to: Alvin Starkman
date: Sat, Jun 6, 2015 at 2:45 PM
subject: Mezcal for the Uninitiated.
Greetings Alvin -
I'm going to be in Oaxaca for 3 weeks, beginning in late September. I'm a woman who has never found her drink and wonder if mezcal might be it. I likely cannot afford a private tour but if you plan to put together a group experience at that time, please let me know.
Except for a half-day vineyards tour in Burgundy, I’ve never really been interested enough in wine and spirits to seek out such experiences. I’ve sipped home-made hootch in Laos, Thailand and Puerto Rico and visited tasting rooms in California wineries with friends but, having grown up in a tea-totaling family, alcohol has never been a regular component of my life. But more recently I’ve become curious and I’ve been thinking, before it’s too late, it might be fun to find “my” drink. And Oaxaca, it seems, is the mezcal capital of the universe and opportunities to visit small-scale family producers, to taste it and buy it in it’s myriad forms abound, or so I’ve read. This may be a case of seek and ye shall find. I’m hoping so.
Alvin Starkman operates ‘Mezcal Educational Tours’ in Oaxaca. I’d run across an online recommendation for his tours, found his website, and sent off the email above. Alvin answered promptly, telling me he’d keep me in mind and see if he could add me to a tour during my visit. Alvin is a Canadian anthropologist and lawyer with a long list of mezcal-related qualifications. I recommend a visit to his beautiful website, educational of course, but also entertaining and illustrated with great photos.
My research goes on. I’m constantly amazed at the wealth of information online about things of which I’ve been completely unaware and mezcal (the Spanish spelling, mescal in English) is one of those things. As a lightweight where alcohol is concerned, and never having been to mezcal country, I’m fascinated.
The following paragraphs are from the ‘Visit Mexico’ website:
“Heading east from Oaxaca City along the Pan American highway, you pass field after field of green spiky agave plants, agave espadin, the type of agave most commonly used to make mezcal. Unlike tequila, which is made solely from the blue agave, mezcal can be made from a variety of different species of agave.
There are several distilleries along this section of the Pan American highway, but continue on past the Mitla archaeological site until you arrive at the small town of Matatlan where a large sign announces that you have arrived at the cradle of mezcal-making. Many local families who produce their own version of this spirit will be happy to show you the mezcal production process. Matatlan is off the main tourist routes, but it is definitely worth the trip.
Agave potatorum is the scientific name of the highly prized agave used to make Tobala mezcal. Producers search the high reaches of the pine and oak forests of Oaxaca state for this rare, wild variety of agave. Much smaller than a cultivated agave, it takes eight agaves of the Tobala variety to provide the equivalent amount of nectar that is obtained from one agave espadin. For this reason, Tobala is distilled in very small quantities, and is highly valued for its sweet and earthy flavor.”
I ran across another website I particularly like, ‘Mezcalistas, the world of mezcal’. While realizing full-well that just because I’m ignorant of a subject doesn’t make it obscure, I do have a soft spot for people who immerse themselves in off-beat subjects. The site has 2 things I’m sure most of us consider essential to good reading, style and content. Mining the page called ‘Mezcal in Oaxaca’ I’ve made myself a list of the places in the city they recommend. Other page headings include the Mescal Encyclopedia, a North American mezcal map and where to find it in the U.S., entertaining while I wait and useful, I suspect, for the real experience. And, despite there being a recommended source in California about an hour from me, I intend to wait until I’m in the heart of the beast to begin my real-life education. In the meantime, I’ve signed up for their newsletter, “…a periodic email with the latest news, events, and mezcal world gossip” that I hope will help keep me occupied. The confirmation email informs me that these interesting people are also not too far away, in San Francisco. Is there such a thing as a support group for very particular drinkers? I suppose it’s called a bar.
All the guidebooks have information on mezcal and I’m particularly enjoying Paige Penland's in her Oaxaca guide. Her full page on the subject is entitled, ‘Mezcal, Buzz of the Gods’, then a quote, translated, “For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, as well.” I think I’m definitely on track for some memorable moments. Every trip needs a focus, right?
A month or so later: Still no further word from Alvin. I’d posted on Fodor’s forum looking for a person or people to share his tour, without response. Then a Fodor’s member posted, encouraging me to try the forums on Trip Advisor which, she said, are more active on Mexico. I did and received a reply a couple of days later. I now have 2 companions from Baltimore who will join me (or I’ll join them) for Alvin’s tour. Alvin will pick me up in front of my room on the appointed day at 10 am. He mentioned his car for our day out is a RAV4, as is my own car, so it will be a combination of the comfort of the familiar on the way to the new and exciting. If the reviews and his descriptions are any indication, I have a grand experience in my future.
Meanwhile, back in the city, as the tour will be toward the end of my 3 weeks, I’ve printed the list of establishments from the Mescalistas in which to further my education into the World of Mezcal, which you can see here.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org
Next week: Beyond Eating & Drinking (mostly)
Click here for links to all episodes of 'Anatomy of a Trip: Oaxaca'
To read others of PortMoresby’s contributions, click here.