"Hasta que veas la cruz,” they say in Oaxaca, Mexico. Meaning, until you see the cross. This is not a figurative toast. Those who were drinking mezcal long before it became a trend use traditional copitas (small glasses that originally held prayer candles) with a cross etched into the bottom.
An ocean and a continent away, mezcal bar 400 Rabbits in Nottingham, England, has had its own mezcal-inspired religious awakening, unrelated to any Mexican-style Catholicism.
The Spirit of the Law
When the country’s COVID-19 regulations shuttered bars, restaurants and most every other venue in early 2020, religious organizations were allowed to stay open. So with places of worship within the law to allow people from the same household or bubble to enter, bar owner James Aspell received what could be called a message from on high: Turn 400 Rabbits the bar into The Church of the 400 Rabbits.
He filled out an application under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 and mailed it off. Today, the bar seeks congregants through its website, where there’s no charge to become a “Bunny Believer” (which includes a certificate). Or for ￡10 ($13.70), followers can be ordained as a Reverend of the Righteous Rabbits and receive a T-shirt.
Aspell is clear that he never had, nor has, any intention of opening amid a contagious pandemic but that he and his team were genuinely distressed by confusing guidelines on how to maintain their business safely. “It was meant to be a joke that came from a serious place,” he says. “The struggle of hospitality in sorting through the regulations has been crazy, so we did it mainly to highlight how targeted hospitality venues have felt.”
Devotion to Mezcal
The push by 400 Rabbits to become the region’s go-to venue for mezcal and tequila was harder than applying for the religious exemption but more fun. Aspell, who started tending bar in his teens, caught the mezcal bug when he attended a tasting of Del Maguey when it first arrived in England. “It blew my mind; it was unlike nothing I’d had,” he says. “From there, I vowed to hunt down every mezcal I could.”
He quickly learned his country was as clueless about mezcal as he had been. “Nobody knew what mezcal was,” says Aspell. “That’s what we wanted to change with 400 Rabbits.”
The name is borrowed from Aztec mythology that holds hundreds of drunken rabbit gods are the children of the goddess of alcohol, Mayahuel. (Depending on the source, the god of medicine, Patecatl, is sometimes also said to have been involved.) Each of the bunnies represents one way drinkers might experience intoxication.
When “400” first graced the storefront at 15-16 Hurts Yard in 2015, it gave the United Kingdom one of its first spots to focus exclusively on agave spirits. With audiences largely unfamiliar with mezcal and even tequila, Aspell and his team invested big in education. “We did loads of tastings and a lot of bartender training and talked to every person who walked in the door about mezcal,” he says. “When we started, teaching people was everything.”
Aspell admits the idea didn’t exactly take off. “The first year or two, it was a hard push for people to recognize what we were doing,” he says. “But a lot of hospitality people came in, and once they get into it, it filters to everybody else.”
His wife, Jennifer, directed things from behind the bar when they first launched. Then and now, she most enjoys sampling customers on a selection of mezcals they haven’t tried before. She gets so into the education element that some of her special tasting events (in non-COVID times) have lasted two hours. “I love educating people on how far it goes back and how much love and care go into it,” she says.
Those samples, served in handmade jicaras, draw from scores of different mezcals behind the bar. Meanwhile, bar manager Julian Latil oversees a dynamic cocktail list featuring drinks such as the Zazu, with sotol, Carpano aperitivo, Tekali almond liqueur, and lime and pineapple juices. “I like to use unexpected flavors,” he says. “But I want to keep the drinks approachable.”
Three years ago, James and Jennifer were out for a night on the town in Nottingham—which amid nonpandemic times is known for an impressive variety of independent bars and shops—when they decided it would be nice to extend their bar’s selection to include more producers. So they started a company called Casa Agave.
Pre-pandemic, they made a pilgrimage to Mexico’s palenques and distilleries every year. “Understanding more sources was a good excuse to go to Mexico,” says Jennifer. “It’s very much about supporting the families there.”
“We try as much mezcal as we can and bring in things we really like,” says James. “There’s so much to learn. Every [mezcal] is a new experience. That’s why I love it—you get something new out every time you drink it.”
As of late January 2021, The Church of the 400 Rabbits’ congregation has grown to more than 2,000 believers, who have registered from as far afield as New Zealand, Finland and Hong Kong. 400 Rabbits donates proceeds from participating reverends to Emmanuel House Support Centre Winter Appeal, a Nottingham homeless charity.
Meanwhile, Aspell and his team haven’t heard back about their application. But that hasn’t shaken their faith in mezcal.