Amy and Doug Smith of EXO Roast Co. recently added a speakeasy/pop-up style mezcal and natural wine bar (a project I was lucky enough to consult on) to their well-loved operation at 6th Avenue and 7th Street. Arguably the most production-keen coffee bean buyers in town, their move to mezcal and natural wine was logical enough. Single origin coffee, natural wine, and artisanal mezcal all celebrate regional diversity, seasonal variability, and traditional processes: they are the archetypal transmitters of terroir. Consuming these, we are not seeking satiation from a commodity; rather, we are seeking the unknown from a product of traditional craftsmanship. In the former, terroir is masked, origins are obscured, character is diluted and standardized. In the latter, terroir is worn like dog tags: I am like recently cracked rocks (see below), a product of wild fermentation.
Insofar as EXO’s new pop-up bar is a natural extension of the Smiths’ interest in coffee, it is also a thoughtful extension of Tucson’s latent mezcal culture, rooted in downtown establishments like Penca (where manager Bryan Eichhorst’s years of proselytizing have laid a small but true foundation of agave connoisseurship: ‘semi-cultivated Tobalá,’ ‘hybrid arabic-filipino still,’ and ‘olla de barro,’ are not unheard of terms in downtown’s small enclave of agave fanaticism).
Alongside its extensive and expertly curated selection of mezcals, EXO is serving evening-oriented small plates. The local foods based items, ranging from tepary bean hummus to local chorizo and roasted squash, have a right-time-right-place feeling. If this cuisine is any evidence of a larger trend, Tucson has arrived at a place where local sourcing is viable and deliciousness is not compromised. A tremendous amount of will, intent, and expertise lies behind the simple menu and, on many levels, it is a joy to explore. Bridging the coffee/mezcal divide are ‘carajillos,’ regional espresso and spirit pairings classic to many South American countries but relatively unknown in the United States. Had I a hankering for this speedball-styled caffeine and alcohol concoction, EXO is the place to get it.
The EXO bar is open from 5 to 10 p.m. (or later) Thursday through Sunday, and for brunch on the weekends. Amy Smith’s deep roots in the Tucson music scene have translated into a stellar program of upcoming shows in the space—of course artisan mezcal, fancy espresso, and natural wine are great, but if anyone is wondering what has made Tucson a singular and profound place for much longer than the recent foodie can remember, much of it can be found in the local music scene.
Tastes are hard to describe. Our words often feel too small and static compared to the experience of capacious sensory engagement. In the few places where we are forced beyond the generic ‘sweet, salty, spicy’ paradigm, as we are when tasting wine or spirits, language gets weird and narrative: tasting notes have the bizarre ability to get evermore abstract in their very specificity. “Recently cracked rocks,” explained Amy Smith of EXO Roast Co., reading a tasting note attached to a bottle of artisan mezcal, is a good example of this—a simultaneously absurd and, on a another level, rather moving attempt to describe a sensory encounter so specific that it is doubtful anyone has actually encountered it outside of, say, frackers and free climbers. And yet, there is a connotative universe here to consider—a universe which reveals itself as experience rather than taste per se. Recently cracked rocks remind me of dust, combustion, gunpowder, (combusted gunpowder), flint, Cormac Mccarthy, blood and iron, chalky violence, petrichor, something unchewable. Something intriguing but also scary. A moment of impossibly concentrated sensory input—the breaking of something enduring. What we encounter, and what we’re trying to describe, is wonder and the wondrous. Mezcal leads us here, the language of terroir forms the basis of this inquiry. Indeed wine and coffee and mezcal are the things that we taste to remind us that experience is not a sum of sensory parts—an object comprised of a perceived shape, an odor, a texture—but something memorable, dynamic, ultimately ineffable but contoured by language. Those interested in exploring the language of terroir further should keep an eye out for upcoming tastings posted to EXO’s facebook page.
EXO Roast Co.
403 N. 6th Avenue
Header image by Laura Horley.