At Las Perlas, the mezcal flows -- without the worm

Long considered a sign of gut-rot authenticity to Americans, the worm creepily floating at the bottom of mezcal might have single-handedly prevented the liquor from making its crossover from Mexico. But it arrived earlier this month -- sans worm, or more accurately, larvae -- in the stylishly ramshackle form of Las Perlas, one of the latest outposts (along with rum bar Caña) in the empire of bar impresario Cedd Moses and his night-life development and management company, 213.

“We won’t be serving the swill with the worm -- ever,” Moses said.

The downtown cantina, across the street from Moses’ crown jewel, the tiny speak-easy Varnish, serves only the two spirits distilled from the agave plant, mezcal and tequila, along with a selection of Mexican cervezas and sodas. Currently, the bar is stocked with 26 varieties of handcrafted mezcal, with an additional dozen to arrive in late spring, and more than 80 tequilas.

Vodka vixens and whiskey sippers will have to go elsewhere -- like to Moses’ other mainstay, Seven Grand, which specializes in the amber liquor. With Las Perlas, Moses and business partner Mark Verge continue their product-driven trend.

Moses recalled the doubters who balked at the idea of Seven Grand. “I had people say to me, ‘What, are you going to fill the place with a bunch of old men?’ No one thought it would be as successful as it is now.”

In many ways, Las Perlas would seem to face an even tougher learning curve. Tequila, mostly mass-produced in Jalisco state, is a drinker’s old friend, but smoky mezcal, mostly produced in small batches in Oaxaca state, is still a mystery.

Las Perlas’ general manager, Raul Yrastorza, speaks fondly of a trip he took in February 2009 with the Las Perlas crew to remote Oaxacan villages to watch Zapotec farmers make mezcal. “You feel like you’ve gone to a moonshine still in the Catskills,” he said. “They use rudimentary tools, beasts of burden to crush the agave. Everything is done by hand.”

This rustic vibe is reflected in the bar’s décor from designer Ricky Kline, which feels like a dusty Mexico City watering hole you’d duck into off a side road. Different mezcal names -- like Tobala, which is from wild agave -- are painted on the creamy walls. Medicinal green bar shelves are stocked with hand-blown bottles, not to mention several taxidermied farm animals. Be sure to say hi to the baby goat named Chuy.

Las Perlas has already attracted a loyal crowd and some adventurous celebrities. In addition to Jessica Simpson and Hilary Duff stopping by last weekend, Yrastorza describes a steady flow of Mexico City hipsters, loft dwellers and elderly couples from Jalisco.

Part of the appeal is Food Network fan Yrastorza’s cocktail program, based on a battery of hand-crafted syrups (almond, lime, balsamic vinegar) and infusions, including a tequila batch with pineapple and hibiscus flowers.

The 400 Rabbits, named for one of the children of the goddess of the agave plant, is a stand-out concoction of muddled fresh blackberries, tequila and port wine syrup with edible flowers nestled in egg-white froth.

But as beautiful as Las Perlas’ drinks are, Yrastorza wanted to keep the service unfussy. “I didn’t want to hire a bunch of geeky celeb bartenders in ‘20s clothing,” he said.

Maybe it’s better to learn from the casual aficionado than the too-reverent master.

“It’s impossible not to have a passion for mezcal, once you know about it,” Moses said. “It’s amazing, crazy stuff.”