Cantina OK! owners talk micro mezcal, and the 'vanity project' that landed on the World's 50 Best Bars

"What’s interesting to us is the people, places, and experiences. The mezcal is a bonus."

Cantina OK! owners talk micro mezcal, and the 'vanity project' that landed on the World's 50 Best Bars

The folks at Sydney bar, Cantina OK!, have had quite the time of it over the last few weeks.

First came the news that they not only landed on the World's 50 Best Bars list one and a half years into trade, but they also landed quite high on the list at number 28. A position on the annual list, which was announced earlier this month, can mean a huge boost in trade for a bar as it becomes a destination for savvy punters to tick off their lists.

They've also had heavy demand for their mezcal-based seltzer collaboration with Grifter Brewing Co — if you managed to get your hands on some, then you're very lucky.

Below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is our interview with owners Jeremy Blackmore and Alex Dowd (who also own Sydney tequila bar, Tio's Cerveceria) to dig into the origin story of Cantina OK!, find out what it feels like rubbing shoulders with the world's best bars, and explore the way they source mezcal — and romance — for Cantina OK!.

How have the last couple weeks been?

Alex Dowd: It has been good. It was a shock for us. It’s a weird feeling when you like, get to the top of this mountain which you spend your professional career climbing, and then you realise you’re at the top of it and you’re just at the base of a much bigger mountain.

I think for us it’s a signal that we’re doing a lot right. We’re most excited about the opportunities that come from that.

Being that high up on the list a year and a half into being open — does it scare you a bit?

Jeremy Blackmore: It is a little bit scary — especially at the moment because we can’t serve the way we would like to at Cantina OK! just because the [legal] capacities are so low. A lot of our business now is coming in a coffee cup, which is not exactly where we want to be in the long term!

But there are bars in London that aren’t even open, so...

JB: Exactly. We do count ourselves lucky.

AD: It’s a hard one to reconcile because you’re like, it’s the best Cantina OK! at the moment that it can be. I think once you make [it onto] these lists and look at the other operators on there that we really admire, they’re always on that real pursuit of mastery. Of getting better. You don’t actually hear people come out and say “We <em>are</em> the fucking best! We’re the number one!”

You guys were out at Korean BBQ for the announcement, is that right?

JB: Yeah so we came here, picked everybody up and went to Korean. Honestly we thought we’d get about one sizzling piece of beef in and then the announcement that we’d be number 50, then we’d be able to take it easy after. But we were still sitting in the restaurant until about 3:30am — it was a very fun night.

What was it like for your crew?

AD: Oh it’s all about the crew, you know what I mean? I guess one day it will make a fine doorstop in mine and Jeremy's nursing home room, but I think for us our real focus [is that] we take our responsibility to our guys seriously. They are the ones who are at the coalface taking our idea and running with it.

Particularly since Covid we’ve realised the value we have from the guys, so it’s about us using the platform to give them the best opportunities and experiences that they can, because we want everybody who leaves here, if they want to, [to be able] open they’re own kind of venue. For them it was exciting because awards are cool, and this shit is fun and Korean food is great. As a team it has been really galvanising.

JB: It’s a reward for hard work. They’ve put in a lot of time and rolled with the punches, and changed with the business and adapted and scrambled for the last eight months — to come out on the other side with this award kind of makes it worthwhile.

Jeremy Blackmorek (left) and Alesx Dowd at Cantina OK! Photo: Boothby
Jeremy Blackmorek (left) and Alesx Dowd at Cantina OK! Photo: Boothby

For those who haven’t been here, how would you describe Cantina OK!?

JB: We call it a micro mezcal Mecca. And we mean it on more than one level; we’re small, but on top of that the mezcal that we sell and we stock are micro mezcals. It’s more than small batch — it’s a hundred litres of something at best.

And that’s been a result of your trips to Mexico.

JB: Every year we go and we travel and each year we try and get a little bit further into Mexico — down another street, into another village — and pick up the weirdest, most wonderful stuff we can find. This last trip was truly one off the beaten path. And we found some truly incredible stuff while we were over there and forged some great relationships. Some of these mezcaleros we’ve been back to three or four times now; we’re building these really beautiful connections.

AD: Yeah. We basically hire a car, go to a service station, buy as many five litre water bottles that we can, drink them and tip them out and fill them with mezcal. Then we hand bottle and hand label and ship them back here. That’s about it.

What we realised was the power that could have on our ability to shape our experiences with our guests. Because we could show them our travel photos, we could tell them our real life stories and suddenly that made the things that they were trying and our ability to connect with our guests like a once in a lifetime experience. That gave a vividness to Cantina OK! that you don’t get anywhere else.

JB: It was a vanity project if we’re honest. Cantina OK! was the bar that we wanted to drink at. We visited these old places in Mexico, we had these spirits we were bringing home, and we wanted to finally show them. That was it. We had these low monetary expectations for what it would end up being, we were expecting about five people to turn up every night. We would have been fine with that.

