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Taking the Real Bar Exam: Mezcal at a Tequila Bar

There are now three official tequila bars in Healdsburg, but the best reason to visit may not be the tequila at all

The wine bars are proliferating, new wineries open with ambitious regularity, tasting rooms are in every corner and even some clothing stores. So what’s the hottest thing to drink in Healdsburg right now?

Tequila, of course. But there's a challenger in the ring.

Case in point: has only a handful of wines on its menu, despite being the hot new dinery in the heart of wine country. But there are at least 60 tequilas behind the bar, blancos and reposados and añejos (oh my!). And it’s far from the only tequila bar in town – it’s just the latest.

was the first: owner Pedro Diaz’ tequila bar was installed when he took over the long-standing Healdsburg restaurant in 2009, and now it occupies an entire wall in the remodeled back room.  It reportedly has the most tequila offerings, both on- and off-menu, in town, but on weekends it's the margaritas made with Herradura blanco that get the most attention.

Next up was , run by Pedro’s older brother Octavio Diaz, which opened about the first of this year and is fast catching up to his brother’s tequila offerings, with about 130 according to his latest estimate.

But the irony of tequila’s ascension in wine country doesn’t stop there, if Octavio Diaz has his way. “Mezcal is the daddy of tequila,” he says. “I guarantee that in two years everyone will be talking about mezcal” –  and not tequila, he implies.

In fact, his “tequila bar” is called Casa del Mezcal, situated in the second dining area to the left of the entrance. An array of invitingly backlit bottles is on display, but there’s also a rack full of mezcal (sometimes spelled mescal), with the good stuff up on the top shelf, of course.

It was from that top shelf that Diaz drew down several bottles the other night to introduce two of us to mezcal. My friend Brad Cott first told me about the Agave’s tequila bar, which he found on breaks from his day job at the UPS store nearby in the Vine St. shopping center. Cott was my “wingman” for the assignment, and together we endured two hours of mezcal, conversation and more mezcal with Diaz.

Mezcal, Diaz told us, is made from the Agave Americana, also known as the maguey – one of over 200 agave species in the New World, including the closely related blue agave (A. tequilana). The maguey is local to the state of Oaxaca (wa-HAWK-ah, to non-Spanish speakers) in the mountainous southern part of Mexico, where it has been used to produce an intoxicant since pre-Columbian times.

But it may have been the Spanish who decided to distill the native pulque into something more powerful, and whose method is still in use. The process is illustrated by hand-painted mural along the walls of the restaurant, from fields of the blue-hued succulents (surrounding Diaz’ home village of Santa Gertrudis), to the wood-fired roasting of the “piña” or heart of the plant, to distillation through bamboo pipes and eventual storage in clay pots, every step of which lends flavors to the final result.

Those flavors – smoke, wood, clay – make mezcal a very earthy drink, but what surprised both Cott and myself was the clarity of the liquid, and how easy it was to get used to the taste. Of course, we were drinking some pretty good mezcal: one of the bottles on the table was supposedly priced at $160, though most were in a more affordable range.

Mezcal is traditionally drunk from a small gourd dish called a jicara, with salt optional – in fact the preferred accompaniment is a spicy fried insect larva, which only after several shots of the 80-proof firewater did Diaz introduce. Mezcal, remember, is the one with the worm in the bottle – Meszal con Gusano – the worm being a larval stage of an insect often found in the maguey plant.

“I think I’ll classify myself as a mezcal virgin,” said Cott, an avowed fan of reposado tequila. But when Diaz pointed out the tradition of the worm, Cott admitted he must have had it at some time in the past. Who doesn’t remember the worm?

But not all mezcals have the little white worm in the bottom of the bottle. We started with a higher-class brand called Benesin, which touted its purity with a USDA Organic stamp on the label. Ironically, Benesin has been branded and imported by Efrain Nolasco of Santa Rosa – just down the road. (You’ll find it in all the tequila bars mentioned in this article, and it's a good introduction to the subtleties and pleasures of mezcal.)

Several of the other mezcals from the top shelf were from the Del Maguey label, which focuses on “single village mezcal” much as a winery will feature vineyard-designate wines – and several of its offerings also bear the green organic stamp of approval.

There were subtle differences between the mezcals we sampled; some had stronger smoke, some stronger clay. None were anything but intriguing, whether from a jicara or shot glass.

Finally Diaz opened the most interesting, and expensive bottle – Mezcal Joven from the Ilegal Mezcal company. The name is apparently a slightly salacious one, and my rough translation – “Like ‘barely legal’?” – met with approval from Diaz.

But the company’s website has a different story, that the brand found a market through the owners’ Antigua, Guatemala café after slipping across the border from Mexico without official sanction. (Apparently it’s not only the US/Mexico border that’s porous; and clearly sometimes good things slip across, too.)

Whatever the translation, the Ilegal became my personal favorite immediately: lightly smoked, spicy, and almost transparent in body, it virtually evaporated on the palate with surprisingly little heat. (Note: Ilegal Mezcal is now available at BevMo in Santa Rosa for $51.99)

“I’ve been snared,” said Cott later of our mezcal tasting. “It’s time to dump the rest and drink the good stuff.”

For another hour, long after the restaurant closed, we sat at the table with open bottles of mezcal before us, listening to Diaz’ tales of Oaxaca, and sharing a few of our own. I first visited Oaxaca in 1973, which put me there two years before Octavio was born; I was there again for a total solar eclipse in 1992.

Diaz kept insisting that because real mezcal was so pure, we would not have headaches the next morning, and we willingly tested the thesis. (Personal result: drink plenty of water, get plenty of sleep, and redefine “headache.”)

Thought Diaz’ interest in mezcal is literally home-grown, the Oaxacan native came to the U.S. when he was 13 years old, supported by his uncle in Rohnert Park, and attended SRJC. His family wanted him to return to Oaxaca as a farmer, but he chose hospitality as his field, and worked first for Starwood and later the Petaluma Sheraton, where he became the hotel service manager and wine buyer.

He became a citizen five years ago, which enabled him to bring his parents to Sonoma County. Now his mother Juana Diaz oversees in the kitchen at Agave, recreating the traditional dishes of Oaxaca such as the rich dark mole sauces and tlayuda tortillas that have made the shopping-mall restaurant a growing favorite among local Mexican food fans.

Of course, some of Agave’s local competition is fraternal: his younger brother Pedro operates El Farolito, and it was he who told Octavio about the opportunity to take over the restaurant space in the Vine St. Plaza. The two also combine to promote a the last Thursday of every month.

Whether you’re out for a good-to-great Mexican meal, or sampling an overwhelming variety of tequilas or mezcals, Healdsburg is once again the place to be, with three first-rate restaurants to challenge your palate – and your definition of “headache.”

Mr. Tequila Fan September 25, 2011 at 01:42 AM
You should go and talk with Ted the bar tender at Mateos. He lived in Jalisco the home of tequila for 2 years and tended bar there before coming to Healdsburg and tending bar for Pedro at El Farolito before going to Mateos. Ted knows Tequila and Mezcals.

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