The first time Clayton Szczech visited the Mexican town of Tequila, almost a decade ago, he wandered the dusty streets in search of a bar to sample its namesake spirit. “I was amazed at how little variety there was,” he says. “Every place carried the same four or five big brands that you can find at any box store in the States. It was a real disappointment but also an eye-opener.”
Today Szczech (pronounced “check”) is one of the most respected tequila guides in all of Mexico. Hisimmersive tours take travelers deep into the belly of the tequila world, from the agave fields to the distillery floors to the century-old cantinas where local tequileroshang out. Now there’s a new stop on his tour: the first honest tequila bar in Tequila.
La Cata Margaritas with tequila blanco: Natural (key lime, simple syrup), Morenita (key lime, raw sugar) and Buzzed (key lime, honey, mint), from left
In April, Szczech, along with a group of partners, openedLa Cata, a three-story tasting room close to the historic town center dedicated to the education and consumption of Mexico’s native spirit. It features more than 200 bottles from the best artisanal producers in the country, an ambitious flights program, craft cocktails by Portland bar-star Tommy Klus (Multnomah Whiskey Library, Kask) and one distinctly unique proposition: total brand independence.
“You have to understand: Tequila is a company town,” says Szczech. “Most locals work in the industry. They drink what their parents drank or what’s made at the distillery they work for. To step outside of that is so foreign to them. It’s really a Coke, Pepsi thing.”
The Coke and Pepsi of Tequila are, of course, Jose Cuervo and Sauza, the two behemoths in the tequila business and by far the biggest employers in the valley. So deep do brand loyalties lie that you’ll rarely see a bar carrying both products on the same shelf. And though there has been an explosion ofexciting new brands flooding the U.S. market, the best juice often eludes Tequila.
One thing you won’t see at La Cata, with its polished rustic sheen of reclaimed wood and mood lighting, is the bombardment of bar swag that’s ubiquitous in so many Mexican drinking establishments. “Even our bar mats are unbranded,” says Szczech. “It sometimes means turning away money, but it’s important for us to be 100 percent neutral. We want this to be a place where people can come and learn about the spirit without getting hit over the head with a bunch of marketing material.”
Tequila neat at La Cata
But besides its fat bottle collection and indie spirit, how does a gringo-owned bar in the heart of rural Mexico plan to lure locals? “Carefully,” says Klus. “The last thing we want to do is march into a 500-year-old town and pretend we know everything. Like with any new bar, I think you win people over by offering them something interesting and unique, and we’re trying to do that.”
Already, La Cata is gaining a reputation around town as a hub for industry folks who stop in after work and sample each other’s products. At the bar’s opening, which was attended by many of the local tequilarati, Klus met a former blender for Jose Cuervo. “She was so excited to see all these people who are competitors in the market drinking in the same room. She kept saying to me, ‘This is great! Tequila really needed this.’”