SMWS BRANCH & PARTNER BAR
New friends in Mexico City
The SMWS has officially opened its first branch in Latin America, under the guiding hands of Hardey Martínez León and Katri Walker in Mexico. The couple, originally from Colombia and Scotland, are bringing the Society’s offering to Mexico City through their own bar, Salón Rosario. Unfiltered caught up with Hardey and Katri to find out more about their background, their passion for artisanal spirits and their plans to bring single cask and single malt whisky to Mexico
Tell us about your backgrounds and how you got into whisky?
Hardey: Thanks to my work with mezcal I’ve developed a deep affinity with spirits. Like many people’s whisky journeys, I started out with commercial blends and little by little started discovering the world of single malts.
During my first trip to Scotland in 2012 I was lucky enough to visit The Vaults and sample a couple of Society bottlings. After that experience, I got involved with whisky clubs in Mexico and began to participate in tastings and other activities. On my most recent visit to Scotland in 2019, we started talking about bringing SMWS to Mexico.
Katri: My background is pure osmosis! Having been born and grown up in Edinburgh and studied in Glasgow, as with anyone living in Scotland, whisky was just part of life – but my route to a closer connection to it was through Hardey’s mezcal producing company, Gente de Mezcal, in Mexico.
Shortly after moving to Mexico in 2010, he fell in love with mezcal and after his first visit to Scotland with me in 2012, he fell in love with whisky. I learned to appreciate whisky after having learned to drink mezcal, thanks to him.
For me, it became about discovering a world that I’d grown up surrounded by but knew very little about, so it’s been a pretty emotional and exciting experience so far. I’m a Visual Artist and Documentary Filmmaker, so storytelling is a big part of my professional life. The history of whisky is full of fascinating stories and for me personally, that’s the most interesting aspect and what we plan to seduce Mexico with!
What parallels do you see between the worlds of mezcal and whisky?
Hardey: The first meeting point between these two worlds lies in the complex, fascinating and varied notes that you find in them, there’s such a huge range of flavours within each spirit. Then there’s a kind of poetic, parallel opposition between them – while whisky of course acquires its age and complexity through its years in the barrel, the most important characteristics of mezcal develop during the agave’s life. The age of the spirit is determined by the age of the plant when it’s harvested, at its point of maximum maturity, which in some cases is over 20 years. Other parallels between the two are their humble beginnings and the cultural and historical relevance they each hold in their respective countries today; both are national drinks, each have a designation of origin and both are internationally recognised symbols of their nations.
What inspired you to bring the SMWS concept to Mexico?
Hardey: It was the romantic notion of exchanging the best of Mexico with the best of Scotland! We ship our mezcal to the UK via sailboat, as part of our mission to be as sustainable and environmentally-friendly as possible. The sailboat then returns to Mexico loaded with the finest Scotch whisky, it’s the perfect swap! We set up our own export/import company called Señor León Artisanal World Spirits in homage to my grandad, Aristóbulo León. He was an artisan but in a different trade, a carpenter and upholsterer, and his essence and work ethic have been a great inspiration to me my whole life. Throughout the process, we've had brilliant support from people close to us, like Mr Walker, my Father-in-law, who’s believed in this endeavour since day one and Katri’s Mum, Marjut, and Stepdad, Andrew, who as SMWS members themselves, invited us to The Vaults back in 2012 and helped us make our very first connections with the Society. So when we decided to do the whole import/export process ourselves, and to set up our bar, SMWS was of course number one on our wish list. The whole thing has been a bit of a family affair!
Where did the concept for Salón Rosario come from?
Katri: Salón Rosario is a blend of intertwined dreams and ideas. First and foremost it’s a dedicated spirits lounge specialising in Scotch whisky, mezcal and gin. We put our heart and soul into the remodelling process, designing every detail ourselves, scouring antique shops for lighting, picking up crystal glasses at street stalls, my dad even donated some family heirlooms to the cause including a beautiful pair of lithographies based on Turner paintings of Scottish landscapes.
