It was my first night in Oaxaca and my third mezcal; Ulises Torrentera, owner of the tiny mezcalería, In Situ, was pouring me a glass from one of his 180 bottles of mezcal, each labeled with a dangling paper tag marked with the name of the maguey plant from which it is made. It was called Del Rayo—literally “From Lightning.”
When I asked what species of agave it was, he shrugged. Though the name sometimes refers to a regional variety of Agave americana, in this case, he said, neither he nor the maestro mezcalero who’d made it—one of more than 50 who work with Torrentera—had ever seen this exact plant before. Sandra Ortíz Brena, Torrentera’s business partner, interjected from across the tiny bar: “Maguey,” she said, “is a promiscuous plant.”
Of the 150 or so species of agave found in Mexico, around 40 are used to make distilled spirits, some of which can take decades to mature (even the most common domesticated variety, Agave angustofolia, usually called espadín, takes around seven years). When they reach maturity, it’s with a spectacular burst of fertility, drawing bees and butterflies and bats with their beacon-like towers of white and yellow flowers. When mezcaleros plant the fertilized seeds, they’re often surprised at the new variants that come out of the ground. In the last 35 years, scientists have identified more than 40 new varieties of agave in Mexico.
As little as a decade ago, mezcal was appreciated almost exclusively by the communities that have historically produced it, usually in field blends distilled from whatever maguey they had on hand. Starting in the 1990s, mezcaleros began experimenting with mezcals made from single varietals, teasing out the distinct flavors of each plant, like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle. A decade or so after that, Chilangos (residents of Mexico City) and gringos suddenly found out that a spirit long disparaged as campesino moonshine was, in fact, among the most complex drinks on earth.
They also found out that they could profit handsomely on bottling and marketing it. In the years since, mezcal brands, mezcal tours, mezcal cocktails and, of course, mezcalerías have proliferated wildly in Oaxaca and beyond. That, in turn, has led to a range of issues for producers, from a scarcity of wild maguey to the excessive (and expensive) strictures put in place to acquire the official Denomination of Origin that allows them to label their ancestral drink with its proper name. Production, which still relies on old, time-consuming techniques, cannot keep up with demand. As Chucho Ortíz, who runs the lively Archivo Maguey and the brand-new, appointment-only cocktail spot, Hierba Blanca, put it over drinks one night, “Mezcal is never going to line up with the way the modern world consumes.”
When Félix Hernandez, who comes from a long line of mezcal vendors, opened his expendio in a small storefront outside the historic center in 2009, his was one of only two places in town that focused on selling quality mezcal, sourced directly from producers. Today, the number of mezcalerías has grown enormously. But the number of mezcals that Hernandez serves has contracted proportionally, as growing demand in Mexico and abroad drives the continued overexploitation of agave, particularly sought-after wild species. “The idea is to show the diversity of the plants and the regions, but, of course, that gets harder and harder,” he said. “People don’t really value the work it takes to make a good mezcal.”
For people genuinely interested in the drink, that set of problems can—and, frankly, should—lead to a whole host of anxieties, not just about how to distinguish the good from the bad, but also the responsible from the wasteful, exploitative and fraudulent. In Oaxaca, fortunately, that’s not a terribly difficult thing to do. Though the number of bad mezcalerías has exploded, the city offers more than enough responsible projects to fill at least two days of satisfying, edifying drinking. Though mezcaleros produce outstanding distillates of maguey throughout Mexico, Oaxaca, at least for now, remains the only place on earth where you can easily taste mezcal in anything that even approaches its true depth and diversity.
This past May, I spent a long weekend drinking mezcal with Niki Nakazawa, a native Bostonian who has spent the last decade in Mexico and the last several years working with producers in the region of Miahuatlan to distribute their small-batch products under the label Neta. An ideal night out in Oaxaca, I learned, should begin in the daytime. It should also last, if you’re serious about tasting, for more than a day. You’ll want to taste several different mezcals at each bar, and with each pour clocking in at a minimum 45-percent alcohol (Tip: anything lower than that and you’re not drinking mezcal), squeezing too much into one day will, at best, wear out your palate and, at worst, leave you in a drunken puddle by dinnertime.
A Mezcal Tour of Oaxaca City
Over the course of the weekend, we drank madrecuixe and espadín at a pretty outdoor market a few blocks from Santo Domingo, the baroque church at the center of the city’s tourist trade. At Mezcaloteca, a hushed library of over 100 maguey distillates, we spent nearly two hours with the co-founder and project director Silvia Philion, who poured side-by-side tastes of wild and cultivated tobalá, mezcals distilled in copper and clay and (a first for me) 140-proof puntas, or heads, that burst with aromas of wet earth and moss. “Mezcal is not just a drink, it’s the culture of a whole country,” Philion told me. “It reminds you that everything in this world is unique and unrepeatable.”
In the following days, we drank transparent Old-Fashioneds made entirely from distillates, infusions and tinctures of maguey at Hierba Blanca’s open-air patio. We wiled away an afternoon with Félix Hernandez in the sunny courtyard of Cuish on an unprepossessing side street near the Central de Abastos, the city’s labyrinthine wholesale market. We drank from cups made of glass, clay and gourd. We drank from flasks and plastic bottles marked with permanent marker and straight from a clay still at an all-night party in the backyard of a fancy restaurant.
One night, after hours of slow, thoughtful tasting, we made our way to Archivo de Maguey, the only late-night bar in town that serves high-quality mezcal, where we drank papalometl and danced until four in the morning. “Mezcal is jealous,” Niki told me earlier that evening. If you start your night with her, then you’d better end it with her, too, or suffer the consequences the next morning.
Luckily, mezcal is everywhere in Oaxaca. If you spend enough time drinking, thinking and talking about mezcal you’ll start to smell it in the dust kicked up when the wind blows in and in the torrential rain that, in the summer months, inevitably follows. Late at night or early in the morning, when the sunrise is closer than the sunset, the city’s silent streets will seem to glow, suffusing the nameless magic that has drawn people here for centuries. And that, you’ll swear, is mezcal, too.
Afternoon: Mercado La Cosecha
The stall called Café y Miel Yu-Van at the back of a small outdoor market sells a handful of mezcals from the village of San Francisco Logueche in Miahuatlan: good, clear expressions of the plants they’re made from and a great way to prime your palate.
More than any other bar in Oaxaca, appointment only Mezcaloteca gives drinkers of all levels of experience and interest the tools they need to think about and understand mezcal for the rest of the weekend.
Night: Hierba Blanca
Open from Thursday to Saturday, Hierba Blanca’s laid-back rooftop terrace is also appointment only, and the best place in town to taste surprising mezcal cocktails—a style of drinking mezcal that even the owner, Chucho Ortíz, long considered sacrilegious—made from maguey distillates and infusions, mixed with homemade vermouths and tinctures.
Afternoon: Mezcalería Cuish
After a morning spent feasting and shopping at the Central de Abastos, stop for a relaxed afternoon at Cuish’s bar, or for a tasting (arranged in advance) of mezcals drawn from owner and director Félix Hernandez’s eccentric collection.
Evening: In Situ
Though In Situ has something like 30 seats between its two levels, the only ones that count are the six stools at the yard-long bar. Describe a flavor profile, region or variety you like and let Ulises or Sandra choose the bottle you never knew you wanted.
Night: Archivo Maguey
When In Situ closes at 11 p.m., on the dot, follow the pilgrimage next door to Archivo Maguey for a chance to meet mezcal in the atmosphere of celebration that is its rightful place.