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Restaurants & Bars

Some of Your Favorite Bars Pour This New Dallas-Based Mezcal

Racho is a mezcal five years in the making—and a collaboration between three Dallasites and a mezcalero from San Dionisio Ocotepec, Oaxaca.
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Matt Ornstein (left) and Temo García (right), partners in Racho Mezcal. Roy Mendez (IG @roymendezmx), courtesy Racho Mezcal

Matt Ornstein and I are sitting on the patio at José. It’s lunchtime, and before us on the table are some of Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman’s seasonal rotating tacos (this week, shrimp tacos gobernador), a bountifully stacked carnitas torta, and a bottle of mezcal Ornstein has brought from his home just around the corner.

Every few minutes, we take a sip of mezcal. This bottling strikes a remarkable balance: it is ethereally smooth and clear in flavor without using sweetness to hide the fundamental taste of the spirit. There is a certain delicate floral quality—Ornstein mentions honey, though, again, this is not a sweet drink in the sense that, say, brandy is sweet. What’s more striking about the mezcal is what’s not in it. There isn’t a vanilla note to suggest additives or sweeteners common to mass-market brands. And there isn’t any suggestion of smoke. This isn’t a “firewater” drink, the kind that causes bartenders to use phrases like “petrol notes.”

To answer the two obvious questions: yes, this lunch hour, we’re really living the good life. And the reason Ornstein was allowed to bring a bottle of mezcal into a restaurant with a full bar is that he founded the brand. His mezcal, Racho, is a Dallas-based passion project that is finding spots on more and more shelves around town. (It is officially styled RACHO, in allcaps.)

Racho is for sale at retail stores, stocked at some of the city’s best bars, and poured into a handful of specialty cocktails. It’s also not a full-time gig. The story of how Ornstein found himself in this situation—working in commercial real estate by day, spending his nights and weekends driving from bar to bar, pouring samples—has some unusual twists and turns.

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A bottle of Racho mezcal retails at Pogo’s for $60. Samuel-Judah Oludare (IG @thesamueljudah), courtesy Racho Mezcal

Start with his background.

“I was born in Kingston, Jamaica,” Ornstein says. “My mom’s side of the family is from Jamaica. She’s half-Chinese, half-African descent mixed with European descent Jamaican. My dad is from Maryland.”

His parents met when his mother went to medical school in Maryland. She returned to Jamaica a surgeon, and Matt and his brother were born there. He moved to Texas at age five and returns to the island regularly to visit family. “I’ve grown up in Dallas but I’ve always kept a large part of my heart in Jamaica in different ways.”

That background—full of cultures and countries and travel—informed how the young Ornstein saw the world. He grew up watching Anthony Bourdain on television, attended a university (St. Edward’s in Austin) with high international student enrollment, and took a summer student Spanish-language immersion course in Oaxaca. At the end of that summer’s classes and excursions around the cities, valleys, and beaches of Oaxaca, Ornstein flew home with fluent Spanish and a bottle of mezcal in his suitcase.

Back in Dallas, he shared a pour with his father, Conrad, who had never heard of the drink before. It quickly became their way of bonding. “Every time we were hanging out, we were always sipping mezcal,” Ornstein says. “It was ‘our thing’ to do together.” As he sat bored at work one day, he thought about how much more rewarding his work would be if it involved hospitality. The first bottles of Racho started selling five years and a pandemic later, in November 2023. (He’s changed day jobs since that moment of boredom, too.)

The first step for these two first-timers—Ornstein’s father is also part of the business—was to find mezcal to sell. The duo traveled to Oaxaca, visiting dozens of palenques in numerous villages, tasting product. They found what they were looking for—an unadulterated mezcal with low smoke flavor—in the village of San Dionisio Ocotepec, at a palenque run by Temo García.

“I am not the producer of this mezcal,” Ornstein says, with urgency. “It’s Temo. On the back of the label it says ‘mezcal by Temo García,’ it talks about his production method. On social media we’re highlighting Temo as a partner in the brand. He has ownership in the brand, and that’s in my eyes the right way to do things. I let people know that what you’re tasting is the terroir of San Dionisio Ocotepec.”

