so than, say, whiskey or rum, mezcal seems to inspire a cozy, gather-round-the-kitchen-table atmosphere. Lou Bank, executive director of SACRED, a Chicago-based organization that advocates for mezcal producers, posits that this owes, in part, to the homegrown nature of the spirit.

“Every batch tastes different,” he explains. “Traditionally made agave spirits are a surprise every time. We don’t get a lot of that in our lives, which makes it fun to experience with friends, family and strangers.”

On a recent Tuesday evening, a dozen guests arrived at Eli’s without knowing anyone else at the table, but all shared a desire to learn about—and drink—mezcal. The first bottle of the evening, a modestly smoky Agave de Cortes joven from Santiago Matatlán in Oaxaca, doubled as an icebreaker, as guests around the table introduced themselves to one another. That was followed by a general introduction to mezcal, delivered by Eli in a rapid-fire staccato patter. He unfurled a map to show the areas of Mexico where mezcal is made, then moved on to the different agave varieties used to make the spirit.

Formalities out of the way, the mezcal began to flow more freely: A progression of pours ranged from pungent and funky to delicate and floral, punctuated by a series of small, palate-cleansing snacks, also prepared and delivered by Eli. The final official drink of the evening—what he refers to as “the wild-card round”—was selected for each guest based on their feedback about which mezcal they had enjoyed most so far. These pours differed wildly: a blend of espadín and bicuixe aged in a large pile of goat dung (“supposedly the heat from the dung served to round out the flavor profile, much as many years in glass would,” Eli explained later) to a cupreata with a saline quality that reminded one guest of the Chinese herbs her mom gave her growing up (“It tastes like my mom yelling at me”).

As the tall candles in the center of the table burned down and the shot glasses and veladoras—traditional fluted votives engraved with a cross on the bottom—piled up, some guests headed out, while others lingered for one more taste of that rattlesnake-infused pechuga. What was billed as a “three-hour tour” stretched well beyond that. Not being a bar, there was no last call. At least one of the guests tried to keep the party going: “If anyone has energy after this, my friend’s band is playing at a bar called Pulqueria. It’s a mezcal bar!”

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