When you were looking at the space — how did that work?

AD: Jeremy’s vanity project was to do another 100 seater, kind of like a grown up Tio’s. We were dealing with these real estate agents and one in particular. We’d been to so many spaces. We were looking for something to be a certain way and most things aren’t. We were looking at a site with him, we’d been to 10 sites with him plus maybe 10 with other people, and we said this one isn’t right either. He was just like: “Fucking hell. I’ve got one more space around the corner — it’s the absolute last listing I’ve got.”

JB: I think it helped that he didn’t think we’d be interested in it. Which is always a sign I think that I’m gong to be interested in it. He might have reverse psychologied the shit out of us.

AD: We came down the alleyway here and there was a roller shutter and he threw it up — I knew immediately walking in that this was it. I looked at Jeremy and he was just shaking his head. My wife, Daisy does a lot of our marketing and is on our executive team, she just had her head in her hands.

JB: But I slept on it. The whole reason I said yes to the project was that I remembered I had this ice shaving machine on the bar at Tio’s. And because of the size of Tio’s we’d never been able to use it to full effect.

I woke up about 4am the next morning and thought: Oh! The garage! Finally we can use the ice shaving machine. That’s it boys, sign on the dotted line.

AD: Even when we opened and we were on the tools, because we’re right in the CBD, people were like, yeah but how does it work? It’s so small. And we were so shocked with how busy we were getting.

But that only took a few days. I was here three days in and it felt jammed.

JB: Well we did have that in our favour — you put 12 people in here and we are packed out.

AD: If you, me and Jeremy started a flute trio and we booked a 15 capacity venue, I guarantee you 15 people are going there to watch us play the flute.

Jeremy and I classic undersellers. We’re students of the hospitality industry. And we were lucky to be in the boat for the first wave of really revolutionary small bars. We were right in the mix, taking a lot of insight from the pioneers. I think Cantina came along at a time where we were on the second and third wave of derivative venues — not to be negative — but they were kind of replicating a pattern that had been successful for a time. And part of the vanity project for Jeremy and I was, people had an appetite for something that was different. Pushing the boundaries of what was. And Maybe Sammy opened around the same time. They’re very different to us, but in their own way they’re trying to encapsulate a bit of that change too.

They’ve created something that wasn’t there before, the same as you.

AD: And I think that all ties back to experience. They’re proving a crazy experience for their guests, and for us — not to say there aren’t other places doing that — but what Cantina OK! represented to us was a real empathy movement. Doing everything we could to gear the experience of our guests to be as resonant as we can.

How did the name come about?

JB: I don’t have a good story for that. I wanted to open a bar with the name A-OK a few years ago, and the symbol would have been [the hand sign for A-OK] but then that became a bit of an alt-right symbol.

It just came around. Cantinas always often have weird non-sensical names in Mexico as well, so Cantina OK! It’s probably us underselling as well.

Because you could have done the pastiche of a small Mexican bar but it doesn’t feel like that.

AD: What Jeremy and have always prided ourselves on as operators is that we do all the project management, art design, and we worked with an amazing joiner here, but everything like the colour schemes and the layout we everything that’s in there.

When something is really small it gives you the ability to go super micro on the details. We’ve only got 15 square metres in there, and if we had 1500 square metres, it’s harder. Everywhere you look and touch in there it, it’s touched, influenced and not the usual you would expect.

JB: Like every single piece of timber in there is from one tree that was cut down for Cantina OK!.

For the original menus, I had the most 2010 hipster moment of my life: I rode my pushbike to a vintage japanese printer photocopier to print the pages for my small mezcal menu. I’m pretty sure I had a moustache. I was twizzling.

The first menu, no joke, took five months to put together.

There’s a certain romance to that.

AD: The more romance you can layer on, the richer the experience.

JB: People really do feel that.

I hate to say the word authentic, but it really does feel authentically you two.

AD: Well for Jeremy and me it’s been 12 years of this. We have worked together, full time, since 2009.

It’s just been a decade in development, these ideas we have.

It’s a partnership. How does that dynamic work with you two?

JB: I think it started as a sibling rivalry, but as we got older... it became an older sibling rivalry, you know what I mean? We’re constantly pushing each other — I don’t want to be too self help book — but pushing each other to be better at what we do all the time. We’re very understanding of our own idiosyncrasies, which is important because we’re both very different; I think the nicest thing about this place is we’re getting more different in our own little sections, finding our own thing to say in the business.

Before we were singing the same notes; now we’re harmonising.

AD: To use that musical metaphor. Any band you start — flute trio aside — for a while you’re in the pubs playing covers. We were lucky we knew some great bands, and we really lent into those. But with this project I feel like we started releasing some original material that was informed by that time gigging and playing covers. We feel very lucky and humbled to have the space where those new creative ideas have been realised. Not for the awards and shit like that; so that we can have an unfenced on the next generation who want to do their own thing.

How are you going to get more mezcal in to the country with Covid restrictions in place?

