Ned Beauman, The Guardian, November 2, 2015
It’s late morning 20 miles outside the city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, and I’m staring at what looks like a meteor crater filled with giant pine cones. The cones – from the agave plant – are still warm to the touch, and there’s a sweet smell in the air, like pineapple and caramel. The crater looks like something prehistoric, almost primordial, but it is, in fact, an agave oven, used to make mezcal – the drink sometimes called tequila’s father – and I’m on a day-long mezcal tour to find out more about it.
A few years ago, relatively few people in the UK had tried mezcal, but gradually it has made its way into the booze aficionado’s repertoire, sometimes as a tipple on its own, sometimes as a base for cocktails. Dedicated mezcal bars have popped up in London recently, in fashionable but edgy Dalston (at appointment-only boutique LN-CC) or in plusher Fitzrovia (at Mezcalería, above the Charlotte Street branch of the Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca).
Bottles of mezcal on sale at a market. Photograph: Alamy
But for the real deal, the state of Oaxaca – and its capital city, also called Oaxaca – is the place to head. There are 2,000-3,000 palenques, or mezcal distilleries, in the state. Whereas tequila producers boil their agave hearts in hulking pressure cookers, mezcal producers roast theirs in fire pits. And whereas tequila must be made from the blue agave, mezcal can be made from dozens of rare agave varieties. Every distillery has its own terroir and methods, often passed down for generations from father to son. The result is a rainbow of tastes at least as varied as wine. And the vast majority of these palenques aren’t legally certified to export their product. So the only way to try some of the best mezcals on the planet is to drive out to the back of beyond and buy them at source.
Alvin Starkman, who runs Mezcal Educational Tours, is a genial Canadian expat who has spent the past 10 years building up not just an encyclopaedic knowledge of mezcal but also affectionate relationships with dozens of Oaxaca palenqueros.
Roasting agave hearts in a fire pit. Photograph: Mezcal Educational Tours
At the first of the four rural palenques we visit, he saunters over with a machete and hacks out a piece of the roast agave. It’s delicious. Over the course of the day I try mezcal that had been aged in the barrel for 10 years. I sample mezcal at 80% alcohol, and pechuga, which is made by hanging a raw chicken breast, skin removed, inside the still – said to balance the taste of the fruit that is also added.
Some mezcals are smoky and tough, others are as herbaceous as a vermouth, but the quality is so high that they all go down surprisingly easily, even the higher proofs. And if I had wanted to buy any of these mezcals – for about a tenth of what they would cost outside Mexico – Starkman would have negotiated the purchase and then decanted the alcohol into a bottle that could pass unchallenged through Mexican customs at the airport.
Agave plants in Oaxaca province. Photograph: Rex
Those who don’t want to leave the city itself – an absurdly pleasant, walkable place known for outstanding street food – don’t need to. Mezcal is everywhere. In the square outside the Basilica de la Soledad, you can buy mezcal sorbets; at the Mercado de Abastos you can take a chance on gut-rot mezcal sold in jerrycans by roaming vendors; and at the annual Noche de Rábanos – one of the world’s strangest Christmas festivals – you can admire elaborate scale models of mezcal palenques carved out of nothing but radishes. There’s a new wave of bars dedicated to the drink too: Mezcaloteca, Los Amantes, Cuish and In Situ. In the last of these I meet Susan Coss, one of the founders of website mezcalistas.com. Coss grew up in West Virginia and remembers driving around with her grandfather as he bought moonshine in jugs, so it doesn’t faze her to drink mezcal that’s been distilled in, say, cow hide or an old radiator.
Bottles of mezcal and other spirits on sale in a shop. Photograph: Alamy
In Situ, though reminiscent of a Brooklyn bar in both decor and clientele, is also a bit of a clubhouse for the mezcal industry and has more than 200 varieties behind the bar, ready to be drunk neat out of clay cups.
We chat to Edgar Gonzalez-Ramirez, a distiller whose microbusiness, Mezcal Tosba, was the subject of a US documentary on NPR’s Planet Money. Called Can Mezcal Save a Village?, it looked at whether homemade liquor could help revive a local economy. Gonzalez-Ramirez spent several years working in the kitchens of Italian restaurants in the US before he came back to Oaxaca, and claims the respect for ingredients in Italian food was the perfect preparation for learning to make mezcal.
The three of us drank a toast with a verdant Mezcal Toba made from the tobala strain of agave, and I confided that the world of mezcal seemed so fathomlessly complex that I felt I would never be anything more than an amateur. “Oh yes, it’s very difficult,” said In Situ’s owner Sandra Ortiz Brena. “With mezcal, no one is an expert.”
• Mezcal Educational Excursions charges $180 for a seven-hour tour, including tastings, water and snacks
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Ned Beauman from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.