OPINION: Live like a Mexican for Day of the Dead

184 hackney road

tom blayTom Blay, agave enthusiast and bar manager at east London mezcaleria 184 Hackney Road (pictured), on celebrating Day of the Dead with mezcal

With numerous mezcal bars popping up to complement the surging trend of Mexican food, it becomes increasingly important to offer something extra for your knowledgeable customers. Our continual aim at Coriander is to sell an experience, but that selling point could be inspired by experience.

Starting on October 31, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is the perfect chance to push and promote Mexican agave-based products. It is a vibrant and colourful time of the year shrouded by the veil that is death. In our culture, the imagery is a fashion statement while the Catrina image has become the Halloween fancy dress of choice for the fervid fashionista.

It is a time of year when Mexicans celebrate the lives of those who have died. Graveyards transform into places of beauty that are lit by the flickering lights of thousands of candles as mariachi bands create a shrill, erratic soundtrack during this most sociable and uplifting mezcal-fuelled time and place.

In Britain, bars of note are stocking good-quality tequilas while premium mezcals are also becoming visibly more common. These factors combine to give anyone from any bar with an acceptable array of tequilas, mezcals and Margaritas the opportunity to create a Dia de los Muertos-themed atmosphere.

I was lucky enough to spend Dia de los Muertos in and around the city of Oaxaca in Mexico. It is the kind of city that is busy without having the hustle of Mexico City. It conjures up memories of nearby ruins and arid countryside surrounding the beautiful architecture built by the conquistadors. Mezcal can only be produced in the state of Oaxaca and a visitor here is offered plenty of options. Take a visitor tour to a nearby distillery and watch a sad-looking donkey turn a wheel to crush agave pinas, or stay in the centre and head to a shiny bar with hundreds of mezcals.

My recommendation is to befriend a local and let them take you to a backstreet cantina where the serious world of sipping mezcal takes place. Let them do the talking as they bang on the shutters and once you are in take a seat and sample everything that is put in front of you. If you can remember the one you liked by the time you leave, you have probably been doing it wrong.

During Dia de los Muertos, beautiful altars pop up everywhere across Mexico, including in bars and at restaurants. The altars are decorated with flowers, photographs and offerings – these could be a particular beer or brand of mezcal.

It is a tradition that is in no way morbid and one that can be replicated easily in a bar or restaurant. However, it is important to understand what everything symbolises and to do it in a way that respects the beauty and the quality of the way it is done in Mexico. Sit and sip around an altar, encourage people to visit it, learn about the tradition, engage interested customers and get a feel of Dia de los Muertos.

Originally published in print in the October 2014 issue of Bar magazine

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