I have to start off with what I’ve been putting out all month here in Mexico:
I fucking love mezcal.
I do. There’s something so incredibly smoky and magical about this spirit. To me, it makes every drink it’s included in taste like a glorious campfire, no matter if it’s mixed with something fruity or fresh or salty or whatever. I’ve tried it every way with everything, including sipping it while munching on cooked grasshoppers (a fantastic combination, by the way). It never ceases to surprise me with it’s depth and versatility.
But now that I’ve been drinking mezcal all over Mexico for the past several weeks alongside other travelers, I recognize that it isn’t for everyone. For one, it can be very strong when sipped on it’s own. One of the lovely ladies in my group compared it to lighter fluid. I get it, I really do. It’s hearty. It burns on the way down.
But hey, it’s liquor. That’s kind of the point.
In Oaxaca, both the production and drinking of mezcal is considered an art form. There are mezcalerias dotted around town and the area surrounding the city is chock full of mezcal factories and agave fields.
I steered our group to a mezcaleria called Mezcaloteca for a tasting as soon as we rolled into town. For 180 pesos (about $10 USD), we were given three different mezcals to sample, along with a booklet explaining how to determine the quality of mezcal before buying it.
The bartender walked us through the alcohol content required of a “true” mezcal (45 proof!) and showed us how to test the purity by shaking the bottle to make fizzy pearls appear at the top. He told us to avoid flavored or aged mezcals, because they weren’t made in the proper traditional way.
The bartender, who I decided was some kind of mezcal purist, also explained that the special stuff is made from burning and then fermenting the agave plant. Actually, it can be made from dozens of different types of agave plants. Tequila, in fact, is a type of mezcal that is made solely from the blue agave plant. Using any other type of agave results in mezcal, which explains the endless variations of it that exist.
I enjoyed sipping the shots and noting the differences in the tastes of each one, but even I was struggling to drink it straight up. Sipping mezcal definitely isn’t for the faint of heart!
The following day, we visited a mezcal factory just outside of the city in order to see firsthand how the smoky magic is made.
First, agave plants that have matured over an average of 7 years are harvested. The spiky leaves are cut off leaving just the core, or piña. The piñas are stacked in a mound or in a large hole in the ground, where they are covered with earth and then burned (hence the smoky magic).
Afterwards, the smoked piñas are crushed by a giant stone wheel pulled by a donkey. The crushed pieces are then put in a giant tub with pure spring water and left to ferment. When the mezcal is properly fermented, it is distilled and then bottled for distribution.
We were treated to yet another tasting (I was in heaven at this point!) where we were able to try over a dozen different kinds of mezcal. We were given orange slices and a chili/salt mixture to dip them in, which were meant to be tasted between each mezcal. Also served were the cooked grasshoppers I mentioned earlier – yum! They tasted like tiny, spicy potato chips. I may have over-indulged in both the mezcal and grasshoppers. Who else can say that?
We tried two different mezcals that supposedly cause hallucinations if you drink enough of them. My ears perked up when the guide told us this, and I purchased a bottle to test this theory later on in Playa (sorry Mom).
We also tried creme mezcals flavored with different fruits, which were crowd favorites. They were like liquors, low in alcohol content and very sweet. I thought of the purist bartender at Mezcaloteca, who would probably be judging us for enjoying such debasement of his honorable drink. But who cares? I bought a bottle of the guayaba flavor to drink on the beach. It was too good to pass up!