Want to get our stories Straight to your inbox (see what we did there)? Sign up for our newsletter here.
As endlessly beautiful as life is in Mexico’s sun-drenched beach community of Zipolite, Dani Tatarin happily admits she’s had to make adjustments since first arriving in 2019.
“The advantage of living in a small little beach town is that it forces you to slow down,” says the West Coast-famous bartender, interviewed at her Zipolite mezcaleria Gota Gorda on an oven-hot afternoon on the Oaxacan coast. “You come from Vancouver, a bigger city, and you’re used to a certain pace of things—whoever you are working with is always on city time. Here, you’re on beach time, which is like island time.”
Vancouver cocktail aficionados know Tatarin as the visionary who helped set up, and then run, the award-winning, internationally recognized Keefer Bar in Chinatown. Today, her career path has landed her in a place that’s all swaying palm trees, charming dusty roads, and a beach that’s as popular with locals as it is with tourists. Running a bar in a spot that’s a lot like heaven is the dream of every mixologist—professional or aspiring—on the planet, right? Tatarin isn’t going to disagree, noting that one of the great things about her adopted home is that she started to look at the world differently.
“It’s like mañana, mañana, which gets you stepping back, taking a little breather, and going ‘It’s going to happen when it’s going to happen,’” she says. “That’s forced me to be more relaxed, and in general just have a more chill attitude.”
In some ways that couldn’t be more appropriate for what Tatarin is doing at Gota Gorda, a spot that’s fiercely devoted to showcasing artisanal mezcal she sources herself from small Mexican producers.
“Really good mezcal is not something that’s rushed,” she notes. “It takes the tepextate 25 years to mature before they can even start the process of making it into a liquid. So tremendous patience is involved in harvesting mezcal, and making mezcal isn’t something that happens overnight.”
Tatarin first left Vancouver for Mexico to head up the cocktail program for Acre, a sustainability-focused bar and restaurant (co-owned by the Keefer’s Cameron Watt) located just outside of Los Cabos.
“The idea was that I wanted to do a tasting room that incorporated traditional Mexican spirits, but doing traditional Mexican drinks so it was kind of a different experience than you’d get anywhere else,” she says. “I became obsessed with learning about not just mezcal, but raicilla, bacanora—all these similar distillates that are traditional throughout Mexico. But Acre was such a big project. I wasn’t just doing the cocktails and the mezcal—I was also doing the hospitality program, and then I was the operations manager for a couple of years. It was really challenging.”
And so, perhaps because there’s no point being in paradise if you can’t kick back and enjoy it, Tatarin decided to strike out and do her own thing. Initially intending to take out a loan and go big with a place in Los Cabos, she eventually decided it might be smarter to keep things small, leading her to check out Zipolite at the end of 2019.
“Three days after being here I signed the lease, got the keys, and was like ‘I guess I’m moving to Zipolite,’ ” Tatarin says.
Unlike Vancouver, where liquor laws make setting up a bar endlessly challenging, getting Gota Gorda off the ground was relatively easy. Seventeen days after Tatarin officially moved to Zipolite to work on the space, the bar opened for business.
“After I got the keys,” she says. “I was like ‘What do I have to do to get a business license, and do I need an inspection?’ When a guy came, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, he was like ‘What are you going to do here?’ I answered, ‘Open a mezcaleria’. He said ‘Okay, turn the music down at 12:30’, then gave me a handwritten note. I paid him 2,000 pesos [Cad.$137], and that was the business license. And that was it. It was a really quick turn around,” Tatarin continues. “I had all I needed—the glasses and the mezcal—so I just needed to put some furniture in to make things look nice.”
Hitting a sweet spot between Architectural Digest-worthy industrial chic and traditional Oaxacan cantina, Gota Gorda is just a one-minute walk from Playa Zipolite, which boasts pristine sand and endlessly rolling waves, and—as the country’s only fully-sanctioned nude beach—a vibe that’s the epitome of bohemian. As idyllic as the town is, Tatarin has made some of her best memories hanging out with small-batch mezcal producers in often-remote places that most tourists will never see.
“I work with something like 10 different families in Oaxaca, and then some in other states,” Tatarin notes. “I don’t buy any mezcal where I haven’t met the family and then seen where it’s made. The process in every state is quite different, and also different based on the traditions of different families. Oaxacan mezcal—if you compare the process to Durango or San Luis Potosi—it’s going to be very different, from the plants to the terroir to the way that they ferment and distill it. So I have to be there and see what’s going on so I can explain that on the bottle, or to my staff selling it at the bar.”
Featured at Gota Gorda, and adjacent gift shop, are the different mezcal varietals sourced by Tatarin, all hand-bottled and artfully labelled on site. Of the opinion that all mezcals are created equal? An afternoon over flights at Gota Gorda will quickly shift that thinking, whether you’re sipping artisanal offerings like honey-kissed Cuixe Joven from mezcalero F. Garcia, or the sinfully smoky ancestral Tepextate Joven from L. Vasquez in the town of Sola De Vega.
Mezcal has become big business over the past decade, to the point where celebrities from LeBron James to Cheech Marin to Breaking Bad costars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are among those with their own lines.
“When I first came to Mexico and started learning about mezcal, there were maybe like 150 or 200 brands,” Tatarin says. “Now there’s something like 1,000. Anyone with money who wants a mezcal brand can buy one, and it’s seen as cool to have one. For me, that was never the thing. I fell in love with the product and I wanted to be able to share something that I felt was special. So the process isn’t just about slapping a label on something made in bulk in an industrialized process. It’s more about finding the people and the families who are making mezcal, and who’ve made it for hundreds of years. Then it’s about putting the mezcal in a package where no one goes, ‘We’re going to chug this.’ It’s really all about appreciating it.”
Kind of like the way that Tatarin is more than appreciating life in Zipolite. Living the dream? Absolutely.
“I miss Vancouver, and the places that I used to go to—the Keefer Bar, Chinatown, and Bao Bei, and all the places that I used to go to,” she says. “But I don’t even know if the city would be the same now that I’ve been away for a bit. For me, when I go back to cities now, it’s very much a culture shock. Living here in this little beach town, anytime you leave, it’s like going to the future where they have elevators and running hot water. So I miss cities, but then whenever you get to a city, it’s like, ‘Wow. This is a lot to process.’
“Here it’s all just laid-back,” Tatarin concludes. “I get up early in the morning to see the sun rise, and love the sunsets. You walk the beach with your dog and it’s a chill time. In Mexico beach places it’s not always like you have direct access to the beach. Zipolite isn’t like that. It is its own little vortex with its own special energy.”More