Inside Sydney’s 20-Person Standing-Only Mezcal Bar
To say Cantina OK! is an intimate bar would be a massive understatement. The bar, which opened in March this year, is so small in fact, it can only hold 20 people – standing.
“We really wanted to create an environment to give guests a really undistracted experience,” says co-owner Alex Dowd. “Because we only have space for 20, you can give your guests your huge attention that you can’t do at a 100-seater venue.”
The three-by-five-metre former garage is tucked into an unassuming laneway off Clarence Street in the CBD.
Here, only mezcal is on the menu. Dowd describes the drink as “wild, expressive, roasted native spirit of Mexico, and one of the world’s last ancient spirits”.
The bar was designed to replicate the mezcal tasting rooms of Oaxaca, the heartland of Mexico’s mezcal production. Pops of yellows, oranges, purples and pinks feature.
The bar is run by Dowd and Jeremy Blackmore, who are also both behind popular Sydney bar Tio’s Cerveceria. Tio’s former manager Alex ‘Happy Gilmour’ is the venue manager.
Last year, the three of them travelled through Mexico to visit boutique mezcal distilleries where they sampled, documented, and eventually imported some 60-litres of their favourite drops.
A 70-page photo journal, which doubles up as the bar’s menu, showcases their Mexican adventure. Each page features a mezcal, photo of each mezcalario or the makers, alongside details of how it was made, the stories of who made it, and where it was made.
“Through the menu you can connect with the people that have made what you’re drinking… when people can make that connection, it’s very visceral, which is a big part of our focus,” Dowd says.
“There are a lot of communities in Mexico that are making mezcal the same way they have done for the last 500 years,” he says.
“The booze is great in terms of complexity. It’s the third most complex food or beverage we consume as humans behind coffee and chocolate. So, you know you don’t make something for 500 years that’s shit.”
Over 150 mezcal bottles are on display behind the bar, but those to new to mezcal shouldn’t feel intimidated. “Every bottle we have, we have either visited [where it’s made], or we know the stories behind it. We can talk on every product.”
His tip for first-time mezcal drinkers is to have it neat or as a garnish with a beer. “There are also categories within mezcal now so look for artisanal or ancestral mezcal, which is made using the oldest and slowest method,” he says.
But that’s not to say mezcal doesn’t mix well, too. The bar offers four twists on classics. They can shake up a mean version of a margarita, the margarita Ok! made using plenty of shaved ice straight from the bright yellow hand-cranked shaved ice machine at the bar.
Other options include a sour, a fizz (an iceless tall sour with soda), or an old-fashion stirred down. There’s also three weekly cocktail specials that may vary from variations of a Paloma or a daiquiri.
According to Dowd, given that each bottle is varied in flavour, there are so many variations.
“It can be made from more than 50 different agave plants. What most people recognise about mezcal is it’s smoky, which can be true because often the agaves are cooked in underground pits. Mezcal at its best is a bit dusty, with notes of cooked agave, mint, lime, and Sichuan pepper,” he says.
While Mezcal is the focus, the beers and wine list is just as approachable. Through rigorous tasting and testing, the team has drummed up a beer list featuring Aussie local crafts available in tinnies, as well as a Mexican ‘house lager’, Modelo.
Their curated wine list is sourced mostly from local independent vineyards and is constantly on rotation. “Because the venue is so small and we don’t have storage, if something sells out we get something else we love. If we’re out of a pinot gris we’ll open a Riesling,” Dowd says.
As for food, there’s no kitchen but orders from a food delivery service is welcome.
The best part about Cantina OK! is that it’s open from 4pm until 2am, every day of the week. That means when nearby bars like Lobo Plantation, The Baxter Inn, Since I Left You, and The Barber Shop are closing their doors, there’s now somewhere to kick-on.
(Lead image: Cantina OK! exterior / supplied)
Published 01 May, 2019