García makes mezcal the way generations of his family have done: roasted underground rather than in industrial ovens, the agave crushed by a big stone wheel, fermentation done by native yeasts from the plants and ambient air. Even the water comes from a well on García’s ranch.

That water is a secret weapon of sorts—but it is also part of why Racho’s mezcal reads as lighter and less intense than some competitors. Racho clocks in, according to the label on a bottle I purchased at Pogo’s, at 46 percent alcohol by volume. Compare this to the ABV of some of the other artisanal mezcal expressions in my liquor cabinet: Cuentacuentos’ espadín sits at 47.65 percent, Mezcal Vago’s Elote bottling at 49.6 percent. Most of the excellent Rey Campero line sits at or above 48 percent. Del Maguey’s base brand Vida, which I only use in cocktails, is lighter, at 42 percent ABV.

The below-average ABV certainly makes Racho easier to drink compared to some artisanal bottles that truly force the drinker to slow down. It also makes Racho, potentially, a more popular base spirit for cocktails. “We’re in a number of cocktails around town now,” Ornstein says, ticking off names. “Casablanca has a cocktail called the Spice Up, that’s passionfruit, tamarind, lime juice, banana liqueur, and Racho. It’s incredible. Written by the Seasons, we’re on their cocktail menu right now in the Racho Paloma.”

You can also ask for Racho, neat or in a drink, at more bars that stock the spirit: Atlas, El Carlos Elegante, La Viuda Negra, Maison Chinoise, Regines, José, and Saint Valentine. Daniel Ayala, a former bartender at Beto & Son, joined Matt, Conrad, and Temo García as a cofounder and partner to help pitch the product to local bars and restaurants.

Although Racho’s first bottle in the Dallas market is an espadín—one of the most approachable, audience-friendly varieties of mezcal—García makes a wider variety of expressions, and Ornstein is working on getting those to Dallas, too. Tepeztate should be here within a year, with more to come as the brand slowly grows.

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A view of the roasting pit at Temo García’s palenque in Oaxaca. Faith Robbins, courtesy Racho Mezcal

What I appreciate most about our conversation is not the sample sips of product, but Ornstein’s optimism about the long-term prospects of the mezcal market. Yes, right now, quality mezcal is waging a fight to persuade drinkers to sit with such a complex, individualistic spirit, one where every bottling should taste different. It’s different from the way many Americans drink—you don’t want to shoot or mix the good stuff, and you’ll learn to embrace batch variation rather than find a brand that you can “count on.”

Ornstein sees that as an opportunity, not a challenge.

“I always say, you should think of the word ‘mezcal’ the way you think of the word ‘wine,’” he says. “You’ve got all these different grape varietals, they come from different regions, and you want to reach the consumer at that level where they know, ‘I’ve had Malbec, I’ve had Chardonnay.’ I think it’s going to take five to 10 years, but I think people are going to start treating mezcal the way they start treating wine. They’re going to say, ‘tonight I really want agave tepeztate to pair with my food.’ Temo makes a pechuga and it’s distilled with orange, apples, guava, and plantains. The flavor comes through in such a beautiful way. You could pair that with, say—there’s a dessert in Austin at Birdie’s. Chocolate soft serve with an orange olive oil drizzle on top. You could pair that with a dessert mezcal, a mezcal distilled with orange.”

Ornstein runs down some of the varietals and how we might think of them in the context of pairing: “A cuixe is very herbaceous, green, and piney. A tepeztate, at least the one that we have with Temo, is sort of this bubblegum-Parmesan cheese, which tastes like a cocktail by itself. And then you have Jabalí, which is really luxurious yet refined at the same time. You’ve got stone in there.”

In this context, Racho’s espadín, with its smooth taste and lower alcohol volume, is more of a gateway bottle. Many of those more complex or more intense flavors are available in mezcals from other brands you can find in Dallas liquor stores and agave bars. But if Racho can play a role in bringing more people into the agave world, if a local brand with a local face can help Dallasites open their minds to the full range of the mezcal experience, then it will be a part-time job well done.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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