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.  

By Chantal Martineau
Updated May 23, 2017
Mezcal in Oaxaca
Credit: © Chantal Martineau

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.

Mezcal is now gaining a cultish following beyond Mexico. But much of what gets exported is made to cater to the American or European palate. It tends to be diluted with distilled water to soften the proof, which also tames the wilder flavors. Traditional mezcal is enjoyed as it comes off the still. It may reach well over 100 proof and the flavors can be intense—vegetal, spicy, savory, and almost always powerfully aromatic. Thanks to a few diehard proponents of the spirit, decamping to the Sierra is no longer the only way to taste this traditional mezcal. A growing number of mezcalerías in Oaxaca City serve spirits that otherwise might never get bottled and aren’t sold elsewhere. The owners of these establishments travel out to the palenques themselves and buy whatever they can carry back to bottle and sell in their bars. They are the gatekeepers of traditional mezcal, sharing their personal collections with whoever bellies up.

Meet the gatekeepers:

Silvia Philion and Marco Ochoa’s reservations-only tasting room is quiet with dim lighting emitted from sober desk lamps. Shelves are stocked with bottles each bearing one of 60 different mezcaleros’ names, plus detailed information about the agave variety and how it was fermented and distilled. "The mezcal must have a historic taste," says Philion, “which means that it’s what the people in the villages drink." One of the spirits she pours has the unmistakable tang of cow hide. Wine lovers call this quality "barnyard." And right there on the label is the explanation: the agave was fermented in leather.
Reforma #506; +52 951 514 0082

In Situ
True mezcal-heads forgo the tables and chairs upstairs and instead crowd around the tiny ground-floor bar area. Behind the bar Ulises Torrentera, a man with an owlish face and a mop of messy curls, holds court. He’s just as happy to sell you a copita of mezcal as he is to sell you one of the books he’s written on the topic. Torrentera’s collection of some 180 bottles, many labeled in his own unfancy scrawl, includes a mezcal made from a wild agave variety called tepextate. The plant can take 25 years to reach maturity, so the mezcal made from it is especially precious. This one was distilled in a clay and copper pot still. The spirit is candied and perfumed, recalling marshmallows soaked in rosewater.
Morelos #511; +52 951 514 1811

La Porfiria
In Oaxaca, mezcal is typically sipped with fresh orange wedges sprinkled with sal de gusano, or worm salt, a smoky blend of crushed rock salt, dried chilies and moth larvae––the very "worm" that floats at the bottom of a bottle of cheap mezcal. At La Porfiria, sal de guano is paired with another Oaxaca staple, chapulines: grasshoppers toasted with lime, chili and salt. Patrons sip and snack on these like they’re spiced nuts as they taste through the house mezcales, several of which come from Santo Domingo Albarradas, a village with a lush, tropical climate compared to the dry, rocky landscape of the rest of mezcal country.
Porfirio Díaz #907; +52 951 221 2539

Los Amantes
The square footage can’t be more than 200, but on a busy night Los Amantes heaves with dozens of patrons. Locals and tourists alike flock to this tiny boîte, where mezcal newbies can get a primer from León, the long-haired bartender, as he carries on a conversation at top volume with a mezcal maker several bodies deep in the crowd. Many of the mezcales here can be purchased commercially and are even exported; they all hail from the owners’ distillery. But León seems to always have some limited edition spirit on hand… something special to keep the regulars on their toes.
Allende #107, +52 951 501 0687

La Pitiona is not a mezcalería, but rather an airy, light-filled restaurant serving ambitious contemporary Mexican dishes optionally paired with mezcal. The chef and owner, José Manuel Baños, who worked at El Bulli and Arzak in Spain, offers traditional mezcal service with a twist. In addition to housemade sal de gusano, it comes with sal de chapulín and sal de chicatana (flying ants!). The mezcal list includes brands available outside of Mexico, as well as offerings from some of the mezcalerías in town that source their own spirits, like Mezcaloteca. Try a pechuga, a mezcal distilled with a whole chicken breast, heirloom fruits and nuts, and which seems made to be paired with a meal.
Allende 108; +52 951 514 0690