In Los Angeles today, a cocktail bar that doesn’t serve mezcal is almost as rare as one that doesn’t serve vodka. This was not the case 10 or 15 years ago, and probably wouldn’t be if not for the work of one restaurateur and bar owner, Bricia Lopez.
Lopez, who moved from Mitla, Oaxaca to L.A. with her family at the age of 10, can’t point to a specific moment that mezcal became part of her life; rather, coming from a long line of mezcal craftspeople, it’s something that she was always around.
“The way I like to describe it is, if you grew up in a home full of musicians and someone asks you when you were first exposed to music, you can’t remember one moment,” Lopez says.
Well before she was old enough to drink it, the smell and the essence of mezcal, she says, were part of her environment. Growing up in the food and drink industry — her grandparents and parents were mezcal makers, business owners, and restaurateurs — Lopez’s first job in the family business was, as a 5-year-old, going into town and convincing people to come into her dad’s store to try mezcal.
In a way, that’s still her job: Today, Lopez and her siblings run her family’s restaurant, Guelaguetza, in Los Angeles, which her father opened in 1994. In keeping with Guelaguetza’s menu of traditional, regional Oaxacan cuisine, Lopez convinced her father to let her open a dedicated mezcal bar within the restaurant nearly a decade ago, when the spirit was virtually unknown to Americans.
Most recently, Lopez launched a new mezcal and tequila bar on the Las Vegas strip, called Mama Rabbit, at the Park MGM. At over 500 labels, the menu boasts the biggest selection of agave-based spirits in the U.S.
Growing Up Mezcal
Although mezcal has always been around her, Lopez says it was around 2008 or 2009 that she developed a new and inspired relationship with the spirit. While traveling to Oaxaca, Lopez heard from farmers and craftspeople who offered a perspective on mezcal that she hadn’t heard before. At one dinner in particular, farmers were discussing different varieties of wild agave and other aspects of the growing and crafting process, which she says offered a romanticism she had never before associated with the spirit.
“I felt that it was calling me back into that world,” Lopez says. Back in L.A., her newfound enthusiasm led her to start gifting bottles of mezcal to friends who worked in the bar and restaurant industry. The timing was perfect: The mid-to-late aughts were experiencing a renaissance in cocktail culture, as landmark bars like Death & Co. and Milk & Honey opened in New York City, and the enthusiasm spread to L.A. bars like The Varnish.
“I think bartenders really loved mezcal because it allowed them to create new cocktail experiences that guests would have otherwise never experienced,” Lopez says. “That’s when I started getting to be known in that circle as someone who was really knowledgeable about mezcal.”
A New ‘In’ for Mezcal
Lopez’s efforts eventually paid off. As drinkers began to turn their attention more to craft cocktails, there was a new “in” for mezcal, and mezcal cocktails began to pop up around the city. Many were even named after her: There was “Sweet Bricia” at 320 Main in Seal Beach; the “Brisa de Oaxaca” at La Descarga in Hollywood; and “the Bricia” at Las Perlas in downtown L.A.
It wasn’t long before she was gaining acclaim. The late L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold nicknamed her the “Oaxacan Princess,” and in 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti named Lopez Los Angeles’s official mezcalera.
Despite this, much of Lopez’s work occurs behind the scenes, or is often social and informal. Her contemporaries in the L.A. cocktail scene attest to her passion and willingness to educate others: Pablo Moix, now of Old Lightning and Scopa, first met Lopez as a patron at his bar La Descarga. Moix recalls a time in the mid-aughts when he literally could not give mezcal away for free, so Lopez made a strong impression on him.
“There was a table ordering a bunch of mezcal and I thought, who the hell are these people? So I went over and said hello,” Moix says. The woman at the head of the table was none other than Bricia Lopez, whom Moix says pushed him to expand his mezcal program. She did this in part by bringing in customers – friends, media, and industry folks – to drink mezcal, and by requesting he stock specific bottles and producers.
