With dedicated bars, mezcal's missionaries hope to convert Dallas tastes

First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal's pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight -- as some believe it should always be -- and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.

Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?

A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so -- and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as "that bottle with the worm in it."

How it all began, with informal mezcal tastings. Clockwise from top: Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvekto and Leigh Kvetko.

Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal's virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled "Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead."

When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they'd built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit -- even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.

"We're hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in," says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker's Mark. "Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits."

Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant -- but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.

"There's an immense amount of genetic diversity," panelist Ivan Suldana, author of The Anatomy of Mezcal, told an audience at 2015's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. "We're talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit."

Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. "Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different," he says.

At typical table-top spread at a home tasting of the so-called "Mezcal Cartel," a group of mostly Oak Cliff friends who starting meeting in 2015.

Mezcal's production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal's distinctive flavors remember their conversion.

For Samuels, that moment came at Austin's Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. "That was my first experience," said Samuels, who's been tending bar at Oak Cliff's Bar Belmont throughout the last year. "I didn't really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, 'We need a good room to drink mezcal in.' That led to this."

Las Almas Rotas -- which translates to "the broken souls" -- will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you'll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum.

"It's kind of an homage to our speakeasy," Samuels says. "Just straight spirits and Topo Chico."

Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown's Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores ("saints and sinners") on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.

Bartenders Garriego and Zapata preaching the mezcal gospel at Uptown's Santos y Pecadores.

Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.

"We want people to get in love with mezcal," says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. "It's, like, with Mexican food. People think they're eating real Mexican food, but it's actually Tex-Mex."

Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.

Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called "Mezcal Cartel," of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.

Informal dinner-table gatherings eventually led to this now-closed underground tasting room on Davis Street.

"We basically created a room that we would want to drink in," Shad Kvetko says.

Coincidentally, it's one that I want to drink in, too.

For their mezcaleria's actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.

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