The Feat of Mezcal

ArticleJoseduardo ValadésComment

I have been to Casa Mezcal many times, and always find reasons to celebrate that lack of “Mexicanness” that makes this place so genuinely Mexican.

Located on the edges of the Lower East Side, its granite façade, the decorative barrels that remind me of the mezcaleras of the indigenous communities of Tlacochahuaya, the blue floor tiles brought --like almost everything else-- from Oaxaca, and even the wild turkey staring from the bar or the colorful paper cut-outs accompanying the overhead lights-- none of these are enough to convince me that this is a restaurant from Pancho Villa’s homeland.

Guillermo Olguin is the mind behind the concept of Casa Mezcal. He told me how this place bears the mark of a childhood spent in rural Mexico.  Entering these houses, the casseroles and clay pots,  the smells of herbs, flowers and soot, the strength of traditional cooking,  the mezcales, always create a deep yearning, and that taste of land and wood that stays in the mouth. Casa Mezcal represents and embodies all of this: a place grounded in nostalgia and surrounded by night and foliage.

Together with Ignacio Carballido and Erick Hernandez, Guillermo created a mezcal  “library” in Oaxaca, and try to offer rarities such as the house specialty, the mezcal Los Amantes. One project led to another, and the search for distinct mezcales ended up being an excuse to receive connoisseurs, who, attracted by the project’s growing renown, came to offer their own mezcal.

I remember my first foray to Casa Mezcal, I tried the Nauyaca,  an organic mezcal  from Guerrero; its shades impressed me. This drink seems to have more body than a banana shake, and it also significantly honors its name, for the nauyaca is a  poisonous, brightly-colored snake that plows through the wetlands of Guerrero. It is a young and very sweet mezcal, its honeys still fresh from the stalks of the agave, very fragrant and very smooth to drink. A small glass of mezcal – (it’s served like sherry)– can last up to a half an hour, because its aroma is long and rich.

Enthused by my first stab at the bar, I ventured to try a second drink, this time from the cocktail menu. The bartender helped me choose between the sweet and the spicy. The cocktail began with three slices of chile Serrano and ended with guava flavors. Somewhere in the middle, was mezcal and hints of a few other spirits.

Guillermo told me that the atmosphere had yet another source of inspiration: the dance halls and cantinas in Mexico City. He gave me their names and brought back memories; he talked to me about the background sounds --the ice in glasses, the buzz of conversations. Even the high ceilings and the music selection at Casa Mezcal aim to reaffirm an old adage: it’s long been said that to drink mezcal, is not the same as drinking mezcal while listening to José José.

I came back a couple of days later, and again had that Leyenda de Guerrero mezcal. I also tried the “bat” version from Durango, Murciélago, and the relaxed version of the house special Los Amantes. The Murciélago truly does have winged virtues. Despite its youth, it is far more robust than other drinks, and more given to taste than to aroma. The Los Amantes, on another hand, is monumentally complex: it’s like stuffing  Mexico’s historic San Ildefonso School, into your mouth.

Just before returning to Mexico, I visited Casa Mezcal for the last time, without much hope of reviving the nostalgia for my country’s cuisine. Fortunately, this didn’t happen, because I found a place that cares about keeping its style –rising against the same old menus and bottled salsas that so often disappoint the palate, by practicing one modest feat: that of good mezcal

Photos by Anna Lesniak.