Mezcal has become incredibly popular in the United States and mezcal bars (aka mezcalerias) can be found in most major cities. While many cocktail bars might have a bottle or two of mezcal on hand, mezcalerias are typically well stocked with small-batch premium mezcals, and their bartenders possess deep knowledge of agave spirits. They are ideal places to try new mezcals because the crew behind the bar is usually (unless they’re super busy) genuinely interested in educating others about mezcal. The Los Angeles location of Las Perlas opened in March 2010 and claims to be the nation’s first mezcal bar. Mezcal Reviews is based in Austin, Texas and our first mezcal bar, Bar Ilegal (named after the brand), opened in 2011. While most mezcalerias serve mezcal and often beer, cocktails, and good tequila – some are restaurants too. While visiting Washington DC last fall for a wedding, I made a point to visit a restaurant and mezcaleria I’d been hearing about, Espita Mezcaleria.
It was our last night in DC, a Monday, before leaving town and I convinced my girlfriend that Espita was worth a visit. “Their food menu looks amazing!”, I told her, bolstering my case. We took the metro to the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC and walked a few blocks to Espita. The large open restaurant was buzzing with the happy hour crowd. Their artwork, which is legendary on Instagram, covered every wall.
After a few minutes we were able to secure two seats at the bar. I was immediately impressed by the detailed mezcal menu. Two featured mezcals stood out, ones that are nearly impossible to find in the US – El Buho Cuishe and El Buho Jabali. We tasted a number of amazing mezcals with the help of James behind the bar. Some of the other highlights included a Vago Tepextate from Emigdio Jarquin, an unlabeled Tepextate from Emanuel Ramos, and some Almamezcalera mezcals.
They were quite busy on that Monday night and while we got to chat up James quite a bit, I still had questions about their unique mezcal collection. That’s when we met Megan Barnes, partner and beverage director at Espita. In 2016, she was named one of the nation’s best bartenders by Thrillist. It was easy to see that Megan played a key role in Espita’s success; she is deeply knowledgable and passionate about mezcal. We had an unforgettable night enjoying mezcal and new friends.
Mezcal Reviews interviewed Megan via email shortly after this visit – enjoy.
What are the origins of Espita Mezcaleria? What challenges did you face opening Espita as opposed to a Tequila Bar/Mexican Restaurant?
So, Espita was the brainchild of Josh Phillips, our mascot and patriarch. He studied at Cornell for Hospitality and the concept was actually used in one of his projects. I need to fact check that though.
Challenges: Bringing in unique mezcales. Prior to us opening, Mezcal options were limited. Brands like Patron, Ilegál, Fidencio, El Silencio were quite common in DC. I had to reach out to people in Mexico via Facebook, email…any way that I could and got connected to their importers. From there, I put them in touch with local distributors and the rest is history.
The artwork on the walls of Espita is amazing. During my visit, some folks came inside to snap a photo in front of a wall.. does that happen often? What is the story behind your artwork?
Gosh – Josh tells this story better. So, he found the Oaxacan-based artist, Yescka on Instagram. *modern times we live in*. He reached out to Yescka and asked if we could have a local artist re-create his art. When Yescka learned of our concept, he volunteered to fly up and do it himself. So, he spent about a week and a half painting our walls.
The skeleton is probably the most instagram-able thing in Espita and yes, it happens ALL THE TIME.
The skeleton represents the soulless, corrupt politicians in Mexico, the Butterflies represent Mexican immigrants and the child represents the hope for a brighter future.
When my girlfriend and I were trying different mezcals, James was incredibly knowledgable and shared personal stories from his trips to Oaxaca with Espita. If I was able to join your team for a trip to Mexico, what would we do? PS: I might apply for a job.
Hahaha. I love how you slipped this in. Personally, I travel to MX a lot. Our team goes down once to twice a year.
We typically travel to the Palenques of the individuals represented behind our bar. It is important to see how they operate. We only support smaller brands, brands that give back to their community and land.
Also, we drink a lot of Mezcal. Like, a lot. And eat food that DC only dreams of.
It looks like Espita has a special relationship with El Buho Mezcal. The one liter bottles of El Buho Espadin aren’t sold commercially and serve as your house mezcal. Espita also carries some El Buho special editions like agave Jabali that cannot be found anywhere. Can you talk about your relationship with the Jimenez family in Oaxaca and also the US-based brand?
We met the Jimenez family a year and a half ago, visited their Palenque and was impressed by what they were making. Personally, I fell in love with the Jimenez children, and their mole. They come to visit us in DC occasionally, we try to visit them more often.
We like the idea of serving “House Mezcal”. It is very common in Oaxaca City to walk into a restaurant and see a list of House Mezcales. Typically, they are friends of the restaurant owner and they are kept in carboys or large plastic containers. It just seems more authentic to have house Mezcal.
Espita might not have the most bottles of mezcal on the bar, but it has some of the best. What do you look for when deciding to put a brand on your menu? Also, I heard you don’t feature mezcals that are under a certain ABV.. can you talk about that?
I’m pretty picky about what we bring on. With the Mezcal boom, I have every bottle of Mezcal available to the US thrown at me.
We look at the production, mostly. How the Mezcal is made, where the agaves are coming from, etc.
Every mezcal behind our bar is 43% or above. We believe that Mezcal tastes the best straight from the still. When proofed down to 40% you lose the natural Agave flavor.
The event Mexico in a Bottle was in Washington DC recently which kind of surprised me. What is the mezcal scene like in DC?
Booming. I love our clientele and our regulars. They nerd out over Mezcal and keep diaries. Obviously we connect on this deep level that only Mezcal lovers can understand.
What’s next for the Espita team?
I wax poetic about my bar team all of the time. They are extremely hard working and innovative. We try to push ourselves with every menu that we produce. Teaching is the biggest goal, spreading the Agave gospel is the most important thing to me. I also have a humanitarian project in the works with Josh and the Tequila Interchange Project crew, so, I guess you’ll just have to sit back and watch what happens.
Megan said it best, “spreading the Agave gospel”.. That’s what we try to do here at Mezcal Reviews too. Thanks for reading. If you’re in Washington DC, don’t miss a chance to drink mezcal at Espita Mezcaleria. Dixeebe!
Cover image via Espita Mezcaleria