Julian Cox, another notable mixologist with years of experience in L.A. bars and restaurants, also met Lopez in the early 2000s, and credits her with educating and inspiring him to experiment with the spirit.
“She introduced me to so many mezcals. There were only a few on the market back then,” Cox says. Her pure enjoyment of mezcal cocktails pushed him to keep designing them, and her impact has been lasting.
“I always include mezcal on my cocktail menus. It’s become a part of my ethos and Bricia helped inspire that,” he says.
But Lopez and anyone familiar with her will tell you that mezcal is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Her enthusiasm stems from and extends to her love and respect for Oaxaca, its people, and its traditions. In Guelaguetza, for example, Lopez hired Oaxacan artists to create works for the restaurant. “I got my first real taste of Oaxaca at her restaurant and it made a big impact on me,” Cox says.
“For me, it wasn’t just about mezcal, it was encouraging people to understand that there was more to a culture than just food,” Lopez says. “It was about helping people, even Mexican-Americans, understand that there was more to Mexico than just tequila.”
Oaxaca, Not Mexico
Just as many Americans solely see tequila as the spirit of Mexico, Lopez’s advocacy for Oaxacan culture also stands against the American tendency to view other countries, including Mexico, as monolithic.
She believes the success of the mezcaleria was made possible precisely because of its context: At Guelaguetza, patrons are already primed to experience regionally specific cuisine, and are open to trying something new. The restaurant’s dishes and drinks deviate from the standard Mexican-American fare, but do so openly and with friendly fervor.
“We have been serving mezcal since day one, since 1994. It was just now pushing it in a different way, educating people about the fact that mezcal is not just one thing, it’s many different things,” Lopez says.
Her mission of educating people on Oaxacan culture starts by simply serving them really good food and drinks, knowing that if they like it, they’ll be inspired to learn more about the dishes, about the agave, the producers, and the farmers.
“I can’t tell you honestly how many times she did dinners in her restaurant for like, 30 people and charged them nothing,” Moix says. “She had been investing so much energy, at so much cost to her and her family, to push mezcal and Oaxacan culture and cuisine. I don’t know anyone so invested in their culture.”
And because of her passion and knowledge, she’s turned many people into mezcal lovers — from adventurous eaters and drinkers who also work in the industry, to friends who were once strictly vodka soda drinkers.
Lopez compares mezcal drinkers to wine enthusiasts, more than any other category of spirit, because of the emphasis on growers and location. However, she says, “The best way to turn a non-mezcal drinker into a mezcal drinker is through a really well-balanced cocktail. … And then from there, their taste buds get a little more familiarized — so when they go back to a regular cocktail, it’s difficult for them. They want that mezcal cocktail again.”
Despite commonly being described as a “smoky tequila,” Lopez emphasizes the diversity of the category, and says the flavor is better described as roasted than smoky. It’s this unique and often mislabeled flavor that wins new mezcal drinkers over.
“People love mezcal cocktails because it gives them something else that they can’t quite put their finger on,” she says.
Another misunderstanding she’s quick to correct is that mezcal is more than just a trend. The spirit has existed for hundreds of years, at least, and Lopez sees its inclusion on American menus as evidence of it finally becoming a standard here.
“People have been calling mezcal ‘trendy’ for the past 10 years. If something’s been ‘trendy’ for the past 10 years, it’s not really trendy anymore,” Lopez says. She points to Las Vegas now having a dedicated mezcal and tequila bar as a sign that it’s broken into the mainstream.
All of her efforts to teach about mezcal trace back to its roots: agave cultivation. “People like myself are often the ones who get the praise, but it’s really those farmers who deserve to be honored and respected,” she says.
All told, more mezcal means more recognition of Oaxacan culture and the people behind the product. “It makes me feel proud because acknowledging a spirit like mezcal is acknowledging an entire indigenous culture and the world of the farmer. Not a maker, or a trendsetter — it’s really the work of an entire generation,” Lopez says. “It just makes me proud to see an indigenous-based spirit now being a standard on a shelf.”