During his countless trips to Oaxaca, Mexico, Exo Roast and Exo Bar founder Doug Smith realized the variety of mezcal—and therefore what there is to learn about mezcal—is almost limitless. This depth is the reason behind two new changes at Exo Bar: a name change to El Crisol and a new series of private mezcal tastings.
Smith has hosted weekly public mezcal tastings since around when the bar opened in October 2017, and said this new round of private tastings is not intended to replace, but extend the public events. The private tastings will take place by appointment on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, while the public tastings will maintain their Thursday evening slots.
“It’s a natural expansion, and it’s a way to get deeper,” Smith said. “It’s a way for me to enhance the instructive part of the public tastings... They tend to be quite well attended, sometimes maybe too well attended that it can be difficult to hear me. A group of 12 or less allows me to be the educator I want to be when it comes to mezcal.”
The tastings, where participants receive four mezcal pours, are always based on a central theme, like agave species, distillation location or varietal. Smith, who earned a Ph.D. in cultural and social anthropology from Stanford University, uses the events to discuss not only the production of mezcal, but the families and farmers who craft the drink.
“It can get pretty nerdy, to be honest,” Smith said.
While Smith won’t claim the title of founding Tucson’s first “mezcaleria,” he is proud to say nowhere else in town has as expansive an inventory or amount of information about the Mexican staple. He says it’s important that the bar offer other options, such as beer and wine, but 90 percent of the bar is focused on mezcal. The amount of mezcals at El Crisol fluctuates, but they currently house more than 150 types.
“A really good mezcaleria, by my estimation, is there to pour almost an infinite variety of mezcals, and also be able to talk about them all,” Smith said. “I think mezcal is the artisanal spirit par excellence. It’s more labor intensive than anything else I can think of. It requires a great deal of knowledge that is passed from generation to generation. It is extremely hands on. I can’t think of anything more handcrafted than mezcal. This is a very microfocused kind of thing. It’s placed-based, it’s family-based, and it’s always small batch.”
The new name, El Crisol, is based on the Spanish word for crucible, or melting pot. Exo’s staff selected this name because they view mezcal like the result of a crucible: the product of many things coming together, interacting with fire, and resulting in a powerful, refined product.
“Exo has become so associated with coffee, that to this day even though the bar has been open for two years, people come in and say ‘I had no idea this was here.’ So I wanted to give the mezcaleria a distinct identity away from coffee,” Smith said. “I wanted to make Exo in the day and Exo in the night their own complementary programs and scenes.”
While Exo Roast’s coffee and El Crisol’s mezcal can attract different audiences, Smith says they’re actually quite similar products; they’re both grown and exported by Mexican farmers, and in Oaxaca, which Smith visits two to three times a year, they’re even fused into specialty cocktails.
Exo Roast and El Crisol even maintain trade relationships with the coffee and mezcal makers in Oaxaca, and Smith says building constructive relationships with Mexico is one of the major concerns of the business.
“The story of mezcal really is beautiful. Once you know the story, and you’re educated about what you’re drinking, then the experience is much more rich. So a good mezcaleria is half about education,” Smith said. “The tastings are as much about the story of mezcal as they are about tasting mezcal. It’s as comprehensive as we can get it here. And I think the heart and soul of a mezcaleria is all about that.”