Dozens of mezcal bottles line the walls of a trendy new bar in the heart of Old Town, one of the first dedicated spots where San Diegans can sip on the Mexican liquor.
Tahona Bar and Tasting Room, located next to the historic Campo Santo Cemetery in Old Town, opened in mid-November with the aura of a Mexican hacienda.
The 2,000 square-foot bar features pieces of art and furniture created by local or Mexican crafters, like their rope seats and hand-painted tiles, but the highlight is Tahona's stock of more than 120 varieties of mezcal.
Mezcal is an agave-based liquor similar to tequila with a more intense, earthy flavor. The spirit became popular in Oaxaca before spreading to other parts of Mexico and, more recently, the United States, according to Mexico tourism officials.
Tahona’s founder, Amar Harrag, a French native and University of San Diego graduate who co-owns four local Mediterranean bistros, was inspired to bring a Mezcal tasting room to San Diego after visiting a similar establishment on one of his many trips to Mexico.
"When I first became intrigued by the mezcal industry I decided to visit Oaxaca, which is the epicenter of the mezcal world," Harrag said. "I loved the experience and I decided to bring that same level of experience to the United States."
He wants Tahona to be a hub for mezcal education as well as a place for visitors to revel in the agave-based drink.
The bar plans to host spirit-based events, like mezcal meditations, and even plans to coordinate group trips to Baja California and Oaxaca so guests can learn about the liquor first-hand. Steven Sadri will lead mezcal tasting events at Tahona.
"While there are many mezcal aficionados in town, they have not had a lot of places to experience and drink really good mezcals," Sadri said.
For more modest experiences, the bar’s tasting room allows guests to explore the dozens of unique spirits through flights featuring four or five agave spirits each. Tasting flights range in price from $25 to $45 and individual samplings are also available.
There are more than 300 types of agave, according to Mexico tourism officials, meaning the possibilities for various types of mezcal liquor are virtually endless.
Sadri said that mezcal's unique flavor takes some getting used to at first.
"Our main advice is to give it more than one chance and try a few different kinds," he said. "The diversity in the flavor profiles is astonishing and once you’ve found your favorite agave you'll know what you like."
While bars that carry mezcal are not hard to find in San Diego — several local tequila bars have at least one bottle of the liquor – Tahona’s bar is stocked with more than 120 varieties.
Like Old Town itself, Tahona’s specialty cocktails are a fusion of both Mexican culture and San Diego lifestyle. For example, the Whaley House Punch, named after Old Town’s very own haunted house, is a combination of mezcal, lime, pineapple, salted watermelon and other liquors.
The cocktails were concocted by beverage directors Carlo Bracci Devoti and Blair Marano who bring international flair to their beverages.
Tahona's menu also features Oaxacan-influenced cuisine with local flair. Pair mezcal cocktails with Pork Belly Quemado, a seared pork belly covered in mole negro and topped with habanero-pickled vegetables or with Chicken Tinga, a chipotle chicken with green onions, queso fresco and cilantro crema, just to name a few.
Harrag said Tahona aims to be a socially-responsible business and will complete "social impact projects" along the way, the first of which will be to help open an art center at an orphanage in Mexico's Valla de Guadalupe.
Tahona is located at 2414 San Diego Ave. and is open daily from 5 p.m. to midnight. To book a reservation for Tahona’s tasting room, call (619)255-2090. For more information, visit here.