Behind the Guatemalan Poker Game

We sat down with Russell Davis to get the story behind his cocktail for October’s ¡Viva Mezcal! Box, the Guatemalan Poker Game!

S&S: Russell, what would you say makes this drink unique?

RD: I wanted to create a cocktail that would present mezcal in an “easy to swallow” (pun intended) way, with flavors that are complementary. A drink that would be, as Unlimited Liabilities team member Greg Mayer would put it, “crushable.” I decided to create a highball in the old-school soda-fountain style and landed on doing a riff on a classic chocolate phosphate with mezcal. I used soda jerk techniques such as freezing the glass to increase the effervescence of the soda to react with the chocolate syrup and utilizing the previously extinct ingredient acid phosphate to balance the sour against the sweet. I am also very happy to be donating my proceeds from this month’s box to the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP), which is not only helping to preserve agave culture, but also fighting to protect its sustainability and quality in the beverage industry. Drink more agave!

S&S: It sounds incredible. Would you say it’s particularly good for the season?

RD: This drink is great for any season! As for October, I thought it would be especially fun to have an adult chocolate beverage at a time of year when everyone is indulging in candy and other sweets. It’s all right to let loose sometimes, and October is a great month to start.

S&S: We totally agree. What were your other inspirations?

RD: When I am not filming or on project, I travel off the grid studying obscure drinking culture, techniques, ingredients, recipes, and flavors, many times for months on end with only a backpack. Last year on my expedition through Central America, I was lucky enough to meet an American ex-pat by the name of John Rexer in a bar called Café No Sé in the old colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala. John owned the bar and a mezcal called Ilegal, an agave spirit brand that he had been sourcing from Mexico, smuggling into Guatemala, and, because of its popularity, was now bottling and distributing internationally.

John Rexer in his office at Cafe No Se. Anitgua, Guatemala, 2012.

In Café No Sé, which is the most famous mezcal bar in the world, there is a back room that you can only enter through a doorway just over waist-high and are not allowed to stay in unless your mezcal glass—and only mezcal—is always full. There, John chatted with me about the dangers of bringing the spirit across the border to his bar; from rescuing kidnapped drivers tied to trees to hiring smugglers dressed as priests with sex toys in their luggage to deter Guatemalan customs. The last time we hung out, we were playing a poker game at 4 a.m. on a compound outside a coffee plantation over many bottles of mezcal. He is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.

John’s car, an old cab with ‘No Se’ on it. Whenever he drives around town, people are always trying to flag him down for a ride.

Now, many people believe that Guatemala was the birthplace of chocolate, originally coming from the traditions of the Mayans. So just like John Rexer, an American living in Guatemala selling a Mexican liquor, I bring you a cocktail that mixes the spirit of Mexico with this original Guatemalan flavor while using American techniques. John, I hope you’re well and sorry for taking all of your money. Better luck next time!

S&S: Wow. That’s quite the story. And what’s your favorite aspect of this drink?

RD: I think it’s a really easy way to get to know and love mezcal!

S&S: We agree!

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