Since Las Almas Rotas opened in 2017 in Expo Park, we’ve had no lack of intoxicating and lovely expressions of Mexico’s liquid treasure, made from the roasted hearts of the agave plants. But it’s still a little-understood spirit. Which is why if you’re questing for more knowledge, you’ll be glad to know that the self-proclaimed shrine to agave spirits (to which I make regular pilgrimages and which Catherine Downes listed in her Best New Bars 2017) also takes that part of its role with utter seriousness, hosting talks you learn about through social media or stumble into on what you thought was a normal weekday night. They feature mezcaleros—their stories shared via a translator for one evening—who can elucidate nuances, or a producer who understands the context.
One night this week, Read Spear, owner of Cuentacuentos brand of mezcal based in Oaxaca, spoke. Which is how I spent the evening in the dark and funky embrace of our best mezcaleria, sampling mezcal and stories with 65 like-minded imbibers. It left me very much the wiser and thirsting for more.
A complimentary flight of five took us through mezcals made from Espadin, Cuish, Tepeztate, Tobala, and Coyote agaves—from vegetal and anise-y to rounded and caramely in their flavor notes, from domesticated to wild in their agave origins. One of them was crafted by a female mezcalera; two were aged in clay, three in copper. Listening in the mellow obscurity, you could take in the differences between artisanal and traditional processes, the way the piñas are cooked in underground firepits, ground by hand or by horse- or ox-drawn tahonas that look like giant millstones, or afforded extra resting and aging by some mezcaleros.
None of the bottles from the young brand is widely available yet in Texas. It’s only in Colorado currently. And so I could have tasted these five expressions in Oaxaca, in Colorado—or here.
Las Almas Rotas’ owners, Shad Kvetko and Taylor Samuels, have programmed a handful of these events since they opened. The next, slated for Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 will feature a distributor who was formerly a bartender in Dallas and is now a tequila savant. The staff trainings the bar holds on Wednesdays are always open to fellow bartenders with a curiosity about these spirits that are increasingly making their way onto backbars, Samuels tells me.
If you want to know how they came to be the savvy ambassadors for mezcal, with its hints of smoke and centuries-old tradition, it helps to know the origins of Las Almas Rotas.
Before it was a hip mezcaleria, Las Almas Rotas was a dinner group. “Everyone would source an interesting bottle of mezcal and bring it to the group,” Samuels says—a communal effort to understand the category better.
The group expanded; Kvetko and Samuels traveled to Oaxaca where a guide helped them understand the mezcal landscape there, thick with artisanry and micro-distilleries. Meanwhile, what was taking on girth as an informal dinner group moved to a pop-up space the duo leased on Davis and Haines Streets in Oak Cliff. They found a chef who would cook a coursed dinner; Samuels developed his custom flight boards to present a thoughtfully showcased experience. It was still word-of-mouth within their group of friends. But the writing was on the wall: Dallas wanted mezcal.
And so Kvetko, Samuels, and Kvetko’s wife Leigh embarked on a year-long process of opening a mezcaleria. Knowing they would be a destination spot, and therefore feeling they didn’t need to be in Deep Ellum, they found a space in Expo Park, a neighborhood they liked. Samuels reached out to his friend Chris Zielke, co-owner of Turn the Tables Hospitality, who plugged him in as a bartender in the lobby bar of the Belmont Hotel. In the course of going from utter novice to full-fledged bartender, Samuels was also learning about fluidity, about organization and management. The whole time, he says, “I was designing in my head the space that we have now.”
What they have now is a spot based on spirit-forward service, though not necessarily cocktails. They have Samuels’ flight system, which allows them to swiftly assemble something that has as many touches as a ten-touch cocktail (Samuels is rather proud of this). And they have a backbar that is fiercely committed to its one-country origin (Mexico), while wandering into Mexico’s funkier and lesser-known spirits, like sotol, pox, amaros, and gins.
As the interest in the spirit grows, Samuels says he’s welcoming of passionate comrades in the city. His grandfather founded Maker’s Mark in 1954, and Pappy Van Winkle (yes, the real deal) came to help him assess the distillery. Jim Beam was his father’s godfather, and the Beam family sent over others to help, too. “Coming from a background of that,” Samuels says, “I feel like it’s better to help your neighbor in that category to grow as long as it’s a proper presentation.” Those doing justice to the spirit include Jettison, with mezcal-forward cocktails—and the folks at El Come tacqueria, who are opening a mezcaleria soon.
A rising tide raises all ships.