The Unveiling of Mezcal: Visiting Oaxaca's Artisanal Distilleries
Story by Lydia Carey, photos by Sergio Henao



In the rural areas of Oaxaca state in Mexico, a writer dives into family histories, life on the farm, and artisinal mezcal distilleries that go back generations.


Oaxaca mezcal travel story

The first sip of mezcal bursts like a camera flash in my mouth, slowly vaporizing into the back of my throat and leaving behind hints of earth, grass, and lingering smokiness. Tasting the sticky sweet, caramelized agave hearts that make this spirit it's hard to imagine how one becomes the other. There's a magic to the process that I am just beginning to discover, but sipping mezcal under the shadow of giant agaves at the Real Minero distillery is definitely helping with my research.

roadside mezcal saleIn the last decade and a half, I have witnessed the astronomical rise of mezcal from a lesser-known Mexican "moonshine" to one of the hippest spirits on the market. This previously unappreciated distillate is now sold at high-dollar New York cocktail bars and is winning mixologists top prizes around the world as a smoky base for their creations.

I've also been to Oaxaca state a good number of times. As the birthplace of some of Mexico's most iconic dishes and the home of many of Mexico's most well-loved crafts, its capital, Oaxaca City, has grown increasingly popular with ex-pats and tourists from around the world.

But there is intimate world of rural distilleries and old-fashioned mezcal production beyond the city limits that I had never experienced until a few weeks ago.

Despite the world's sudden recognition of their ancient elixir, small towns and hamlets there have been producing and selling mezcal to their neighbors for centuries. Women whose husbands and fathers brewed mezcal in once-illegal countryside stills traveled town to town with bottles tucked into the folds of their shawls, knocking on doors and softly offering a liter or two for a few pesos. This cottage industry kept more than one family fed during lean times and when tequila took off in the 1970s and 80s, the government decided not only lift previous restrictions, but to promote and invest in mezcal tourism in hopes that it would be as popular, if not more, than tequila.

Oaxaca mezcal maguey

If I wanted to get a deeper understanding of mezcal's production, its importance and its history, then the obvious place to start was Oaxaca.

Ancient Distillation, Modern Cachet

Santa Catarina de Minas is a small town 45 minutes south of Oaxaca City where mezcaleros (mezcal makers) have been producing for hundreds of years. Family distilleries like Real Minero go back generations, even before the family had its own facilities. The grandparents and great grandparents of the Angeles family once made their mezcal in the borrowed distilleries of neighbors. The current brand's founder, Lorenzo Angeles, started making mezcal in 1978 simply because he loved a quietly sipped glass with friends on a Saturday afternoon. Only when the Angeles children — namely Graciela, her brother Edgar, and her sister Adriana — came on board did the business really take off, around the same time mezcal was starting to gain recognition in the wider world of alcohol.

Oaxacan agave

That rising fame didn't mean that Real Minero abandoned its roots. On the morning we visit they are uncovering the giant pit oven at the distillery, a time-worn cooking process that hasn't changed much in the last 100 or so years.

Agave hearts of all shapes and sizes are carefully stacked atop fiery white volcanic rocks and covered with several layers of cloth to slowly caramelize over three or four days as the oven's heat dissipates. Once uncovered the hearts are left to dried out and "age" in the sun for another couple of days until they are ready to be cut and crushed.

There are several unique features to mezcal production in this community, one of which is the mashing process where spindly, tough, local guys crush the agave heart pieces with massive caveman-like clubs into what they call canoes — a narrow dugout section in the floor of the distillery. As they smash for hours on end, other workers collect the macerated pulp and shovel it into giant fermentation barrels where it will sit for several more days until the master mezcal maker determines the alcohol is ready to be distilled. Only the most special magueys are mashed by hand according to Graciela, and the process gives them an extra added value.

distillation potsDistillation in Santa Catarina happens in clay pots, heated by a wood fire underneath, that collect the evaporated alcohol, re-condensing it and sending it out, drop by drop from a long tube at the top of the pot. Clay pot distillation is one of the oldest forms of mezcal distillation, and was replaced in various regions by copper pots in the generations following colonization.

