The Evolution of the Tequila Bar
A vintage juke box occupies a small space against the wall of La Capilla, the oldest bar in the magic city of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico. An American tourist drops his coins and makes his selection–a classic by famed mariachi singer, Javier Solis.
Above the strains of Solis’ recording of Sombras Nada Mas, the white haired nonagenarian proprietor of La Capilla, Don Javier Delgado Corona, smiles broadly as he prepares a fresh batch of his signature cocktail, the Batanga, that he first concocted in the early 1960s.
Walking into La Capilla (Spanish for the chapel), from the obsidian covered cobblestone streets of Tequila, a city named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006, is to walk through a portal transporting visitors into another time and into their own película.
From the early 1930s to the late 1950s, Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema exposed the world to Los Tres Gallos Mexicanos (The Three Mexican Roosters), popular male mariachi singers of the day. Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and the legendary Javier Solis often portrayed gallant singing cowboys suffering from unrequited love and heartbreak. Those definitive black and white movies also gave a glimpse inside the iconic cantinas, the first real tequila bars, where these films’ most memorable musical moments occurred.
Not unlike the sets recreated in those archetypal films, Don Javier’s corner bar is modest, decorated mostly with black and white photos of famous celebrities, paintings of beautiful women, mismatched bar stools, and a careful selection of tequilas from the region, most from tequileros (tequila producers) and their families that he’s known personally for decades.
The cocktails at La Capilla are simple and reliable (the Margarita, the Paloma, and the Batanga, among others) and made with fresh ingredients usually purchased the same day from one of the many local mercados (markets).
On his well-worn wood top bar crowded with glassware, fresh Mexican limes and tequila bottles, Don Javier carefully lines the rim of a highball glass with a lime wedge and dips it into a dish of sea salt. He adds ice, the juice of half a lime and a generous pour of blanco tequila. The remainder he fills with Coca-Cola and then deftly stirs it with the knife that he’d used to slice the limes. This last step, Don Javier claims, is the drink’s secret ingredient.
Unlike the cantineros (bartenders) who played small, bit parts in those raucous films, Don Javier’s presence at La Capilla is akin to rock stardom. His charisma, ever present grin and storytelling capture the attention of every traveler who wanders into his establishment.
Named La Capilla in 1958 by those who had “entered on their feet and left on their knees,” so thousands can attest that ordering a cocktail or a tequila from Don Javier is only the beginning of the experience.
From Cantinero to Mixologist
On a cloudy and drizzly February afternoon in the heart of downtown Santa Monica, Marco Antonio Ramos Monterrubio, the manager of Mercado and Gilbert Marquez, his head bartender, sit in a window seat to watch the foot traffic and to contemplate their next tequila acquisitions for the new upcoming drinks menu.
Among the rows of long, wooden benches that serve as Mercado’s intimate communal tables, where strangers sit elbow to elbow on bustling evenings only to later become friends, are arranged fresh cut flowers and flatware.
The brainchild of long time friends, serial restaurateur Jesse Gomez and celebrated Executive Chef Jose Acevedo, Mercado, recently voted Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant of 2012, has rapidly gained destination point status even among locals.
Still a few hours away from their first dinner reservations, the kitchen to the rear of the building is already busy preparing soups, sides and salsas under the strict supervision of Chef Acevedo, who has served in such illustrious locations as the Four Seasons and Wolfgang Puck’s.
On the surface, Mercado’s atmosphere is far removed from that of cantinas like La Capilla, but its philosophy behind the bar and in the kitchen is strikingly similar.
“When people start to learn about tequila, they have to go through cocktails, first,” explains Marquez, a tall, sharply dressed twenty-something. “They don’t just come into a tequila bar and order a shot of El Tesoro. They first order a margarita, and then start easing their way into tequila.”
“To teach people about tequila,” he clarifies, “it’s going to be mostly through cocktails–approachable cocktails–not cocktails that are overly complex.”
It’s no secret that the one-time fad of mixology has now become an entire movement fueled by creative bartenders who have shaped and driven the spirits industry in the US for the past several years. In its short span, it has seen the revival of classic cocktails in replicated speakeasies to molecular mixology in trendy joints where original cocktails are carefully crafted by mad scientists.