With regard to the name, historically in Mexico, women weren’t allowed to enter traditional cantinas, sometimes there were little separate family rooms provided for them, so we felt it would be significant to name the bar after a woman. Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) was a writer and poet and is widely considered to be Mexico’s first feminist. I really love her writing and was reading an anthology of her poetry while we were remodelling – she just seemed the perfect fit. We have a little gold-framed portrait of her in the entrance.
Hardey: We wanted to create a bespoke space dedicated to the purest spirits. A unique venue in which, in addition to Gente de Mezcal’s exclusive productions, we could offer artisanal spirits from local producers from different parts of the world.
Our idea was to place the spirits at the very centre and to design the food menu around them to create special tastings and pairings to help tell the stories behind every drink. We operate by appointment only and predominantly host private groups and events. We decided on this approach to be able to create intimate experiences in which people spend significant amounts of time with us, in which they have an opportunity to learn about all the products we have. We don’t have any exterior signage so we don’t get footfall from the street. When people come to us we want them to feel they’re visiting a friend, we want them to stay a while, to feel at home. We’ve used this same approach to grow our mezcal business and it’s one we’re really committed to.
Tell us about the design and layout of the bar
Hardey: Salón Rosario is a combination of a traditional Mexican ‘salón’ and the essence of a Scottish whisky bar. Dark wood, dark blue, touches of gold and art deco details are the foundation of the interior design. We have two main spaces, the Bar and the Lounge, which gives us a lot of flexibility for events. All this is contained within a neo-classical Parisian-style building, considered part of the city's architectural heritage and located in one of the most classical and popular neighbourhoods, Colonia Roma Norte.
What about the drinks collection?
Hardey: With regard to agave-based spirits, we have our own Gente de Mezcal productions as well as other mezcals (Sotol, Raicilla, Bacanora) from artisan producers across northern regions of the country. We also recently added some artisanal tequilas from the Jalisco valley. As for whiskies, with the idea of offering a wide variety from different regions, distilleries and bottlers, we have our selection of around 65 different single malt bottlings from those that are available on the national market. In the single cask category we of course have our SMWS bottlings and we are looking to expand our gin collection, with bottlings from the Mexican market as well as imports directly from Scotland.
How many SMWS bottlings do you expect to have at any one time?
Katri: We plan to grow our collection slowly but surely. For our launch, we have 12 expressions which span most of the Society’s flavour profiles. During 2022 we plan to at least double this and will aim to always have a selection of around 30 expressions available at any one time.
What does being an SMWS partner bar and branch mean to you?
Hardey: For us the SMWS is a unique, valuable and inspiring concept, it’s also been one of our main points of reference regarding what we want to do with our mezcal company. To be able to represent the Society in Mexico, to be part of the organisation, is a dream that we’ve been pursuing for years, so it feels very special that we’ve finally managed to achieve it.
We’re extremely proud to be the first partner bar in Latin America and we hope that it’s the first of many, across the rest of the continent!
What kind of reaction have you had so far to the SMWS bottlings?
Katri: Although Mexico is a huge international whisky market, it’s dominated by blends. Single cask whiskies are significantly less common, in fact you’d be hard pushed to find one in a regular spirits store or even in a whisky bar. So far, it’s been word of mouth the SMWS in Mexico which we love because the effect is magical!
For those who have been lucky enough to try some of our bottlings so far, we’ve had fantastic reactions. Mexican whisky enthusiasts are excited about what we’ll be offering and are keen to join the SMWS community.
How would you describe the ‘whisky scene’ in general in Mexico?
Hardey: As we mentioned, whisky is a huge industry in Mexico but that’s down to the blends. As a category, it’s second in line after tequila. However, thanks to the combined efforts of large import and distribution companies, enthusiasts and whisky lovers in Mexico, whisky groups and clubs have popped up over the last couple of years through which tastings and pairings are being offered and great information is being shared. Because of this, the horizons and possibilities of single malts, and single casks, in Mexico are expanding.
Also, in addition to finding a greater variety of Scotch whisky, it’s also getting easier to get hold of Irish whiskey, Japanese, French, and even some Mexican whiskies! We hope to be at the centre of this growing market.