The little sibling bar from the team that brought us Sydney’s fast-and-fun, infamous tequila and beer den Tio’s, Cantina OK! is a next-level expression of all the learning and Mexican exploration the intrepid Tio’s team has undertaken over past years. It took less than five minutes for me to fall head-over-heels for this bolt-hole and its incredible drink focus.
Located in a bland laneway off Clarence Street in Sydney’s CBD, this is a 20-person, standing only, late night (2am licensed), mezcal-focused bar. The bar itself opens onto the street, but most people congregate towards the back of the tiny space, where access to the bartender knowledge and attention feels most keen.
The space features stylised wood panelling, industrial fittings and a simple bar. An old Nepalese ice-crushing machine dominates the work space and helps produce impeccably shattered ice to keep those pitch-perfect house margaritas flowing.
While wine isn’t a focus, there is a collection of natural-leaning drops with current examples from Western Australia avant garde producer Dormilona and popular skin-ferment specialist Arfion from Yarra Valley. Likewise, beer hits the menu, but at the core are the ultra-small-batch mezcal and the brilliant cocktails that emerge from this ever-so-clever bar team.
The highlight is exploring single shots of some of the obscure mezcals that have been, in many cases, brought into the country via the proprietors’ suitcases. While out of market distillates might be intimidating, information is never far, just shout out to your friendly bartender.
Co-owner Jeremy Blackmore revels in sharing his knowledge. “The products have such great stories. Agave spirits really hit all the hot topics, they have history, interesting biology, terroir and geography – embodying the spirit of Mexico. On top of that, they are so damn delicious; toasty, sweet, smoky, fragrant, sour and everything in between.”
The collection extends well beyond the expected and into micro-distilleries, single agave plant distillations and exotic mezcals. “They are amazing, expressive and show the diversity of flavours under the mezcal umbrella,” explains Blackmore.
The big story has been the experimental Michoacán region producer by the name of Jorge Perez, a man who pushes boundaries, with releases that include mezcal distilled with rattlesnake – available by the nip.
The list here (some 70-odd pages of it!) is wonderful reading, evocative in its high-detail photography – plus it explains each region and describes notable agave species. That being said, catching Blackmore, or partners Alex Dowd or Alex ‘Happy’ Gilmour at the bar, is a life-enhancing experience. This is such a thrilling and unique venue, and a landmark site for the humble Mexican spirit of mezcal.
Top Drinks: Cantina OK! Sierra Negra wild agave (1990 vintage) – Deeply flavoured, saturated in smoke, earth and pine resin characters. Jorge Perez ‘Rattlesnake’ Pechuga Mezcal – it meshes the green-herbal mezcal characters with typical smokiness and then a sour-game meat character kicks in. Fascinating and intense.
Drink + Food Match: BYO or get ‘home delivery’ as for now snacks are a work in progress. That being said, house margaritas come with judicious condiments of salt and lime to work as a mini meal, perhaps.
Best cocktail: Cantina OK! Margarita – It’s a precisely made drink with perfectly frosty ice sitting in a sharp, tight, piquant pool of citrus-driven margarita tang. A pulse of orange oil sets it to next level.
➼ She Loves You (530 King St, Newtown) From sommelier-cum-wine-writer Sophie Otton and her partner, this Inner West neighbourhood boutique wine and edgy cocktail bar is casual, cool and relaxed.
➼ Alberto’s Lounge (17-19 Alberta St, Sydney, albertoslounge.com) Many will say this is a restaurant, and rightly so, but you can snack and drink and the epic wine list is the best in the parent hospitality group that includes Hubert and Baxter Inn.
➼ WyNo (4/50 Holt St, Surry Hills, porteno.com.au) This teeny-tiny bar and shop is wedged next to the good times restaurant Porteño and led by super-wine-talent Gavin Wright. Expect an ever-changing exotic collection of interesting wines.