The Mexican state of Oaxaca is the capital of mezcal, one of the world’s most complex and misunderstood liquors. Most know that it’s made from the agave plant, just like Tequila, but Tequila is just one type of mezcal, produced in only approved regions and only from the agave tequilana Weber species.
By comparison, mezcal can be made from about three dozen other agave species, from the squat Tobala to the Joshua tree-like Karwinskii. That allows flavors to vary widely, from smoky and honeyed to peppery and grassy.
Aside from the easy-to-cultivate espadín species, the bulk of those agave species are only found in the wild and often take well more than 10 years to reach maturity.
That scarcity contributes to mezcal’s fast-rising popularity across today’s craft-craving world, but it also puts sustainability and authenticity at the forefront for artisanal, multigenerational producers across Mexico.
Whether you merely stick to the quaint streets of its colorful cityscape or venture to village mezcalerías in the countryside, Oaxaca represents a crash course in all things mezcal. It’s served to amp up Oaxaca’s culinary scene, as tasting menus and extensive wine lists are easy to find.
Your first lesson is at La Mezcaloteca, across the street from Oaxaca City’s sprawling botanic garden. There, bizarre plants that seem ripped from a Dr. Seuss book thrive, including several varieties of agave. The region’s extreme biodiversity, aided by climates that range from high desert to tropical, is key to mezcal, even though the drink’s history started further to the north.
“Oaxaca is the most important region for agave because we have more varieties here than in all of Mexico,” says Moises Avila, a tasting room associate at Mezcaloteca. He says that 80% of fermentable species come from his home state.
Avila pours mezcals in front of a library-like wall of bottles, each labeled with the name of the mezcalero who made the spirit. Also listed are alcohol levels (always above 45% abv in artisanal mezcals), the type of agave used, where it’s grown and when it was bottled.
Mezcaloteca also functions as a négociant operation. Its agents explore the countryside in search of family-owned brands to bottle and sell. A visit to Mezcaloteca is an educational experience, complete with maps, reference books, visual aids and knowledgeable servers.
Less than a 10-minute walk away, past the church spires of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Los Amantes exists somewhere between a bar and tasting room. It serves its own mezcal sourced from around the region, but the vibe, especially at night, gets a bit more loose. In Situ Mezcalería is another favorite for locals and tourists. Its proprietor, Ulises Torrentera, is known to track down mezcals from the rarest of agaves.
Your advanced assignment is to visit at actual mezcalería. Head to the village of Santiago Matatlán, a mezcal hub about an hour from downtown Oaxaca City. It’s home to Macurichos, a 55-year-old, family-owned operation. There, you’ll find a peacock named Kevin that meanders over a steaming pile of earth, under which sits seven tons of roasting agave cores.
Try the cooked agave flesh, which tastes somewhere between sugarcane and sweet potato, with a honeyed flavor. From there, examine the two systems at work: the artesanal method, which uses a copper still, and the ancestral version, which employs clay pots and bamboo pipes.
There are four brands to sample, from traditional, high-octane versions to more exotic styles flavored with cocoa or, in the pechuga style, in which raw turkey or rabbit meat are steamed above the distilling spirit.
Mezcal needn’t only be enjoyed straight. Its shapeshifting ability adds infinite nuances to cocktails and has fostered a thrilling mixology scene in downtown Oaxaca.
Sabina Sabe sits at the forefront. Walls that alternate from bright green to exposed brick hold tightly packed shelves of liquor that include rare Oaxacan corn whiskey. Bartenders mix refreshing drinks like the minty Pequeño Gigante, with mezcal, cucumber, hoja santa and ginger beer, and the deep-red Jamaicon, which contains mezcal, Ancho Reyes and cinnamon/ancho chili-laced hibiscus juice.
Pair such concoctions with dishes like potato and huitlacoche gratin in guajillo adobo, or blue corn ravioli with Oaxacan ricotta and grasshopper sauce.
Restaurants are also big players in the mezcal mixology realm. Origen is a quiet, calm upstairs space where Chef Rodolfo Castellanos prepares modernized Oaxacan cuisine. A multicourse meal can begin with a tangy, savory, hoja santa-flecked mezcal sour, unless you choose a straight sip from a sprawling menu.
Grab a rooftop table at the legendary Casa Oaxaca, considered to be the temple for classic regional dishes, prepared by Chef Alejandro Ruiz. Try the Pulquencio, a mixture of hibiscus, mezcal, lime and pulque (fermented agave sap) served in a modest tin mug.
More than Mezcal
Despite the local mezcal boom of the past decade, there’s much more to Oaxaca’s beverage scene. Globally respected restaurants like Enrique Olvera’s Criollo place Mexican wine on a pedestal. Multiple prix fixe courses of revelatory fare recently included simple yet perfect guacamole tacos, soft-shell crab with corn donuts, and lemongrass ice with mezcal-pickled mango. Enjoy them as you sip on bubbles from Baja, Chenin Blanc from Queretaro and Grenache Blanc from Aguascalientes.
At Origen, affordably priced house wines include a Sauvignon Blanc and a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre and more, all from Valle de Guadalupe.
Like everywhere else in the Americas, craft brew is on the rise in Oaxaca. Santísima Flor de Lúpulo, which translates roughly to “holy hop flower,” is the dimly lit space that leads the downtown pack. It offers a pale ale, white IPA and a porter among other often-rotating flavors. Enjoy a flight of three for about $5 as Del the Funky Homosapien plays on speaker.
Just one block away from Itanoní Tortillería y Antojería, the rustic, open-fire kitchen beloved by Alice Waters and other renowned chefs, is Consejo Cervecero. Located in a comfortable indoor/outdoor space with a burger-focused menu, this brewery serves housemade blondes, stouts, and IPAs alongside other beers from across Mexico.
These beers are on the right path, but once Oaxacan brewers embrace the vast array of local fruits and herbs, the city’s suds scene will leap to another level. Even mezcal might have to watch its back.
About the Author MATT KETTMANN@mattkettmann
Reviews wines from California.
A fifth-generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.
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