Working in the service industry since age 15, Lane Harlan tried a lot of jobs before finding one that fit just right. “Once I got behind the bar, it suddenly felt like I was doing something creative,” recalls the Baltimore bartender and founder of cocktail spots W.C. Harlan and Clavel Mezcalería.
After moving to Baltimore for college and quickly climbing the local service industry ladder, Harlan landed a job running the bar at the now-closed Jack’s Bistro. “I started watching Jamie Boudreau videos on YouTube—to this day I’ve never met the guy—but there was nobody in this little place to say, ‘This is proper cocktail technique’ or ‘This is how you build a classic cocktail.’ ” At Jack’s, Lane worked on perfecting the basics and quickly amassed a sizable following at the bar. But the travel bug soon hit, and Harlan, who had studied French in college, decided to spend a few years abroad. Then, in 2013, inspired by the bars and restaurants she had frequented in France, she returned to Baltimore and opened W.C. Harlan—a cozy classic-cocktail bar—with her musician husband. For the first six months, she bartended every night. “It was like, ‘Okay, now I have carpal tunnel, and I’m sleeping on a blow-up mattress on the edge of town,’ ” says Harlan. Needing a break, she and her husband booked tickets to Oaxaca.
Located in southwestern Mexico hugging the Pacific Ocean, Oaxaca is a hub for mezcal production, something Harlan knew little about. Their hotel happened to be located around the corner from In Situ Mezcalería, an operation owned by local author and mezcal expert, Ulises Torrentera. Harlan was fascinated by Torrentera’s presentation of the spirit, which highlighted different agave species and the regions where the spirit is produced. “All of the sudden I was in a library of mezcal and able to check out any book I wanted and spend time with it and ask questions; I completely geeked out,” she says.
Harlan returned to Baltimore with a bottle of mezcal she’d packed in her suitcase, and she started sharing her excitement about the spirit with W.C. Harlan’s patrons. And then she set out to find mezcal locally to purchase and stock. “I started talking to my reps, looking at what we had,” she says. “We could get nothing.” Harlan took matters into her own hands, traveling to Washington, D.C., and New York to find brands like Pierde Almas and Vago. This pursuit was the genesis for Clavel, the mezcal bar she opened in 2015. “I needed a platform to be able to share the spirit with people in a way that wasn’t like, ‘Here’s a cocktail with mezcal—it’s smoky,’ ” she says.
At Clavel, Harlan largely offers mezcal from mezcaleros in Oaxaca whom she has personally visited and developed relationships with. The menu features around 50 bottles of mezcal and 30 destilados (mezcal that can’t be labeled as such because it doesn’t export under the restrictive guidelines for the spirit) as well as flights and a mix of creative cocktails. On the food side, Clavel’s chef and part-owner Carlos Raba serves inventive plates inspired by the Sinaloa region of Northwest Mexico and made with ingredients that are local to Baltimore but also pay homage to traditional Mexican cooking. The restaurant also includes a private six-seat bar, which offers special mezcal tastings and donates a percentage of earnings to the Tequila Interchange Project, an organization that advocates for the preservation of quality practices for agave-distilled spirits.
With America’s interest in mezcal growing quickly, Harlan feels a responsibility to educate her customers about the spirit’s past. “It’s an honor to talk about tradition and be a part of protecting these traditions,” she says. “I feel like by educating people and talking about all of the beautiful things that the Tequila Interchange Project is doing, I’m hopefully becoming a bright link in the whole chain.”
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