21 . 10 . 18
A shot full of magic… an interview with Jon Darby of Sin Gusano.
Sin Gusano is open from Thursday to Saturday from 5 pm at Curio Cabal, 258 Kingsland Road, Haggerston. Images from the top – Jon, founder of the project in the bar (he’s the guy in the middle). Bottom image – mezcal tasting sets (you can buy these here). Images courtesy of Sin Gusano.
It’s funny sometimes where our travels can lead us, not just geographically, but where we end up when we get back home because of them. Travelling introduces us to new opportunities, friends that we wouldn’t otherwise have met and new ideas we may not have had if we’d stayed put. Oaxaca, Mexico is one of those places that has followed me around after my time there in 2016, somewhere that I can’t quite shake off, as founder Sin Gusano, Jon Darby, also discovered after he loved the place so much that he quit his banking job from a hammock in Mazunte, (one of Oaxaca’s beach towns) and set up London’s only agave bar in 2016. This Autumn just passed, I rather happily found myself working in Jon’s bar for the Oaxaca-based, taqueria, Paco’s Tacos (what a name!) who I had also met whilst in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca and who ran Sin Gusano’s kitchen throughout September. Oaxaca is the foodie darling of Mexico – renowned for its amazing produce – fresh Oaxaca cheese, fried grasshoppers, delicious cactus… and most importantly, the lesser known agave spirit mezcal. It is absolutely not tequila – it is more nuanced, full of heritage and cultural significance, history and spiritual values, as Jon’s pop up aims to prove to London. I caught up with him over a shot of mezcal chased with beer, salt and lime to discover a bit more about this magical agave spirit and how Sin Gusano came into being…
TBC: Thanks for talking to us, Jon. I suppose the best way to start is at the beginning – where did the idea for Sin Gusano come from?
JD: The Sin Gusano project started off after my first time in Oaxaca and Mazunte in November 2016. I fell in love with Mexico in general, but particularly with mezcal. I used to drink a lot of whiskey so I came back to London with a new appreciation of mezcal and thought, well I live in London so I’ll be able to keep drinking this stuff because we have everything in London. But it turns out that, at that time at least, there were no mezcal bars back home. There were a few people serving mezcal in a really kitsh, shit way, that wasn’t really authentic and I realised that that was why I didn’t know about it before my trip to Mexico. So we did our first pop up bar in 2017 in Dalston and right now we’re still London’s only dedicated agave bar – we only sell mezcal – nothing else.
TBC: And what are the aims for the project?
JD: There are three things that I’ve been working on – all of these this year so it’s been hectic… We’ve been running this pop up space – a mezcal bar and taco kitchen (with guest chefs taking over the kitchen to serve their take on tacos on a regular basis). I’ve also been getting the import project off the ground and am now selling our mezcal tasting sets. We’re also running educational tasting events – I’ve done some in offices, tomorrow I’m doing a 40th birthday party. We’ve also done events for gallery openings – it’s perfect thing for an event or an interesting night out. This year has been an experiment to see what works – we’re at the point where we have to make some decisions about the next step.
TBC: Why haven’t more people heard of mezcal?
JD: The vast majority of the best stuff isn’t leaving Mexico because most people who make spirits to export are following the traditional drinks’ brand model of introducing people to an unusual spirit in a softer way. They find something that is easy to drink then buy loads of it at the cheapest price they can and it’ll be made out of the most common agave plant, near a major highway in a town with really good transport links to get it out the country quicker. However, good mezcal – like the stuff we’ve got – is inaccessible. It’s taken me days driving over mountain passes, stuck on rocky roads to find this unique stuff. Because it’s so rare – some batches are only made in 60 litre quantities and that’s all that’s ever going to be made – it’s very expensive so there’s not that many people taking a leap to bring it in and we’ve had to do this with relatively small margins. If you put the margin like exporters put on vodka and gin, mezcal would be astronomically expensive and that’s also part of the reason. It’s also expensive because of its high alcohol content. Then it’s the way it’s presented and the fact that it’s only been introduced to people in a really boring, obvious way with the most boring, obvious flavour profile. The point of this project is to show people the variety – the variety of mezcal flavours are crazy – which most people haven’t had. Basically, we’re about trying to spread the appreciation for this thing and where it comes from. It’s an education process as opposed to a fashion project…
TBC: Mezcal vs. whiskey?
