When Las Almas Rotas opened its doors in 2017, mezcal didn’t occupy the same place in the hearts of Dallas drinkers that it does now. The smoky, agave-based spirit wasn’t really a fixture on local bar menus, even as the city’s obsession with margaritas endured. Since its debut, though, Eater Dallas’s 2018 bar of the year has sparked incredible interest in the finest Mexican spirits.
A project of wife-and-husband duo Leigh and Shad Kvetko and their business partner Taylor Samuels, Las Almas Rotas was originally born out of a mezcal tasting club made up of the trio’s group of friends. “We had an informal group that would meet at each other’s houses, the host would cook, and everybody would bring a bottle of mezcal,” Shad Kvetko says. “It was a great way to try a lot of different mezcals without spending a lot of money.”
From there, Kvetko says that he and his friends just wanted a cool place to drink, which led them to the space in Exposition Park. None of the partners had any experience in running or working in restaurants, and the venture was entirely self-funded, which meant that the bar would really need to hit the ground running in order to keep the doors open.
After Las Almas Rotas arrived, the team also knew they had an uphill battle to climb in terms of educating the average drinker on the finer points of mezcal. “There are some connoisseurs in the area, always have been, but our main customer base was just not very aware of the spirit,” he says. “If they were aware, it was because they’d tried some really terrible mezcal or tequila and had a terrible experience, so we had to do some re-educating, too.” Unlike most of the city’s other drinking dens, which specialize in fancy cocktails or slinging as many Red Bull and vodkas as possible, Las Almas Rotas has also trained its focus on neat pours of agave-based spirits, a risky decision in a cocktail-obsessed city.
To that end, the bar has hosted a number of mezcaleros, the artisans in Mexico who distill mezcal, along with representatives from the various tequila brands for educational seminars. The bar also introduced agave flights, allowing drinkers to test and compare different types of mezcal, and flew some of its employees to Mexico so that they could tour the palenques (distilleries) where the spirit is produced. “The last thing I want is for one of my employees to answer a question with ‘I don’t know,’” he says. “We want them to really understand what they’re serving, and unless you experience it in its cultural context, it’s really hard to know it.”
That cultural context also played a massive role in developing the bar’s identity. From the beginning, it was important to Las Almas’s owners that its decor and vibe completely eschew negative stereotypes of Mexicans and kitschy cliches that have often been used in themed restaurants and bars. “We did not want to open a ‘Mexican-themed’ bar,” Kvetko says. “We try our best to honor the spirit and the culture and we’re not trying to claim anything as our own.” As a result, the bar has attracted a devoted following of Mexican expats and nationals who live and work in Dallas.
Part of that commitment to honoring the spirit means an intense focus on sourcing ethically produced spirits, which is especially difficult when it comes to tequila. The spirit is often produced by massive corporations, not artisans, which leads to cutting corners during production in ways that Kvetko describes as destructive to both the spirit’s identity and the environment. Traditional artisan methods, like crushing agave by hand, have been replaced with giant machines that are great at producing large quantities of tequila efficiently but without much flavor. To recreate the flavor profile of a great tequila, additives like “tequila flavoring” and glycerin, which produces an artificially smoother mouthfeel, go into the finished product.
The most important of these ethically sourced tequilas is the budget-friendly spirit that is used to make well drinks at Las Almas Rotas. “Usually bars are putting the cheapest tequila, the cheapest mezcal in their wells,” he says. “That’s the most important decision we can make as a retailer. I can put together this library of high-priced spirits, but they’re going to sit on the shelf for a long time. The well is where 90 percent, or even 95 percent, of your money is going to go.” At Las Almas Rotas, mezcalero-owned Mezcal Gracias a Dios and family-owned Arete tequila, are mixed into even the most inexpensive margaritas and palomas.
Surprisingly, though, neither of those cocktails are the bar’s top seller. That honor goes to its version of a Ranch Water, mixed with mezcal or tequila, lime, and fizzy Topo Chico. It’s a classic West Texas highball that was, legend has it, invented by a Fort Davis rancher who was so stupefied by the drink that he ended up asleep underneath a pinon tree miles away in Marathon, according to Punch. “Even though Dallas is a margarita town, people really love the Ranch Water,” Kvetko says. “It’s a very simple cocktail and some places try to gussy it up, but we’ve found that it really works best with just tequila, lime, and Topo, served right inside the bottle.”
Even though Ranch Water is Las Almas Rotas’s most popular drink, its second most popular offering is a flight of straight-up tequilas and mezcals, which is a testament to the city’s changing attitudes toward mezcal. Kvetko thinks that a lot of that has to do with the intensity with which he and his team have spent the past two years evangelizing the spirit. “When you start from a place of passion, that can be infectious to people,” he says. “If you’re just trying to make money, it’s hard to speak of something with passion. For us, it’s easy to engage our customers because we’re really trying to make them understand why mezcal is so special.”
This is the latest in a series of features on Eater Dallas’s 2018 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned for the final installment soon.