Years ago, we were traveling with a friend through Belgium during a particularly cold spring when, after a long day, we decided to warm up at a local bar. We were happy – and a bit surprised – to find that they had a decent selection of Oaxacan mezcales. Filled with yearning for our warm homeland, we ordered two shots of mezcal made with tepextate, the agave with the longest lifespan among the 20 wild varieties used for making mezcal in Oaxaca.
That first sip unleashed the mineral and herbal flavors of this lonesome agave plant – which can require up to two decades of maturation before it can be turned into mezcal – and took us to its terroir: a rocky Oaxacan landscape where the central valleys meet the mountains and the wind blows dry and gentle. Our bodies relaxed as the warming spirit crawled its way up from our feet to our heart. We were not in a strange land anymore.
“Mezcal is an evocative drink. It can take you back in time to a place, a situation or a mood,” says 56-year-old Sandra Ortiz Brena, a mezcal expert and co-founder of In Situ, one of Oaxaca’s most respected mezcalerías and a true palace of knowledge when it comes to Oaxacan magueyes (the popular name for agaves). Located in the heart of the city and always packed with people – both locals and foreigners – who are serious about delving into the world of mezcal, the warmly lit space, with its long, elegant bar and impressive display of meticulously classified bottles, has the feel of a cozy mezcal library, a place where knowledge and pleasure mix.
“We founded In Situ around 11 years ago with the purpose of having a place in which people could find mezcales made with different techniques and agave varieties, so they could have a deeper understanding of the diversity found here in the south,” explains 56-year-old Ulises Torrentera, mezcanaut and In Situ’s other co-founder. “We have been able to classify up to 44 different mezcal expressions here.”
Unlike tequila, which is made only from one agave variety, the agave tequiliana (“blue agave”), mezcal is made from at least 20 different agave varieties, wild and domesticated, found across the landscapes of Oaxaca, all with different levels of sugar and maturation cycles. Some of the most popular and interesting Oaxacan agaves used to make mezcal include tobalá, cuish, arroqueño, espadín and tobaziche.
When it comes to production, mezcal and tequila (at least artisanal tequila) are very similar: The agave’s pencas (long spiky leaves) are cut away, leaving the pineapple-like heart of the plant, often called a piña, which is cooked in large underground pits, then smashed and fermented in barrels. The materials, however, often differ. Tequila producers use more modern and automated tools and equipment such as electric machines for crushing and grinding the agaves. Maestros mezcaleros, or master mezcal makers, on the other hand, tend to use more “organic” tools where no power is needed, like clay for distillation, wooden mallets for the smashing or animals for the same purpose (depending on the producer’s preference and infrastructure), as well as wooden barrels for fermentation
What differentiates mezcal is the important cultural role it plays in sacred rituals and special holidays. “Mezcal has a double function, as a ceremonial drink that enhances the sense of community when people drink it together on holidays, and as a source of economic sustenance,” says 33-year-old Felix Monterroza, the fourth generation to make and sell mezcal and the founder of Cuish, a mezcal brand and expendio (a place where they both serve and sell mezcal, and another name for a mezcalería) that has sold a wide variety of high-quality mezcales since 2008.
Located away from the main tourist drag, Cuish has two separate bars spread across a sprawling, semi-open space that has the feel of a large village house, a place where people can rest from the heat beneath the shade with a drink in hand (the huge mezcal glass containers, or damajuanas, scattered throughout only add to the rustic atmosphere). Frequented by an artistic crowd of painters, writers and musicians, the expendio is equally as known for its exhibitions, live music gigs and conferences as it is for its excellent mezcal tastings.
As mezcal becomes trendier and global demand increases, the strain on agave is starting to show – the plant has recently been classified as an endangered species. “Mass producers have to understand mezcal follows a different rhythm. If they want a quick process, then they will have to choose grain-based spirits. To put things in perspective, the grains take months to grow, while agave plants need years. The best way to respect the sacred nature of mezcal is to avoid excess in drinking but also in production,” Felix adds.
After all, Felix has been able to find a balance between having a successful business and promoting the biological and cultural diversity behind mezcal and its producers. “As responsible consumers, we have to demand information about the mezcal bottle in our hands. We have to know the producer’s name, the location, the materials involved, as well as the alcoholic content which, by the way, has to be 45 percent or higher to be considered high quality. We have to play fair with a plant that is giving us years of its life in one sip,” he says vehemently.
The concept of respect is something In Situ’s co-founders bear in mind as well. “I’ve always said you drink the mezcal you deserve. This drink is not for everyone. When people say they find it hard to drink, it is because good mezcales always challenge you in terms of what you can or cannot take. It makes you think, and this is something not everyone is ready to do,” explains Sandra.
Having been involved in the mezcal and alcohol industry for most of her adult life, Sandra has an unparalleled passion for Oaxaca’s spirit of choice. “I am acquainted with all sorts of alcoholic drinks: wine, champagne, cognac, you name it. And there is no doubt in my mind that mezcal is, by far, the most sophisticated of them all,” she tells us.
When it comes to mezcal drinking and pairing, Sandra, Ulises and Felix are in agreement: As interesting as mezcal cocktails can be, the spirit should be consumed in such a way as to highlight the clean flavors the earth has built for years, instead of hiding them in a mix of liquors, juices and extracts. That’s the point of a mezcalería – to learn more about the people and plants behind the mezcal and how best to drink it (slowly, with an eye towards responsible consumption).
“If you are sensitive enough, mezcal can become a vehicle for the soul to understand the world with a more philosophical point of view, where everything is more gentle and blossoms at its right time, just like the agave.”
As for what to serve mezcal with, bars throughout Mexico – and beyond – often serve the drink accompanied with oranges or limes, or paired with Mexican style dishes like mole. “While in practice this happens. We should not forget mezcal is either an aperitif or a digestive. In case you want food to go with it, we must avoid spicy, pungent and acidic flavors so as not to block our taste buds. In Cuish we serve snacks that will allow drinkers to taste the subtleties in the drink itself, like sweet figs or smoked quesillo (string cheese),” Felix explains.
The incredible diversity of mezcal offers a kaleidoscope of flavors from all the different Oaxacan terroirs, sometimes presented on their own and sometimes intertwined: earthy, floral, astringent, mineral, herbal. Hundreds of flavors for hundreds of preferences. The time when mezcal was an underdog, trying to compete with more popular spirits like rum or vodka, is long gone, but the downside of its increased popularity is uncontrolled commercialization and merchandising. “When we started promoting mezcal we also opened Pandora’s box. Now the future is uncertain, and it is down to us if we choose to preserve its history and processes, or if we take the road of volume and profit. I know my choice,” adds Ulises, smiling as he sips from a glass of tobalá next to the book that inspired his self-defining journey alongside the “purest drink in the world,” Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (Ulises’ love for Mexican soil mirrors Lowry’s own passion for the country).
“Mezcal is one of the first products of the living syncretism that is Mexico,” Ulises continues. “Nobody knows for sure if the original inhabitants drank mezcal, but what we do know is that this drink has been attracting people to this soil for hundreds of years. If you are sensitive enough, mezcal can become a vehicle for the soul to understand the world with a more philosophical point of view, where everything is more gentle and blossoms at its right time, just like the agave.”
His words transport us back to that evening when we were sprawled on the couch of a Flemish bar, dreaming about Oaxacan fields crowded with spiky plants that radiate an emerald glow.