The time has come to think big. Yes, you cherish your hidden nooks and crannies, places to pass low-lit downtown evenings in the company of your co-conspirators. But sometimes we can all use some serious elbow room. Three floors' worth of it... Welcome to Casa Mezcal, a genuine mansion of mezcal, music, Oaxacan deities and alligator skins, opening next week on the Lower East Side. Think of it as a place to show a date your dedication to the arts: the granite facade outside explains Casa's mission as "Cine, Musica, Comida, Arte, Bar." But let's focus on the bar. As befits any three-floor mansion, there are three bars, each stocked with endless rows of rare and opaque bottles of mezcal. Start on the ground floor with a glass from the owner's private distillery in Oaxaca, primed for sipping neat. From here you could go up—to the plush gallery room overlooking Orchard Street—or down, where you'll find a movie screen and music stage, as well as a massive alligator skin splayed open on the wall. (A none-too-subtle warning to the band about what happens when management is unhappy with the performance.) Lastly comes the comida, also via Oaxaca. Yes, there will be handmade tortillas and tacos. But also available: a local delicacy of fried grasshoppers with melted cheese. Like we said, there will be tacos.
¨One of the first artists I roped in was Guillermo Olguín, who offered a towering, bannerlike painting for the show: a man hanged upside down, communing with a carrion bird. (Art in Oaxaca has become increasingly violent, now that the violence itself has evaporated.) Olguín is a famous painter, but also a connoisseur of spirits and a leader in the intellectual underground. His newest project is Mezcalería Los Amantes, a tasting room that he calls a “library of mezcal.” Made mostly in the state of Oaxaca, mezcal is distilled from the bulb at the center of the agave plant, the sugarypiña. Ingredients from the earth enter into almost every stage of the process, so mezcal ends up tasting, quite literally, like Mexico. Thepiñas are roasted over wood charcoal in a stone-lined pit covered in plant matter and earth, then ground, fermented in wooden vats and distilled into a husky, fiery liquid. The commercial rotgut with the worm pickled inside can be as pleasant as, oh, formaldehyde. At its best, however, mezcal is as sophisticated as the finest single malts.¨
Mezcalería Los Amantes looks like a hip alchemical laboratory, with bottles and jars of mezcal lining the tiny storefront that opens onto the street; behind the wooden bar, glass cases contain surreal curios, like a vintage mannequin. All of this is a theater for the presentation of the dozens of artisanal mezcals Olguín has discovered, as well as his own high-end brand of mezcal. Also called Los Amantes, it is now poured intop New York City bars and restaurants, like Death & Co. and Mayahuel; it is also available at Olguín’s Manhattan restaurant, Casa Mezcal.
Café Central, a mezcal-drenched, cheerfully decadent lounge with plush red curtains and upholstery, loud music, dancing and politically charged art (and artists).
I ask these questions because I had a gorgeous mezcal over the weekend from Los Amantes. It was a joven, which means it had received little aging, unlike a reposado or añejo, which, as with tequila, indicate longer aging. The aroma was subtly different from tequila, with an almost cucumber-like edge to it. On the palate it had a smoky, saline, citrus quality and was smooth and pure. I thought it was great, the equal of the best mezcals I’ve had, which have come from del Maguey...