Mezcal is the (sometimes slurred) word on most people's lips when ordering a drink in Oaxaca. This once poor man's alternative to tequila is now officially trendy, as exemplified by the city's large and growing cache of divey-hip mezcalerías. Craft beer is also making inroads.
Alcalá, García Vigil and nearby streets are the main party zone on Friday and Saturday nights.
When Oaxacans tell you mezcal is a bebida espirituosa (spirit), they're not just saying it's a distilled liquor; they're hinting at an almost-spiritual reverence for the king of Oaxacan drinks. When you sip mezcal, you're imbibing the essence of an agave plant that has taken at least seven, and sometimes 70, years to reach maturity. Mezcal is a drink to be respected while being enjoyed, a drink that can put people into a kind of trance – 'Para todo mal, mezcal,' they say, 'Para todo bien, también.' (`For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good too.)
In the past decade or so, this once little-trumpeted liquor has become positively fashionable, not just in Mexico but also in the US and beyond. Mezcalerías (mezcal bars), from the trendy to the seriously connoisseurish, have proliferated in Oaxaca, Mexico City and elsewhere, and a mind-boggling diversity of mezcal varieties and brands has hit the market.
It's strong stuff (usually 40% to 50% alcohol content), and best sipped slowly and savored. A glass of reasonable mezcal in a bar is unlikely to cost less than M$30 and a top-class one might cost M$300.
Mezcal-type drinks are produced in many parts of Mexico, but only those that meet established criteria from certain specific areas can legally be marketed as 'mezcal.' Otherwise they are known as destilados de agave. Around 60% of mezcal (and most of the best) is produced in and around Oaxaca's Valles Centrales.
Mezcal can be made from around 20 different species of agave (or maguey – the words are synonymous). The majority comes from the widely cultivated espadín, which has a high sugar content and matures relatively quickly. Mezcals from agaves silvestres (wild, uncultivated agaves) are specially prized for their organic nature, unique tastes and usually small-scale production methods. Best known of these is the tobalá, which yields distinctive herbal notes.
The mature plant's piña (heart), with the leaves removed, is cooked for several days over a wood fire, typically in an oven in the ground. Thus sweetened, it is crushed to fibers that are fermented with water for up to three weeks. The resulting liquid is distilled twice to produce mezcal. It can be drunk joven (young) or reposado (aged in oak for between two months and one year) or añejo (aged in oak for at least a year). A pechuga mezcal is one with flavors imparted by a chicken or turkey breast (pechuga) and/or fruits and spices placed in the distillation vessel.
You can observe the mezcal-making process and sample the product at dozens of mezcal factories and palenques (small-scale producers) in the Oaxaca area, especially around Mitla and along the road to it, and above all at the village of Santiago Matatlán, which produces about half of all Oaxaca's mezcal. If you really want to get down to grass roots and learn about the mezcal-making process firsthand and in detail, take a trip with Mezcal Educational Tours.
The taste variations of different mezcals are amazingly wide, and as a general rule you get what you pay for – but the only sure way to judge a mezcal is by how much you like it!
The infamous gusano (worm) is actually a moth caterpillar that feeds on the agave and is found mostly in bottles of cheaper mezcal. While no harm will come from swallowing the gusano, there is definitely no obligation! Mezcal is, however, often served with a little plate of orangey powder, sal de gusano, which is a mix of salt, chili and ground-up gusanos. Along with slices of orange or lime, this nicely counterpoints the mezcal taste.
Oaxaca’s Favorite Hot Drink
Chocolate is an ancient Mexican treat and a Oaxacan favorite. A bowl of steaming hot chocolate, with porous sweet bread to dunk, is the perfect warmer when winter sets in 1500m above sea level. The basic mix, to which hot milk or water is added, typically contains cinnamon, almonds and sugar, as well as ground-up cocoa beans. The area on Calle Mina around Oaxaca’s Mercado 20 de Noviembre has several shops specializing in this time-honored treat, as well as chocolate for moles (dishes with chili-based sauces). You can sample many varieties of chocolate at any of these places, and most have vats where you can watch the mixing. If you’re feeling adventurous try champurrado or tejate, traditional drinks combining chocolate with corn.