A standing room-only mezcal bar in the CBD by the Tio's team.
April 15, 2019
UPDATE: JUNE 12, 2020 — Cantina OK! has reopened and now has laneway seating.
An old garage down a service laneway doesn't sound like a spot for a bar, but that's exactly where this 20-person mezcal bar has taken up residence. Cantina OK! is located down the non-street that is Council Place, and it's rocking bright pink and purple walls, Mexican vibes and no seating whatsoever.
You may not be surprised to hear that this mini mezcal mecca is run by Sydney's favourite tequila joint, Tio's Cerveceria — the men behind it are venue owners Alex Dowd and Jeremy Blackmore and its manager Alex (Happy) Gilmour. The trio took one helluva road trip around Mexico, hitting three states and picking up heaps of mezcal along the way.
"We wanted to take what we saw in Mexico and really showcase it in this space," says Gilmour. "It's our way of documenting what these amazing mezcal producers can do."
The team took their research very seriously, returning to Sydney with a whopping 140 bottles that now sit behind the minuscule bar. There are mezcals from regions all across Oaxaca, Michoacán and Jalisco, as well as drops of tequila, raicilla (an agave distilled spirit from Jalisco) and sotol (non-agave distilled spirit from northern Mexico).
"You won't find another mezcaleria in the southern hemisphere that has the particular collection that we have," says Gilmour. Some of his favourite labels include the experimental Michoacán producer Jorge Perez — who distills his mezcal with likes of rattlesnake and a whole coyote — a single distillation arroqueño mezcal from Oaxaca and even a few bottles that have been aged for 29 years — those, of course, are on the expensive side.
If all that sounds a bit intimating, turn to the well-trained staff, who are eager to get into the "nitty gritty" of mezcal drinking with you. But you don't have to go high brow — the place still has the casual, laid-back Tio's vibe where you can just pop-in for a damn good margarita, too.
And that'd be the house margarita, which combines both mezcal and tequila with lime and cane sugar syrup, all served over shaved ice. Otherwise, chose from an old fashioned with five spice and chilli bitters; a tequila fizz with horchata rice milk and egg white; and a chamomile and pineapple sour.
There's also one produce-driven cocktail on the menu each week, which there'll write down for you on one of the hand-stamped coasters. Recent specials have included an espresso martini, a tommy's margarita with watermelon and rosé and the kalamansi paloma (with the Filipino lime, kaffir lime, mezcal and soda). You'll find that more than a few of the cocktails include shaved ice — which comes courtesy of the hand-powered yellow Nepalese ice shaver sitting at the centre of the bar.
"Everything has a story in the venue and a connection to Mexican style, history and colours" says Gilmour. When you head in, expect a bright combination of tyrian purple, watermelon pink and safety yellow — Gilmore 's words, not ours — plus plenty of timber. Just not a lot of space. So, find yourself a spot at the bar or in the corner and grab a drink — or stay for a few.
Images: Kimberley Low.