The mezcal boom can be felt throughout Mexico, but Oaxaca still represents the mecca of the mezcal pilgrimage. From top-bartenders and bar owners to casual mezcal drinkers, people from all over the world now flock in Oaxaca to see the place that their favorite spirit first started from.
Mezcal used to be considered a boot-leg liquor, the moonshine of Mexico. The tequila-boom took all the attention as international exports skyrocketed leaving mezcal as a primarily local beverage. Now, tequila companies are looking to produce mezcal due to its new popularity.
“It’s the most expensive exported beverage in Mexico right now—it costs three times as much per bottle as tequila—but one problem could be catastrophic.” – Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker
Mexico is now experiencing their own liquid gold-rush. Locals who caught onto the trend early on and planted agave early are now quite literally harvesting the fruits of their labor.
The agave plants that produce the most common mezcal, an espadin, takes approximately 8-10 years to grow. Each plant is made up of el pie, el corazon y la cabeza (the feet, the heart and the head) but only el corazon (the heart) is used to make the spirit.
More difficult to produce mezcals, such as tobala and tepeztate, can take up to 25 years for the agave to grow and ripen.
The agave-based spirit range from 72 – 110 proof, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a true mezcal maestro that produces a bottle that is under 90 proof.
Oaxaca and Mezcal: Together Forever
Having spent the last three weeks in Oaxaca, I have learned that mezcal is not merely an alcohol but rather an integral part of their culture.
It is a universal spirit – used for both celebrations as well as medicinal purposes.
Mezcal is one of the only types of alcohol that is not considered a depressant, like tequila, so it affects you differently than any other alcohol. You do not lose your inhibitions or even your balance. With Mexico having such an extensive fiesta culture, it is apparent why mezcal is the drink of choice.
The best part? No resaca (hangover).
The best mezcal in Oaxaca is actually four hours outside the city in a small town called San Cristobal Lachirioag (not to be confused with San Cristobal de las Casas)
This past week I had the honor of visiting the Mezcal Tosba distillery, or palenque.
The road leading to San Cristobal Lachiroag could have scared off the most enthusiastic off-roaders. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride would have been a more pleasant experience.
Once getting an hour outside of the city, the next three hours are spent on unpaved twisting mountain roads. While driving, you get to experience an unusual climate change only seen in the state of Oaxaca.
The city of Oaxaca is an arid, desert environment, a perfect climate for growing agave plants and making mezcal. As you climb up through the Sierra Nortes, you are surrounded by cascading mountains and forests of pine trees.
We crawled along dodging the unending potholes and speed bumps while I enjoyed spectacular views of the pueblos surrounding Oaxaca City. It is a truly special drive if you can stomach the road conditions.
Upon arrival, we were greeted with the same Mexican hospitality I have seen throughout my trip. While looking for the palenque’s owner, Edgar, we simply asked the people of the town, “¿Dónde vive Edgar?” (Where does Edgar live?) and sure enough, every person we asked knew.
When asking directions in Mexico, you will most commonly get the answer por alla (over there), so we were on a hunt with the answers we were given. After multiple por alla’s we pulled up to an elderly woman and repeated the question, “¿Dónde vive Edgar?”
She not only knew where he lived but hopped in our car and drove with us to his house! Some serious Mexican hospitality.
I proceeded to spend the next three days one of two places. The town of Via Alta, which was hosting their annual week-long fiesta, or the Mezcal Tosba Palenque that spanned over 40 acres.
At the Palenque, I enjoyed my new friends’ company – Edgar was a most gracious host. He made us delicious food and wonderful mezcal cocktails. We wandered through his 40-acre land and eventually wound up along his river. Yep, it must be pretty cool to own part of a river.
As we climbed through the land, we were surrounded by nothing but beauty and nature. Although Oaxaca is in the midst of a drought, there was plenty of green surrounding the riverbed. The cool water was the perfect refreshment to go along with the sweltering sun and our mezcal.
As peaceful as it was here on the Palenque, my favorite part of the trip was attempting to catch the chickens and turkeys that roam Edgar’s property. My lack of experience rounding up chickens was apparent as I sprinted after the birds attempting to get them back into their cage.
Everyone was roaring with laughter as they easily plucked the chickens from the earth. I, on the other hand, looked like a real birdbrain.
Via Alta and the Week-Long Fiesta
One of my favorite aspects of the local pueblos is their appreciation for high school bands. Nearly everyone in school plays a musical instrument and, more obviously, can salsa dance.
The first night of the fiesta included a “battle of the bands” where las bandas de escuelas (school bands) all lined the streets and played until six in the morning. The audience walks with the multiple bands through the town as each individual band plays against one another.
I was impressed by the number of people filling the streets of this small town. One of the girls I talked to drove down from Mexico City for the festival, an 8-hour drive!
This brings me to festival day two, typically the calm before the storm of exhaustion and hangovers. Thank goodness we’ve been drinking mezcal. Via Alta is a town of only 3,000 people but you wouldn’t know it from attending their festival.
We took a taxi into town due to the lack of parking and were greeted with one of the more extravagant fair setups I’ve seen. Roller coasters and vendors lined the streets as people flooded the streets from all directions.
In the center of the town was a 20-ft tall firework display and a stage that would shame Coachella. I couldn’t believe my eyes! After asking how all this was possible, Edgar informed me that the government pays for the festival. I started calling it their “fiesta fund” and accepted it as one of those explanations you can only answer with a shrug.
The two bands that performed were Afortunado (Lucky) and Aron y Su Grupo Ilusion (Aron and His Illusion Group), the latter being the more famous one. After watching – never participating in – the salsa dancing all around me, I found a new appreciation for Mexico’s love of music and dance.
Thoughts and Feels
Mexico continues to impress me. Friends, festivities, food and my favorite: mezcal! Apart from Mexico’s largest cities, the surrounding towns have a tranquilo atmosphere that can make even the most rigid of tourists feel at ease.
I’ve officially been living in Oaxaca for one month and I’m amazed how fast the time has gone by. It truly feels like my home away from home.
Thank you for reading! Any questions, comments or thought? Let me know in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you.