Agave, or maguey, are a vast and fascinating genus of generally spikey and large succulents that traditionally grow in desert climes across the Americas. Most species are pollinated by bats and moths and are monocarpic, meaning they flower once then die. Some varieties can take well over half a century to reach maturation, at which point they shoot up a quiote, a giant asparagus-looking central mast, which eventually flowers, dispersing the plant’s seed. For millennia Indigenous groups across North America have relied on these natural wonders: the flowers and meaty interior for food, the pencas/spears for roofing material and fiber, the sharp points for sewing needles, and the sap for a viscous but delicious low-proof alcoholic beverage called pulque, a name derived from Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica/Aztec.
Of the debatably 252 or so species that have been classified, only a few dozen (experts are not in agreement) have a high enough sugar content to be fermented and then distilled into mezcales, a traditional name for any liquor produced from maguey. These enchanting plants, as well as the booze that can be coaxed from them with care, time and hard work (if it is the real deal), have become a personal obsession of mine. Most every year (California allows legal import of up to 40 liters), I haul duffel bags of mezcal from family-run palenques in rural Oaxaca back to Albuquerque. There are rare silvestres (wild cultivated varieties), ensembles (traditional blends of a producer’s different agaves that were mature at the time of production), pechugas (with local fruits or other additions introduced before a third distillation … with a hanging Criolo chicken breast or other sort of meat in the still), mineros (made with clay stills and a copper condenser) and cucharillas (a related spirit, called sotol up north).
So, yes, I was looking forward to visiting “New Mexico’s Premier Agave Bar.” Los Conejos is located in the back of The Copper Lounge, which transitioned back in 2017 from a classic dive with a much-loved dollar taco night to an upscale craft cocktail bar. Los Conejos has gone for a sleek look, highlighting their solid collection of higher-end tequilas and mezcales, as well as a smattering of other related spirits behind the bar. What is the difference between tequila and mezcal? Quite simply, tequila is a type of mezcal. Tequila, which has a denomination of origin, must be made in the Mexican state of Jalisco out of blue agave (Agave Tequiliana), though many large brands find ways around this law. And while traditional mezcales are made by roasting agave piñas in an earthen pit and then fermenting these mashed-up hearts before distilling, tequila nearly always uses the industrial autoclave to get the most sugars out of each maguey. Hence, tequila tends to be smoother and easier to take shots of, while mezcal is often smoky.
My girlfriend Ray and I were greeted promptly and seated in the Los Conejos room. Then things got a bit rough. Los Conejos has not been open long, and they still need to smooth out some aspects of their operation. When my phone wouldn’t open the QR code that linked to their menu, the server seemed annoyed. As there are no paper menus available, she offered us her personal phone—but then rushed us to order. Our nachos arrived, well-plated and topped with a quality housemade guacamole, but missing the chicken we’d ordered, and was not quite up to my expectations of an $11 plate. (I did like that they had the whole range of Salsa Huichol hot sauces from Nayarit.) No biggie: We were there to imbibe some spirits, not to feast. Luckily, this first server’s shift ended right after our order was placed, and a much more caring and considerate bartender with an impressive leather smock took her place.
Despite the widely held belief that mixing fine mezcal with beer is in poor taste, I had just biked up to Tijeras and back in hundred degree heat and was fiending for something cold and bubbly. I had the chelada ($8), just salt and a bunch of fresh squeezed lime with a Bohemia pilsner poured over top. It hit the spot. I could then focus my attention on the star of the show: the mezcales. While Los Conejos does not offer flights of mezcal like many agave bars the world over, our bartender said that she could put one together. I would really recommend this move for those just starting a journey into the world of agave distillates. However, having a substantial head stash at home, I went for something more novel: a 94.8 proof ensemble of Brocha and Ixtero Amarillo from Chacolo spirits in Jalisco. Like all high-end mezcales, this is a spirit for sipping on, not for shooting or mixing.
The one-ounce pour ($19) came with two slices of orange, which tend to go better with mezcal than lime: one coated with salt that had been roasted with the small worm-like bugs that often burrow into mature agave, and the other a mix of roasted chapulines, salt and tamarind powder. While delicious, these pretty additions were not needed. The nose on this mezcal betrayed traditional processes and rustic equipment. It smelled of hay and sweet grass … and goat. I took a tiny sip to let my taste buds acclimate—and went in. There were notes of warming spices behind a goat-milk-caramel sweetness. Quite funky, but in a way that conjured memories of driving rural dirt roads in central Mexico. Damn pricey but really something rare and unexpected.
The cocktails are where Los Conejos shines. Ray ordered a batanga and, later, a paloma (each $10). Watching the bartender prepare these was a treat; her deft movements and perfect proportions created intoxicating elixirs that damn near canceled out the first server’s rudeness. The batanga, a classic cocktail first formulated in the town of Tequila, mixed Jaritos Mxcn Cola, fresh squeezed lime, silver tequila and a pinch of salt. The alchemy performed by our mixologist brought them together into a strong cocktail that seemed more than the sum of its parts. The paloma mixed silver tequila, house-made grapefruit soda (with Topo Chico) and Ancho Reyes red chile liquor. It was then further enriched with a rim of sweet-grapefruit salt colored like raspberry sherbert. I may never be able to return to my adolescent favorite mix of cheap tequila and Squirt soda.
I’d love to see Los Conejos provide tasting flights and detailed explanations about the truly singular world of agave distillates. I’d love them to expand their selection of premium agave spirits by including more sotoles, pechugas and representations from more far-flung regions of Mexico. And, in the meantime, I hope they keep making such excellent cocktails.