JD: I used to be a whiskey lover – I still am – but I used to see whiskey as the world’s most complex, interesting, historical drink. Mezcal, however, blows its out the water. However if you say that to most whiskey fans, a stone-wall goes up because they’re so sure that whiskey is the perfect drink. But mezcal has been made for longer and the process and the complexity in flavour are way more interesting than whiskey. But you can’t say that casually to a whiskey fan – you need to show them what that’s all about. There needs to be an environment and a situation and a platform with which to actually educate people to what I discovered in Mexico which is that mezcal is actually fascinating.
TBC: What about the name?
JD: ‘Sin gusano‘ means ‘without the worn.’ Mezcal never has a worm in it. So many people come through the door and don’t really know what mezcal is and think it’s just tequila with a worm in it. So that’s the point. We’re trying to move past that. It’s not just a shit tequila with a worm in it – hence the name. It’s not really clear why people think that. Either the worm was just a marketing gimmick. Or that if you kept a worm in the bottle it soaked up the alcohol and then if you eat it, it was sort of a macho thing. Mezcal has its own intricacies and complexities – I mean you wouldn’t put a fucking worm in a bottle of whiskey so why in mezcal?
TBC: What’s does the future hold for Sin Gusano – will it always be London based do you think?
JD: No…. (pause) NO! This is an exclusive! Alex, my business partner, is Kiwi, so we’re discussing the potential to take Sin Gusano on the road to New Zealand. It could become international. We might even do a pop up in Oaxaca – taking Oaxaca’s product back to its home and present it in our own way to the expat community. There’s amazing mezcal in Oaxaca but it’s a cliquey little world – it’s like going to whiskey bars in London – people look down their nose at you. There’s a bit of that in Oaxaca. I mean, part of this is to collaborate with as many Mexicans as possible but I think we could bring a little bit of openness – a bit like what we do here in this bar. It’s part of what it’s all about – to create a nice vibe. I’ve always wanted to run my own bar and mezcal’s become the vehicle for that, but obviously it’s bigger than that. So now I’ve sated that ambition to create the space and I’m really happy to say that I think that 99% of people who come here think it’s a really awesome bar and a really awesome vibe and a great place to drink. And then once they’re in a place that has a good vibe then I can sell mezcal to them! So it could be that next year we run some shorter pop ups, maybe in Mexico, maybe in New Zealand.
We chat a little bit more about plans and about a bunch of other stuff that you talk about when you are drinking beer and mezcal. I don’t ask this question, but all of a sudden, Jon looks at me and it is a very serious look, as if he is about to tell me something very precious and important (which he is)…
JD: I think, for me, my vibe on mezcal is that it’s kind of everything, as well as it being delicious, it’s also the perfect product to encourage a more conscious consumerism and a way of doing things – we’ve only got a tiny amount of this stuff which you’re only going to respect and enjoy if you pay attention to where it came from and respect the person that made it. It couldn’t be more handmade and small batch and farm to table and all of the things that, over the last few years, has become interesting and important for consumers in the food and drinks scene. If you can be taught to appreciate a really good mescal then you can also be taught to appreciate other artisanal products rather than going to whatever’s quickest and cheapest. So it’s a bigger thing for me. It’s like stop shopping on Amazon and buy at your local book shop. Stop buying cheap, shit vodka and start drinking something that someone’s spent 20 years making…
Sin Gusano is an absolutely awesome pop up bar that closes at the end of 2018, so get your fill on mezcal before then. You can find out more about the project, book them for events or buy their mezcal tasting sets on their website.