Editor’s note: This article was originally published May 15, 2014
Every time Whisler’s general manager Cesar Aguilar took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, he returned to the U.S. always telling himself he needed to go back soon, to immerse himself in the vibrant, open-air markets, the people who have made the same craft for 80 years and take in pride in what they do, and the culture that values slower-moving but well-lived days.
And, course, to enjoy mezcal sipped straight from a copita and paired with sliced oranges sprinkled with sal de gusano.
In Mexico, mezcal — the spirit made from oven-cooked agave — is often served straight at mezcalarias, tiny, crowded bars where, if you can’t remember what type of mezcal you’re drinking, the bartender will grab your copita, sniff it and tell you.
After so many trips there, Aguilar had the itch to replicate the Oaxacan bar experience (sans the sniffing) and has now opened his own mezcalaria in a small upstairs room in the Whisler’s building.
Since December, when he first broached the idea of opening the bar to Whisler’s owner Scranton Twohey, Mezcalaría Tobalá has become a passion project.
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“This particular bar is sacred, really near and dear to my heart,” Aguilar said. “It’s about dignity because mezcal comes from one of the most impoverished, if not the most impoverished, state in Mexico, which is Oaxaca. I wanted to create a venue where I could disseminate the culture, the traditions and the respect for it and do it in a responsible way,” by bringing in only mezcals made through sustainable means and sold by friends and people he’s met.
Currently, Mezcalaría Tobalá has 19 mezcals from brands including Wahaka, Mezcal Vago, Del Maguey and more. These cost between $9 to $30, accessible prices for the imported spirit.
Walk into the square space accessible by stairs outside Whisler’s and you’ll immediately notice the mezcal bar has the same stone walls and cozy ambience as the East Austin cocktail bar below. But much of the design — the vintage bar top from 1950s Mexico, the cupboard of mezcals, the old black-and-white photographs hanging on the walls and in the cupboard — are distinctly Oaxacan in style, Aguilar said, noting his vision was brought to life by local designer Charyl Coleman, who was married in Oaxaca and lived there for several years.
“I want it to feel like you’re being transported to Oaxaca when you walk through these doors,” Aguilar said he told Coleman. “She made that happen.”
For added authenticity, he’s playing Latin music on 1970s speaker equipment and serving the orange slices with sal de gusano. (Sal de gusano, in case you’re wondering, is dried, ground-up larvae mixed with chilies, herbs and salts. But don’t let the idea of eating worm salt dissuade you from trying this tasty snack.)
Also key to recreating a Oaxacan bar, Aguilar said, are the vessels the mezcal is served in: clay copitas for customers new to mezcal, shot glass-sized votives for customers who have picked out a favorite. He’s determined to make mezcal converts out of everyone who comes into Mezcalaría Tobalá.
That might happen more easily with another snack the mezcal bar offers, although it’s not exactly found at other mezcalarias. Aguilar and his partner, Carla, have discovered that chocolate pairs wells with mezcal, and he was able to make the sweet treat a regular edible addition at the bar after meeting Cesar Ramirez, a Peruvian pastry chef in town for a consulting gig who stopped by Whisler’s one day for a drink.
Ramirez, after talking with Aguilar, created three chocolates with a mezcal reduction in them. One has a charred tomatillo ganache in the center, another is vegan with hemp praline and another is straight dark chocolate, meant to pair with one of the Mezcal Vago varieties.
Aguilar understands that the smoky, earthy characteristics of mezcal aren’t for everybody.
“To me, I like the challenge of you coming in and saying, ‘Mezcal tastes like Band-Aids!’ OK, I’ll give you that, that’s fine, but let’s figure out that in the 19 bottles I have back here that none of them speak to you personally. Then you can have all the chocolates you want,” he said with a laugh.
Having people stop in and explore mezcal in a fun, affordable way is partly why creating Mezcalaría Tobalá was such a priority for Aguilar. But another reason he dreamed about opening it was because he couldn’t stop thinking about where mezcal comes from — those off-the-beaten-path villages and towns in Oaxaca — and what mezcal means to Mexico. He hopes maybe some of his customers will think about those things, too.
“I want to affect positive change with the bar,” Aguilar said. “That’s a tall order because people think, ‘It’s a bar.’ You’re serving drinks and how can you actually do that? But that’s the challenge I set up for myself.”
Mezcalaría Tobalá, 9:30 p.m. to close Thursdays-Saturdays. 1816 E. 6th St.