When I began planning my visit to Oaxaca, I knew nothing about mezcal beyond having heard or read the word. I discovered early on in my research that the beverage is the distilled product of the agave, also called maguey, plant family. Its home ground is the state of Oaxaca, and to a lesser degree, some other states in Mexico. When I mentioned my interest to a friend, he referred to the possibility of it being hallucinogenic, and while I’d seen references to it, too, had not read anything that seemed definitive.
A month or so into planning, I found reviews of tours given by anthropologist Alvin Starkman of Mezcal Educational Tours. More in-depth than commercial tours, Alvin’s groups are small, as a rule, and are real adventures into the countryside of the Oaxaca Valley, the traditional home territory of cottage industry distilleries of the now famous spirit. They are visits to homes of his friends, rather than to factories and I booked a day with him.
Alvin’s tour was scheduled toward the end of my 3 week stay so, with no previous knowledge of the subject, I resolved to acquaint myself with mezcal using the resources at hand in the city. As Oaxaca came into focus around me, I found opportunities wherever I went. The city has experienced a boom in interest for mezcal and has responded. Restaurants serve it, there are mezcalerias which specialize in serving it and often don’t mind educating novices like myself. There are retail establishments large and small and stalls in every Oaxaca market. In Oaxaca, mezcal is everywhere.
My first stop was at a recommended shop, Mis Mezcales, located at Reforma 528, not far from the Oaxaca Lending Library where I’d just begun volunteering. The selection of varieties to taste was limited but, at this stage of the game, that seemed a good thing. The english-speaking proprietor recommended a starting point, a Pampero joven (unaged), 49% alcohol, made from the jabali variety of agave (Agave Convallis) and I bought a 250 ml bottle. After a few days’ sipping in the evenings I decided I should try an aged example, possibly smoother and more enjoyable for a novice.
On Saturday I walked uphill in the north of Centro along the old aqueduct, to the small weekend Pochote Mercado Organico (organic market) in the relaxing garden of Iglesia Xochimilco, a complete change of pace from the large commercial markets south of the ZÓcalo. There were 2 mezcal sellers among the produce, clothing and food vendors and I stopped at the table of Lorenzo Angeles, offering his family’s Mezcal Real Minero. Don Lorenzo offered me a taste of a pechuga añejo, an aged variety. I liked the smoother taste and bought another 250ml bottle.
Don Lorenzo Angeles of Mezcal Real Minero.
Into the Countryside (my education proceeds)
I’m not much of a drinker at the best of times. The day of my long-anticipated tour with Alvin found me far from recovered from the effects of something I’d eaten and really in no shape to fully appreciate the opportunity. But the choice was to go or not to go and I was damned if I was going to miss what might be the highlight of my trip. It was not an ideal situation but I resolved to put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the day as best I could. I walked 2 blocks to the hotel of a couple from Baltimore with whom I’d arranged to share the experience and cost of the tour and found Alvin parked in front waiting for us. My companions looked very familiar to me and we realized we’d met the day before at the library. Oaxaca is a small world.
The drive out of the city was welcome and I was happy to be riding through the green hills I’d seen from the air 2 weeks earlier. Alvin spoke about his favorite subject as we drove and answered our questions. The subject of mezcal is a complex one in a number of ways and, I suspect, is getting more complex as its popularity grows. Once a local cottage industry, it’s caught on in a big way both in Oaxaca, in Mexico and now as an export. There’s money to be made and that fact creates aspects that do nothing to simplify things for a novice. But with Alvin’s guidance, while not making any effort to present a simplistic picture for his 3 guests, his knowledge of the subject matter and friendships with the families that have been long-time producers helped us get an idea of the traditional methods of production and distribution.
The basic steps in the artisanal production of mezcal are (1) growing the agave (maguey) or collecting wild plants, (2) harvesting the plants after 8 to 12 years, (3) separating the piña from the leaves, the heart of the plant to which the leaves are attached, (4) roasting the piñas, (5) chopping and reducing the piñas to a pulp which is then placed in vats with water to ferment, and (6) the distillation in clay or copper stills over a fire. Variations in the ultimate product are innumerable, from one variety of agave to another and where they're grown, one palenque to another and subtle variations in the processes, including the length of time the mezcal is aged, if it is aged, and the source of the barrels, additions such as fruit and herbs or filtering through chicken breasts or other meats, and blending, among other infinite possibilities. Aficionados of the spirit speak in terms not unlike those describing the nuances of wine and while the world of mezcal is a small one compared to that of wine, it’s my impression that the drink is every bit as complex.
Our first stop was in the prosperous-looking village of Santa Catarina Minas for a visit to the palenque of Felix Angeles Arellanes. A huge pile of piñas was cooling, but otherwise they were between batches, the fermentation vats soaking and no fires under the clay stills. It was interesting, nonetheless, and would be the only clay containers we’d see that day. Alvin used the opportunity to explain the basics and show us the field across the road, agave interplanted with squash and corn in the traditional manner, before we moved on.
Alvin Starkman at the palenque of Felix Angeles Arellanes, Santa Catarina Minas.
The beautifully tended church in Santa Catarina Minas
Above, varieties of Agave, TobalÁ (center) and Karwinskii "Cirial" (left & right).
We drove next to San Baltazar ChichicÁpam, to a co-operative palenque where production was underway. Roasted piñas were being crushed under a stone wheel turned by horse power, wooden vats of the crushed agave were fermenting and distillation was proceeding in a copper still over a fire.
The earthen roasting oven and mezcal production at the co-operative.
Our last tastes of mezcal were in San Dionisio Ocotepec, at the home of Estella Hernandez, through a gate and down a path past modest homes and a chicken coop. The mezcal was in plastic containers on the floor and Estella drew samples from them with a section of bamboo, traditionally used for the purpose. Near where we sat was a collection of bottles, each with an addition in the mezcal for flavoring.
Down the path to the home of Estella Hernandez.
Estella and Alvin
The last destination of the day was the town of Santiago de Matatlan, billing itself as the primary stop on the “Camino de Mezcal” and the only place we saw truckloads of maguey piñas unloaded along the main road in front larger palenques. I suspect this would have been our only stop had we been on a bus tour and, again, I was glad I had Alvin as my guide. At El Paso Restaurante we sat at a table outside, my companions’ lunch was prepared in front of us on a large comal over a fire and I had chicken soup at Alvin’s suggestion. The ladies who fed us were charming and it could not have been better.
After lunch Alvin set out in search of pulque, a traditional drink of fresh maguey juice scooped out of a hollow in a plant in the morning, or lightly fermented for one or more days. Shops in town announced it’s availability in large letters painted on the buildings and while Alvin’s first choice was closed, not far away he knocked on a door where we were invited in for tastes of entirely different flavors than we had previously experienced that day. I enjoyed the refreshing pulque most of all, after which we headed back through the countryside and into the city. It had been a fascinating day.
Back to the subject of the rumored hallucinations I mentioned early in this report, I cannot confirm or deny them. However, even in the small quantities I imbibed, I can report what I believe is a related effect. I’ve always had vivid and complex dreams. I discovered, as my time in Oaxaca and my evening sips proceeded, my generally entertaining dreams took on even more striking complexity and color. While it may have been the effect of all the influences I was experiencing, I can’t help but believe that the change was largely due to the mezcal. I’ll likely never know personally if the effect might be greater in larger doses and expand one’s waking perceptions, but I also cannot rule out the possibility. I challenge my readers to experiment further and to let us know what they find. Our research, then, will be ongoing and there are worse ways to spend one’s time than in the search for truth, Oaxaca style.
Next week, Monte Alban.
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