JB: We are going to use our trusted associates in Mexico. It’s a bit scary, considering we’re buying 500 litres of mezcal next week that we haven’t tried, but we got them to do tasting notes which is one step in the right direction, and buying from people who we have bought from before. We’re really hoping we can bottle some for people to sell as well. Not a big amount — we’re not trying to become the next big mezcal company. The aim is for people to be able to take some home with them to connect themselves and their life to these mezcals.

AD: There is a cultural element to all of this. Mezcal is a lot of Mexican culture. So for us, we’re always dancing on that line between taking advantage and being documentarians. For us, really, if we don’t go meet, photograph, purchase and taste it at the source, we don’t really stock it. When you’re a young bartender expertise is really important. A lot of the time you’re remembering rhetoric — like I know this about this product and that’s why you should buy it. I think with Cantina OK! we really became aware that the emotional side of drinking is hugely important and the expertise side fell away and was replaced with enthusiasm. For us we’re more like documentarians than saying this is the most shit hot mezcal you’ll ever try, it’s the only one in the world. We go, we travel, and this is what we see: that could be photos, stories, or the mezcal itself. So it did put a dilemma when we can’t get there, and we have just enough to ensure we have what need for our guests. So we’ve bought only from mezcaleros we have met before. It allows us to keep that integrity and connection.

Because mezcal is hot, and big players are moving in, there are issues around sustainability. And a lot these small producers aren’t exactly living in luxury. So who wins here? How much of the price of mezcal is getting back to the producers?

JB: It is complicated. This a dilemma we do think deeply about. We’re on a micro scale, but is our journey doing something positive or negative? We think we’re able to tell the story because we show the respect, we go to meet them, their family, treating their product with respect and bringing it back and telling the real story about it. And showing the photos of where they come from be they beautiful or not beautiful. We’ll show it for what it is.

It’s not a bullshit marketing story.

JB: No, we’re not brand focused. We’re not a brand. We’re just showing off what we find over there. It is an inherently expensive exercise. We’re buying stuff and we have to travel.

That I understand, but with these big companies going in — maybe the people who are making it are not seeing the full benefits of that.

AD: Anytime you go into an agrarian, third world economy, there is the overwhelming chance someone is going to be exploited. That’s the fundamentals of the industry. People are finding gold in the Oaxacan hills, that’s what they’re saying.

JB: It is changing. They’re getting very savvy. They’re putting real value not just their products but the products of their cultural heritage. We’ve got a friend of ours, the Alverado family from Santa Maria Ixcatlan, two years ago we were able to buy his mezcal in a jerry can. And his father would sell it to us in a Sprite bottle. But he’s the first member of his family to leave Mexico. He’s from a town of 230 people that have their own language, and he’s starting to realise hey, my people, my culture makes something that is worth a lot — I don’t think he cares about the money — he cares about it being worth something culturally. It’s an expression of his people that people are interested in. Now you can only buy his mezcal in his bottles. For him, that’s the statement: he wanted to tell his story his way.

A lot of other people’s arguments are it’s all economic development - we want mezcal to be the new tequila. But you look at tequila, the distribution of wealth is only really into this small group of families. And I think that would be a huge negative for the broader mezcal industry. Mezcal is the last of these home economy spirits — I’m sure there’s a couple others in the world — but this is the last commercial ones you get.

Do you think, though, that maybe this is just the way the world works and that this old way is just going to go at some point?

JB: Well, yes, unless people can be very smart — mezcal, as a category, as a peak body, has spent a lot of time trying to ensure that diversity is maintained.

AD: The reason the Spanish didn’t go down so far [to Oaxaca] is that the cultural fabric is so strong and non-European. Hopefully a lot of these cultures and their importance will endure far beyond the quick dollar. Money is gonna come and go quickly, but you’re talking in some places cultures that are thousands of years old.

Around Oaxaca and the mountains around Oaxaca, it’s very commercial — people are making mezcal and making it to sell it. But when you go to the hills of Michoacan or when you go to the end of the fucking road in Puebla?

JB: Or even coastal Jalisco. They’re making mezcal for totally uncommercial reasons. We went to a guy in Jalisco making this incredible — incredible — raicilla. He had vintages from 1992, sitting there in glass. We were like, we’ll buy your warehouse. He was like, “Oh, I’m not selling. It’s been nice having you guys here, it’s lovely, but I’m not going to sell you any of this stuff — of course not.”

There is hope there. It’s so diverse. It’s so micro.

AD: Mezcal's agricultural roots make it impossible to scale. If we were to start Big Boy Mezcal and we went over there, you’ve got a still that’s 80 litres made from clay — there’s no commercial viability to that. To be honest, we’re not even that in touch with what’s going on in an industrial scale with mezcal.

JB: It’s big but we barely touch that stuff.

AD: If we’re talking about vanity, we just have no interest in that stuff. What’s interesting to us is the people, places, and experiences. The mezcal is a bonus in a lot of ways. That’s the thread, but the rest of the experience is more what we’re about.