Brett Atkinson takes a mezcal tour in Oaxaca.
The journey from the mezcal distilleries of Palenque to the hippest cocktail bars in New York begins along the dustiest road in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Helmed by the amiable Gregorio Martinez Garcia — aka Don Goyo — the 3 Mezquites distillery is a final hazy stop after a full day exploring the mezcal scene around Oaxaca's lush river valleys and arid serrated hills. As Don Goyo's easy-going dogs enjoy a siesta, seeking out the afternoon's final rays, we're feeling equally blissed out after sampling 3 Mezquites' world-famous-in-Brooklyn mezcals.
Architect turned street food, beer and mezcal expert Darinel Silva is the ideal guide for discovering the fiery but subtle alcoholic spirit crafted from southern Mexico's agave plants. We escape Oaxaca City's thoroughly relaxed morning rush hour as he explains the essential difference between mezcal and Mexico's other more famous tipple.
"Tequila's only made from the blue agave plant, but here in Oaxaca we make mezcal from many different types of agave."
Rattling off a few of the agave variants native to Oaxaca — espadin, tobala and tepextate — they sound like a roll-call of Mexican lucha libre wrestlers, and we soon discover they're equally punchy and powerful. Winding carefully up mountain switchbacks punctuated with simple roadside distilleries, it also becomes obvious mezcal production remains a thoroughly hands-on process.
The first stop of the day is also the most rustic. At the Zumpante distillery near the Zapotec mountain town of Albarradas, a giant mound of agave hearts is being roasted slowly in a pit. Imbued with a smoky flavour, the pina are then crushed in a circular stone mill, usually powered by a horse or donkey, before fermentation in open vats exposed to the influence of wild yeasts drifting on Oaxacan breezes. Multiple distillations continue through rickety copper stills into terracotta vats, with the addition of fruit, nuts and local grains conspiring to produce complex and surprising flavours.
Zumpante's head mezcalero, Roberto, lines up a tasting session served from a mismatched selection of ancient bottles. Served in a glass inscribed with a cross and usually used for votive candles in Catholic churches, maracuya (passion fruit) and smoky tones peek through in a mezcal made from wild tobala agave, while younger mezcals served straight from the barrel — actually a faded plastic drum — retain a subtle effervescence. At around 50 per cent proof, mezcal is definitely made for sipping. Especially at 10am in the morning.
Back downhill, the remote and scrubby gorges around Albarradas segue to the more fertile plains and river valley surrounding the town of Matatlan. Every second vehicle seems to be a beaten-up Dodge or DeSoto truck overloaded with a gravity-defying stack of agave hearts, and around 90 per cent of Oaxacan mezcal is made from agave farmed in this surprisingly lush valley.
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Matatlan is also the heartland of pulque, an agave-based beverage dating back to pre-Colombian times and now enjoying a trendy renaissance. Pulque is best enjoyed fresh and local, and at Matatlan's simple Los Insurgentes bar the milky tipple made from the fermented sap of the maguey agave plant is based on a recipe dating back 2000 years. At around 5 per cent alcohol, Mexico City hipsters now drink the mildly fizzy pulque as an alternative to beer, with the drink's indigenous pre-Hispanic roots also adding a certain heritage cachet.
Here in Matatlan, it's simply a damn fine midday refreshment, with local farm workers cooling down before inviting us across the road for lunch at a simple comedor canteen. Grilled chorizo sausages and freshly made tortillas also hit the spot for two Kiwi recently converted pulque fans.
Despite Matatlan being the hub of the world's mezcal trade, it's still thoroughly relaxed, and the vibe around town is so laid-back to be almost horizontal. Dogs stretch and yawn in hard-won patches of shade, and in the valley's natural barrier of two low-slung mountain ranges, agave plantations stretch to the near horizon, carefully planted in rows very different from the natural tangle of wild agave plants around Albarradas.
Daubed on the walls of the famous Palenque Mal de Amor restaurant and mezcaleria, local street art espouses a not so flattering opinion of the current American President. Wall or no wall, Matatlan locals know there's no stopping the growth of the region's most famous export.
For New Zealand travellers, Oaxaca is most easily reached on direct flights from Houston or Los Angeles.
Experience Mezcal offer private tours around Oaxaca (US$200 per person). Check out guide Darinel Silva's interesting Instagram feed @conejo-mezcofago