In Oaxaca, Mexico, just about everyone you meet makes art. But drive out to the Sierra Madre a few hours outside the state capital and you'll find people making something quite different: mezcal. One is said to fuel the other. It's a drink with an ancient history and spiritual roots—and no worm at the bottom of the bottle, contrary to what you may have knocked back in Tijuana.
Like tequila, mezcal is distilled from the agave plant. But unlike tequila, traditional mezcal is made with no machines, no electricity. It’s crafted in rustic facilities using ancient tools powered by men or beasts of burden. Most of it never makes its way beyond the tiny mountain villages where it’s produced. On a dazzling weekday afternoon, I found myself in one such village, called San Luis del Río. A half-day’s trek into the mountains, the 500-person settlement clings to the hillside at some 8,000 feet in elevation and overlooks craggy peaks beyond.
Abel Nolasco Velasco, a local mezcalero there, showed me around his open-air distillery, called a palenque. Next to a pristine creek, a mound of piñas—the pineapple-like heart of the agave plant—were roasting in a pit dug into the ground. In a couple days, they would be ready to crush in the tahona, a traditional stone mill hauled by a mule. Next, the agave juices would be collected and fermented naturally in open wooden tanks. After days or weeks, depending on the weather, the fermented mash would be distilled in small copper pot stills. Abel poured me a taste of a mezcal he’d recently finished. We sipped it beneath the trees as the mule snorted his nonchalance nearby.