At the end of a service alley, a step back from the CBD bustle, gold light spills out onto the asphalt. There’s a scent of lime in the air, the sound of Boston shakers, and somewhere behind it, just a hint of danger. This is Cantina OK, the standing-room-only bar that since February of 2019 has plied Sydney with good, clean, sort-of illicit fun fuelled by mezcal and backed up by one of the sharpest bar teams in the city. Pick a day – any day – and the Cantina will be rocking it, two or three tenders ably servicing the 20 or so drinkers who cram in at any one time from when the roller door opens till close at 2am.
In times where so many venues can stock their backbars with rare and obscure spirits, Cantina makes a niche out mezcal, a spirit for which the phrase ‘rare and obscure’ could have been invented. Cantina OK is owners Alex Dowd and Jeremy Blackmore and group operations manager Alex “Happy” Gilmour’s follow-up to Tio’s Cerveceria. Here, the focus – and dimensions – are tighter, and Gilmour has licence to sate his insatiable thirst for agave-based liquor with frequent buying trips to the far reaches of Mexico.
This is a bar that takes you straight to the grindstones and the pit ovens, in everything from the striking travel-book-style menu to staff who’ve been schooled by Gilmour then consolidated the knowledge by going straight to the source. There’s no preaching, but if you ask, the team will run you through the multifarious species of agave, like papalome or vicuishe, and how they’re aged in glass or cowhide, then regale you with tales of Oaxacan mezcaleros harvesting under full moons, bulls hauling tahonas and suitcases of bottles smuggled through customs.
They’ll pour shot glasses (for sipping, mind) of the wicked, wild and beautiful stuff – some grassy, some floral, some burning, most smoky – and temper it with plates of mango or dragonfruit, perhaps, cut to order, sprinkled with spicy salt and served with a lime cheek.
Staff can go deep, sure, but they’ll also shake a mean Margarita. Made with a 50-50 mix of tequila and mezcal poured into a coupe kissed with flaked salt over ice shaved by a hand-cranked Nepalese ice machine, it’s bracingly sour, ultra-refreshing and dangerously drinkable, the texture peerless. So, yeah, they do the basics, too.
Apart from the Margarita OK, the other three cocktails include a sour based on chamomile and pineapple, and the Fizz OK, a horchata-like drink made with añejo tequila and rice syrup. A daily special, meanwhile, brings a little improv to proceedings. Add a roster of craft beers and natural wines, and this is a bar at once niche and inclusive. One to settle into for a mezcal schooling, or to visit at the start of the night and again at the end, to jostle for elbow room, trade quips with the bartenders and feel a little risk creep back into a city that could use it.
OK? That’s not even the start of it.