"They break all the time, and you have to replace them," says Graciela about her delicately charred distillation pots, "that's why a lot of people have changed to copper. It's less expensive."

"But you think there is a difference in the taste right?" I ask.

"Of course. Mezcal in clay pots is much more mineral. With copper pots if you aren't very careful to clean the system, you can get notes of copper or even sulfur."

Mezcal, unlike tequila which can only be made with a single type of plant (blue agave), can be made from most agave varieties, Mezcal experts are constantly scouting out bottles made with some of those special, wild varieties Graciela talked about, setting them apart from the more common espadin maguey of which hundreds of acres were planted when the government introduced this fast-growing plant in the 1980s. That's part of why Real Minero built a large greenhouse on their property to grow wild species of agave that they hope to one day restore to the land.

Oaxacan agave

We return that first night to our Victorian-inspired suite at the Casa Cid de Leon Hotel, and the shift from desert stills and undergound pit ovens to antique tea sets and frilly four-poster beds is like the chasm between the rural mezcal distilleries and the hipster bars where we first encountered the spirit. It's interesting to think that Mexico's colonial matrons were ambling the streets with their parasols at the same time that mezcal was having its first big production push in the country's rural localities.

Recent studies claim there now exists archaeological proof of pre-colonial distillation, but other historians still protest that the process was brought by the Spanish to the New World and influenced by the transatlantic trade route in the form of the "Filipino still" which landed in Mexico's coastal mezcal communities over 500 years ago. The Spaniards were certainly familiar with the distillation process and their search for a drink that would would satisfy their boozey palates probably had a healthy impact on production levels here.

Oaxaca city travel

Almost every mezcal maker we met on our trip had at least four generations of distillation in their families, and most had grown up with a machete in one hand and jicara — a small hallow gourd used to sip mezcal — in the other. This liquor, which to the uninitiated can be a fiery shock to the system, is a pretty common presence at Oaxacan kitchen tables.

Santiago Matatlan, A Mezcal Destination

desde la enteridad mezcalThe next day we head out to Santiago Matatlan, one of the area's more well-known mezcal communities. Its deep mezcal making tradition has been around long since before the world took notice of it. In 1980s when tequila was booming, the Oaxacan government decided to take a special interest in this town, providing espadín plants with the idea that they would be an easy-to-grow, productive crop in the area and that mezcal might come to compete with tequila's popularity.

Then in the 2000s, when mezcal was having its own boom, the Oaxacan government once again turned its eyes toward Matatlan, making it part of the official Ruta de Mezcal (The Mezcal Route) and investing development dollars into the revamp of the town's small roadside distilleries and its promotion as the "cradle of mezcal." Driving through nowadays you find dozens of small distilleries and shops where you can purchase mezcal directly from the families that produce it.

desde la enteridad mezcalWe stop by Desde la Eternidad, where Lidia Hernandez has recently taken over the entire production after the death of her father from Covid a few months ago. It's a tiny set-up, but they still manage to make 1,500 liters a month that they sell mostly in their store and to a select few vendors that have had the luck to find them.

A massive stone grinder is set up in front of the distillery, purposefully visible to the passersby on the highway. In contrast to Santa Catarina's caneos, in Santiago Matatlan, after a load of agave hearts have been cooked and cooled, they are mashed by a horse on a tether that walks in slow circles as a minder follows, scooping in any mash that slips the borders. Lidia uses copper pots, not clay, for distillation and they gleam among the earth tones of the brick walls and plain cement floor.

