Cesar Aguilar’s eyes light up when he describes his transformative first trip to Oaxaca.
“I was a stranger in a strange land, enraptured by the color, the aroma, the people, the traffic,” he remembers. “I fell in love with the city, the culture, the tradition – and I knew that I would try to return at least once a year for as long as I could.”
“At every celebration, you’re going to find a bottle of mezcal in Oaxaca. There is something very spiritual about it.”
Aguilar had begun to delve deeper into mezcal culture while tending bar at La Condesa, where he met the mezcaleros from Wahaka Mezcal, who invited him to visit their palenque (distillery) in the Zapotec highlands. “(The trip) started off at a sweat lodge before I even tasted a drop of mezcal,” says Aguilar. After the traditional hour and a half long tamazcal ceremony led by a healer, he says, “I knew I was in the right place.”
Aguilar then got to experience Oaxacan nightlife and its spectrum of flavors, from complex mole dishes to the many nuanced varieties of mezcal. He traveled up into the mountains to harvest maguey agaves, including the very rare tobalá, which serves as the namesake for the new bar. While some types of agave may be cultivated and semi-cultivated, the tobalá only occurs in the wild and grows in high elevations, making it one of the rarest varieties, typically reserved for special occasions.
“(Mezcal) is used very traditionally – for baptisms, marriages,” says Aguilar. “At every celebration, you’re going to find a bottle of mezcal in Oaxaca. There is something very spiritual about it.”
Aguilar got to see the entire production process at the palenque, where the agave hearts (called piñas) are roasted in an earthen oven, then crushed with a 2500 pound mule-powered millstone (called a tahona). Once crushed, sugars are secreted, readying the pulp for fermentation, followed by distillation in copper or clay stills.
Aguilar returned to Austin to become the bar manager at Scranton Twohey’s new bar, the rustic-chic Whisler’s, where they laid down a strong, classically-influenced foundation for the cocktail program. “The original idea of Whisler’s was family and knowledge and education,” explains Twohey, who encourages his bartenders to read, travel, and share their continued bar mastery with one another.
Twohey had plans to add a single spirit bar in the second floor space above Whisler’s, and was leaning toward a bourbon bar, but had also become enchanted with mezcal after several trips to Oaxaca. In mid-May, just about a month before Whisler’s one year anniversary, Mezcalería Tobalá opened its doors.
“I think that American drinking, as a whole, has changed. People are drinking better than they’ve ever drunk and people have more knowledge of spirits than they ever have before,” says Aguilar. “Specifically, regarding mezcal. I think the beauty of doing mezcal in Texas is our proximity to Mexico.”
Twohey and Aguilar wanted to create a space that was true to its roots and evoked the emotion behind a true Oaxacan mezcalería. And, to their knowledge, this is the only one in the States that does just that. Guests who find their way up the rust-hued staircase and into the captivating candlelit space above Whisler’s won’t be met with tequila or cocktails. Instead, they may choose from an array of mezcal varieties from eight different producers like Del Maguey, Mezcal Vago, Wahaka, and Pierde Almas.
The mezcal is served as 3/4 ounce half-pours in clay copitas or 1 1/2 ounce completas (full pours) in glass veladoras (votive holders with a traditional crucifix etched into the bottom).
Mezcalería Tobalá serves joven (clear) mezcal, as wood-aging can alter its chemical makeup. Mezcal should always be sipped and savored, not thrown back like a quick shot. And you will never see a worm in the bottom of any of these bottles. “If you taste a mezcal that has a worm in it, you will definitely taste that there’s a worm in it,” says Aguilar. “And we’re into selling mezcales where you can taste the beauty of the production, the artisanal process, and the agave.”
“People are drinking better than they’ve ever drunk and people have more knowledge of spirits than they ever have before.”
Their mezcal is accompanied by a traditional setup – a plate of orange slices sprinkled with sal de gusano, a Oaxacan sea salt mixed with herbs, spices, and worm larvae. The only other edible option is a mezcal truffle made by Peruvian chocolatier Cesar Ramirez (a recent offering contained Vago Espadín and a charred tomatillo ganache). Topo Chico serves as a perfectly effervescent palate cleanser between tastes.
The menu is organized by the types of agave the mezcal is produced from. An espadín, which is the most commonly cultivated agave, is recommended for those new to mezcal. “I love for people to start on espadínes because I don’t want people to get hung up thinking the only types of mezcales they should be drinking are the super rare varieties,” says Aguilar. “When you run into a really well produced espadín, nothing really compares to it. And before you go and try somebody’s tobalá, in my personal opinion, you should see what they do with an espadín.”
The other more complex and higher ABV mezcales they carry are made from rare agaves like the multi-layered tepeztate, a more botanical cuixe, smoky-sweet mexicano, and spicy, aromatic arroqueño. Just how rare are these varieties? It can take up to 30 years for a single maguey to mature enough to be harvested. “It’s really beautiful to taste all this stuff, and it’s really great that it’s all here,” points out Aguilar, “but we also have to make sure that we’re preserving the culture and going about it sustainably and responsibly.”
“We’re into selling mezcales where you can taste the beauty of the artisanal process, and the agave.”
For that reason, they only source from producers who use the most ethical and sustainable practices. Aguilar explains, “Everybody that we’re working with I’ve developed some kind of relationship with, and I know that the practices they employ are ones where they know that the agaves are being replanted, they’re sourcing them from a credible source, or their own village produces them…If we’re not careful and we have this unchecked demand, then you run into the possibility of making them so rare that they become extinct – and we definitely don’t want that.”
A visit to Mezcalería Tobalá is more than just another stop on a typical East Sixth Street bar crawl. Come alone or with one or two others, and prepare to learn from your well-informed bartender about the various plants and processes. “It’s really exciting knowing people are going to come up here, having never had mezcal before, and two weeks later you’re probably going to have a bottle of mezcal in your house and you’re going to know about all different varieties,” says Twohey.
With its worn wooden bar, ornate patina ceiling tiles, and green curio cabinet of bottles, entering Tobalá feels like a step back in time, to a Mesoamerican space as welcoming and intimate as someone’s home. Veladora candles flicker against the old stone and corrugated barn-red walls which hold relics like an antique framed photo, a worn mirror, and a cowboy hat at rest – each undoubtedly carrying their own story.
A record player in the corner sets the mood by playing everything from old jazz and blues like Miles Davis and Lightning Hopkins to Aguilar’s own Spotify list of Latino music ranging from psychedelic chichi to heartfelt Mexican ballads.
He recalls a recent guest who became quite nostalgic when a certain song played, transporting her to another time and place as she sipped a rare mezcal at the bar.
“That’s what mezcal is all about right there,” says Aguilar. “It’s about coming into contact with your innermost, and having this intoxicating, emotional experience.”
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