IF YOU flick to the Bartender Magazine Australian Bar Awards finalists you’ll see a new Sydney venue popping up a few times. That venue is Chula, a Mexican restaurant and bar in Sydney’s King Cross, and the guy running it is this man here: Reece Griffiths.
Griffiths is one of Australia’s foremost advocates for all things agave, and it’s this passion which is on display at Chula. Here, there’s all sorts of Mexican spirits available — tequila and mezcal, of course, but also raicilla and sotol. The spirits list itself is a worthy tool for anyone getting to know their mezcal, as it’s broken down into the types of agave (much like wine lists that are structured by grape varietal) with a brief paragraph offering some info on what to expect from said variety.
We asked Griffiths for a few recipes to include in this issue with our focus on Mexico, and here he gives us his thoughts on what the idea is behind Chula, how to get customers excited about what are often some challenging spirits from Mexico, and how to learn more about the stuff.
As told to Sam Bygrave
Chula has been operating for about eight months now, this was a concept Pete [Lew] and I have been talking about for really long time. We’re really passionate about trying to bring the food we really miss from Mexico, and in my opinion, a real view of Mexican food that I thought was missing. And it was a great chance to really champion people drinking agave spirits. Getting people drinking not just tequila, not just frozen margaritas and shooters, as glorious as they are, we just wanted to push the boundaries.
My big thing with Chula is I wanted to give all the agave spirits an equal footing in the bar — I didn’t want to be just selling tequila. For me everyone just wants to sell a lot of tequila in a Mexican bar because it’s the cheapest thing you can buy. So we try to treat everything with an equal footing; trying to get people drinking raicilla and understand it, trying to get people drinking sotol, stuff they haven’t heard of because I think that’s the only way to get agave spirits developed in Australia.
We work [sotol] into cocktails, we work it into all our aqua frescas, with mezcal that’s to get us in the door; with our Margaritas there’s an option to have it with overproof tequila or with mezcal, so you can have a drink you like an add mezcal. It gets people used to it.
It’s also about creating cocktails that are approachable with those spirits as well. So for this newest menu we’ve done a twist on a really simple drink, on a Gin & Tonic, so we’ve done a Spanish style G&T with raicilla, lemon myrtle shrub, and PS40 tonic. It’s really simple, cool flavours — it’s about getting common ideas to people.
For me, I had a funny moment when I was in raicilla country, and I was being a fucking nerd and writing tasting notes and I was with [La Venenosa founder] Esteban [Morales], sitting there and being so intense. And the guy that made the raicilla just looked at me, like, what are you doing? He pours his raicilla and tops it with some soda, and it reminded me that these spirits are meant to be enjoyed.
So now with our drinks, we just try to make people have fun and drink the booze.
I think it’s the flavour profiles; such an incredibly diverse set of flavours can come from a single plant, with no barrel influence basically. It just blows my mind. We’re still just nicking the surface in what’s available in terms of regionality and agave spirits.
Right now you’re looking at nine plus states that are approved in the mezcal DO, but almost every state in Mexico has a history of distillation. So you think about that, and it’s a really old culture dating back to the Aztecs and Mayans, it’s incredible.
Even the cool stuff I’m seeing coming out Michoacan, out of Oaxaca — rum, Paranubes, an agricole-style rum from the highlands of Oaxaca, it’s stuff people have been doing that we didn’t know about. It’s cool to see the craft of the distillation as well, it’s what I love. There’s no decisions in mezcal and raicilla made about efficiency and financial concerns, or GP, there’s no business model to that side of it. All they want to do is make the best mezcal or raicilla they can. To me there’s something beautiful about that.
I think there’s a stigma in the industry against people who adapt their methods to become more modern, and I don’t think that’s right. For example, if a Mezcalero is 60 years old and he earns enough money to buy himself a mill so he doesn’t have to hand crush agaves, then I’m all for that guy milling his agaves. Because the motherfucker’s been doing that his whole life and his back is probably crook. But everyone else turns around and says that’s not artisanal anymore, that’s not craft? That’s quality of life for the guy who makes the juice that we drink, and I think that’s important. It’s romantic to think about, but as long as the guy makes quality mezcal I don’t care. I’m not tied to this, it’s got to be hand crushed — fuck, use a tahona, pull your tahona with a tractor. As long as it tastes good I’m happy with it, just don’t use a fucking diffusor. It’s kind of harsh, because a lot of people who have big opinions say that’s not artisanal — I call horseshit on that, man.
It’s one of those funny things, that everyone makes their mezcal differently because that’s the way they’ve done it, and they’ve naturally evolved that over time. So just because we’ve seen that that’s the way they make it, it probably started out super differently.
Meet the guy who makes it, if you can do it. Then you’ll have a complete understanding of what he’s doing and why he’s making it that way. As long as they’re making it their way and the way they want to, that’s the main thing. At the end of the day it’s not our product. We’re lucky to get to drink it. It’s their mezcal, it’s their ancestry, it’s their gift to everyone — you’ve got to be happy they’re making it. Just drink it.
My advice is to support bars that support these spirits; hang out at them, ask questions. This is how I got into it, I used to go sit at the bar at Pacifico and annoy the shit out of Phil Bayly and Ryan Gardam with a note pad. Read as much as you can. Learn to speak Spanish. Travel to Mexico.