Mixology has evolved faster than the spirits industry can keep up, yet Mercado, like Don Javier at La Capilla, insists on the beauty and elegance of simplicity.
“You start to turn people off when you become that uber-mixology bar,” says Marquez. “People don’t want to come in and wait fifteen minutes for a cocktail. People want to come in and enjoy their cocktail with their friends.”
“I’m a bartender who cares about the classic techniques, but I also care about the fresh ingredients and the spirits,” he declares. “Technique, fresh ingredients and quality spirits. As long as all three of these are there, it doesn’t have to be an overly complicated cocktail.”
From Manager to Curator
Upstairs on the mezzanine, above the kitchen in a smaller, cozier dining area, Marco Antonio Ramos Monterrubio, a dapper chap with contagious energy, unlocks several wrought iron lockers that safely house Mercado’s Mexican spirits treasures. Enthusiastically, he selects several signed bottles and arranges them side by side onto a nearby round wooden dining table.
Fortaleza tequila, produced by a fifth generation Sauza, Don Cuco Sotol, distilled by the renowned Jacquez family in Chihuahua, a bottle of Vida mezcal from Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals imported from Oaxaca by Ron Cooper, the man responsible for founding the mezcal industry in the US, fine wines from Baja California and La Venenosa raicilla, a little known distillate rapidly gaining acceptance.
Marco lovingly points to a bottle of ultra añejo Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, signed by Juan Beckmann Vidal and his son, Juan Domingo Beckmann, the current owners of Jose Cuervo tequila.
“Whenever people want to talk about tequila, they name drop everything from Patrón to Don Julio, but the one thing that is very basic and no one wants to accept is that we had Jose Cuervo before we had Mexico.”
“Jose Cuervo was founded in 1795 and Mexico’s Independence was in 1810. That’s how far back tequila goes,” explains Marco. “Jose Cuervo, the man, was a good man. It’s not his fault that you met him during your college years with a really bad product.”
Ramos Monterrubio is not only the manager at Mercado, but a certified catador (tequila taster) from the Academia Mexicana del Tequila (Mexican Tequila Academy) one of only two such schools in existence in Mexico, as well as a tequila historian responsible for over seventy tequilas, plus several wines and beers.
Mercado is not only a tequila bar, but a spirits bar, too. “We have sotol, bacanora, mezcal and raicilla,” stresses Marco. “Mexico was not founded on just tequila. There are hundreds of other spirits of Mexico.”
And, much like Don Javier, Mercado, through Ramos Monterrubio, has a personal relationship with the tequila brand owners so that he can trace everything about the tequilas he curates, and the agave from the region in which they are produced, back to its roots.
“When you’re searching for a tequila you’re looking for three things: the history behind the bottle—you can trace the pedigree of the family who makes the tequila back hundreds of years. You’re looking for the actual juice—it has to be good. And then, you’re looking for the label.”
“We look for labels that say this is high-quality, homemade, and something that we can teach you about so you can take the entire experience home with you and you’re going to love it.”
The concept behind Mercado is simple:
“We are not a trendy restaurant,” says Marco. “We just want to bring traditional Mexican flavors to the masses.”
“We eat, breathe and bleed Mexican culture,” agrees Marquez. “As far as the culinary and cocktail aspect, we want to introduce it to people who aren’t really used to this type of cuisine and represent it in a respectful way.”
Mercado is not so different from La Capilla and those cantinas from the movies of Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema. True, you won’t hear piped in music from Javier Solis, or even see Jorge Negrete or Pedro Infante lamenting lost loves unless they’re on a tequila bottle like Infante, these days.
But be assured that for every person that walked into La Capilla “on his feet but left on his knees” there are just as many who strolled into Mercado looking for typical Mexican fare and a margarita and came away with a deeper appreciation for Mexican culture and cuisine.
Don Javier Delgado Corona would heartily approve.
For more photos of Mercado and additional information on tequila and tequila culture, follow M.A. “Mike” Morales on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/IntimateTequilaTastings.
Between the initial interviews for this article and publication, Marco Antonio Ramos Monterrubio has moved on to other exciting opportunities. You can follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Mmarkoz88.