In a city like Las Vegas, with its 24-hour bars, yard-long Daiquiris and casino lounges by cocktail legends Tony Abou-Ganim and Sam Ross, a new bar claiming the largest agave spirits collection in the U.S. seems de rigueur. But even here, the new Mama Rabbit in Park MGM stands out. The reason? Bricia Lopez.
As Mama Rabbit’s cultural consultant, Lopez is responsible for curating the 500-plus bottles of mezcal and tequila featured in the 4,400-square-foot multiroom bar. The collection honors the spirit and culture of her birthplace in Oaxaca, Mexico, where her agave pedigree is irrefutable. Not that her reputation in the States is any less impressive. The owner of James Beard award-winning restaurant Guelaguetza, Lopez was named L.A.’s official mezcalera by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2013.
We talked to her about the wide world of mezcal and what it takes to build an agave spirits collection on scale with the Las Vegas Strip.
Could you have amassed such a collection anywhere other than Vegas?
You’re in Vegas, so you have to go big or go home. Obviously, going above and beyond and getting a lot of mezcal that wasn’t available here before was important. That meant working with brands to make sure they got distribution in Nevada and helping them through the process of getting their product registered in the state.
Can you still be picky when building such a huge collection?
I think so. In the old days, you just wanted to represent the category, so you made sure that everybody who had a mezcal brand was represented in your bar. But right now, I’m trying to focus more on who’s behind each brand. And because I go to Oaxaca a lot, I’m able to see if certain producers are for real. When you get into the mezcal business, there’s so much responsibility that goes into it other than “let’s bottle this thing and sell it.”
Who do you talk to to find the best mezcals?
Producers, brand owners, bartenders. No matter how much you know, there’s always going to be someone out there who knows more. Bartenders have this big relationship with mezcal, especially in L.A. You can go anywhere, sit down at a bar and just ask, and they will tell you.
What do you do to make your agave bar stand out?
Making sure that everyone who works there knows exactly what they’re talking about. We had three weeks of training. People are going to come in and they’re going to ask, “Hey, what’s the difference between mezcal and tequila?” That’s the No. 1 question we get. Or “What’s mezcal?” It’s your responsibility as the owner to understand that you’re introducing people to this category.
Do you have any advice for those who want to create a stellar collection at home or at a business?
They have to visit Oaxaca. You cannot come at me and tell me, “I’m a huge mezcal lover, and mezcal is my everything.” Well, have you taken the time to go and meet the producers and taste it from the source? You have to go there to experience exactly what it’s like. And then bring a few bottles back, because they’re not going to be available anymore. My friend Susan from Mezcalistas knows a great producer who only makes a certain amount, and he says, “When I die, the mezcal dies with me. They’re never going to be able to make it again, because I’m the one who makes it.”
But if you’re in the bar business, you can’t really have those. They need to get certified and imported, and it’s not something you can legally sell. But if you’re in the mezcal business, always seek out those brands that are small producers. The brands that really take care of their producers are No. 1.
What are some of your favorite Oaxacan-owned mezcals?
There’s a new brand called Farolito that made only 300 bottles of each mezcal. I always tell people that if they can actually get their hands on one of these, buy it and keep it. That’s a really good mezcal to collect. Real Minero, Lalocura, Los Javis—these are all Oaxacan-owned brands. Right now, the way the industry is, 75% of the brands today are owned by white guys. Whenever I can, I support Oaxacan-owned brands.
What are some of your favorite mezcal cocktails?
It depends on where you are on the mezcal spectrum. A good entry-level mezcal cocktail is a spicy, smoky Margarita, because people are already used to the those flavors. At Mama Rabbit, we have La Guelaguetza. It’s a cocktail we’ve always had [at Guelaguetza], which is just lime juice, simple syrup, mezcal and a teaspoon of a special agave salt we use. Mezcal Negronis are awesome, as are Oaxaca Old Fashioneds. But it’s important to use a great quality mezcal. You want to make sure you have an expensive mezcal for something so spirit-forward.