Toronto’s temple of mescal

Toronto’s temple of mescal

The Kensington Market bar pays tribute to tequila’s smoky, badass cousin

Inside El Rey

El Rey, Grant van Gameren’s new Mexican bar in Kensington Market, is a temple to mescal. Clay copitas of the stuff are raised in cheers from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. on the colourful streetside patio. Curly-coiffed (and densely tatted) co-owner Owen Walker pours tasting flights that are almost as educational as they are intoxicating. And he mixes up some potent concoctions, like his Open Window, a spicier, more savoury rendition of the classic margarita. “I don’t often make cocktails with small-batch spirits,” says Walker, who spends about four hours of every workday talking about the nuances of mescal. “So when I do, the end result needs to be a celebration of that spirit and its individuality.”

Owen Walker

Mescal, as its fans will attest, is a labour of love. It’s made from the agave plant, which can take 20 years to mature. The eruption of a towering, tree-like flower from the plant’s centre is a grand finale of sorts—after it blooms, it dies. (Allan Gardens once had to cut a hole in its greenhouse roof to accommodate an agave’s growth spurt.) Mescaleros hack off the leaves to get to the heart, or piña, as it’s called because of its resemblance to a pineapple. The piñas are buried over mesquite-fired rocks, left to roast for several days, and then crushed to a starchy pulp that’s fermented and, finally, distilled.

After all that, it would be a crime to drink it fast—mescal is meant to be sipped, not shot.

Recipe: How to make El Rey’s Open Window

El Rey's Open Window


30 mL Olmeca Altos Plata tequila, infused with jalapeño, poblano and Trinidad peppers
15 mL Los Siete Misterios Espadin mescal
15 mL Cointreau
15 mL pineapple gum syrup (available at BYOB)
30 mL fresh lime juice
1 dash celery bitters


Combine ingredients over ice and give a hard shake. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a few slices of baby English cucumber and a sprinkle of chapulín (grasshopper) salt (available at BYOB).

Stock your bar with these mescals

Leyenda Tlacuache Organic
LCBO 275420
A saline sipper with earthy, vegetal notes and a smoky finish.
Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas
LCBO 446864
Hot, sweet and citrusy with bright green notes of bok choy and grapes.