Mezcal making goes back generations on both sides of the Hernandez family. The family's land behind the distillery is staggered with rows of giant agave and among the plants grow other crops that are part of their daily diet — corn, beans, garbanzos. Almost all mezcal makers were and continue to be farmers, and historically mezcal was a complementary activity to local farming. The cool rains of the summer months make fermentation almost impossible and so mezcal production was generally done during the dry, hot months while other seasons of the year were dedicated to growing crops.

"My father started working the fields when he was 12," says Lidia, "I still have his final harvest in the back."

When we return to Oaxaca City that evening we find ourselves happily confronted with the innumerable mezcal options on the Levadura de Olla restaurant drink menu, and have to remind ourselves that it wasn't always so. Just a decade or so ago, mezcal was seen as a poor man's drink and restaurant owners, even Oaxacan ones, looked down on it. Nowadays bars dedicated 100% to mezcal — like the Mezcaloteca or In Situ Mezcalería — are on the rise and the city is finally giving its native spirit the attention that it deserves.

Endless Agaves for Mezcal Production

Sosima and agavesA final trip the next day has us meandering south of Oaxaca City for about three hours. We're about halfway to Puerto Escondido and are tempted to just keep driving all the way to the beach. Instead we turn down the dusty streets of Sola de Vega, another traditional mezcal making community where the FaneKantsini cooperative has set up a distillery outside of town.

This collective of family members is managed by Sosima Olivera Aguilar, whose ancestors made mezcal and who is from a small community closer to Oaxaca City. Sosima gives us a primer on agaves, quizzing us as we walk the expansive property. Is that an arroqueño or an espadín? she asks, as I look perplexed at two agave that seem strikingly similar.

There are over 200 kinds of maguey throughout Mexico. We've been introduced to the wide-leafed and daintly spiked tepeztate, the giant, spindly espadín, and the tall, narrow madrecuixe, among dozens on this trip.

"The dynamic of growing maguey," says Sosima, "is that you plant a little at a time. This year, maybe a thousand, next year maybe 1,500." These plants take 7 to 10 years to mature enough to be used for mezcal, and their ages need to be staggered in order to always have enough for production.

The cooperative has planted over 200 varieties of tobala, an especially prized maguey, from regions all over Oaxaca in hopes of increasing the diversity of this variety in Sola de Vega. They are also trying to bring back the hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, and other pollinators in this area.

Sosima agave flower"We want this whole area to be flowers," she tells us as we hike into an uncultivated part of their land where a single tobala agave has shot a brilliant yellow flower into the tear drop blue sky.

Most small distilleries have a good-sized crop of agave, but they nevertheless almost always purchase from outside growers as well. Right now FaneKantsini is buying from several old-timer growers in the area and they worry what will happen when that generation, so attentive to and knowledgeable of this important crop, starts to die out.

"Working with them, purchasing from them, I think that's part of the richness of our mezcal," says Sosima.

On the way home we drive by shimmering field of agaves and call out the names we recognize — >i>jabali, arroqueño, espadin. Without this kind of up-close encounter it would have been impossible to learn all these intimate details about one of Mexico's most famous exports. Colonial churches and mole and ruins are nice, but this has been the kind of immersion that makes a trip memorable long after the sunburn fades. We will be back, for more mezcal, and more stories, I can feel it.

IF YOU GO:

You can contact Real Minero, the FaneKantsini cooperative, or Desde la Eternidad on Instagram in order to set up a visit to the these distilleries.


Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City who spends her time mangling the Spanish language, scouring the country for true stories and "researching" every taco stand in her neighborhood. She is the author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma, a guide to one of Mexico City's most eclectic neighborhoods and she chronicles her life in the city on her blog www.MexicoCityStreets.com.

Related Features:
Crossing the Mole Barrier in Oaxaca - Darrin DuFord
Handmade in Oaxaca - Tim Leffel
Mexico City's Island Life: Enchanting and Endangered - Lydia Carey
Ten Years to Tequila: On the Agave Trail in Mexico - Tim Leffel


See other Mexico travel stories from the archives


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