It’s a hot December afternoon in Santa Catarina Minas, a village 20 miles south of Oaxaca City, and I’m standing above a blackened hole in the ground.
A rich, sweet aroma fills the air. To my right, recently roasted agave hearts lie stacked against the wall. I’m in one of Oaxaca state’s 3,000 ‘palenques’, artisan distilleries where mezcal – a smoky spirit made from up to 30 varietals of agave plant – is made in the traditional way, with roasting pits, horse-drawn millstones and copper or clay stills.
This palenque belongs to Antonio Martinez, an amiable, moustachioed mezcalero in his late 30s. Antonio spent most of his life working in a distillery down the road, but two years ago, noticing mezcal was having a moment, he decided to go it alone. “I wanted something to pass down to my sons,” he says as he hands me a shot of espadin mezcal.
For centuries conquistadors and travellers have been seduced by Oaxaca’s myriad intoxicants. Spanish settlers learned to smoke tobacco from the Mayans (“cigar” comes from the Mayan word “sik’ar”) and marvelled at the aphrodisiac effects of cocoa pulp. The 60s brought hippies who lolloped through the mountains on psychedelic fungus. Even the most pious colonists, Dominican monks who renounced sex and alcohol, weren’t averse to rolling up a tobacco leaf and puffing away behind the cathedral.
In modern day Oaxaca City, intoxication begins as soon as you leave the airport. The smell of gasoline is intense. Take a taxi to the Centro district and the aromas improve: fried meat, barbecued corn, the occasional waft of liquorice and cinnamon – an ever-present reminder that, despite the preponderance of baroque churches, the primary focus of worship in Oaxaca is food and drink. On every street corner tacos, tortes, tostadas, tlayudas (a kind of Oaxacan pizza, grilled and folded) are whipped up with casual virtuosity. Every Saturday the central market overflows with limes, zucchini, onions, avocados, hanging meat, pungent moles, towering stacks of tostada and more varieties of chile than you knew existed.
Oaxacans’ are devoted sybarites, and an evening stroll through Centro comes with a soundtrack of fireworks, accordions, brass bands, singing and salsa music – sonic overspill from fiestas near and far. The deafening din means some form of pre-bedtime inebriation isn’t just fun, it’s necessary. It’s fortunate, then, that the city’s neatly cobbled streets abound with places to drink mezcal, from barely lit dives to upmarket bars with 200 varieties and a sommelier to tell you about each one.
In Mezcalerita, a shop-cum-bar on the north west side of Centro, I meet Mario, a young aficionado from the outskirts of the city. Like many Oaxacans, Mario believes mezcal offers a superior form of drunkenness. “With mezcal you feel different,” he says. “You feel happy, you feel wisdom. It’s not like with other liquors where you get aggressive or depressed. You drink a little bit, and you can speak a lot. And, because it’s organic, you don’t have a hangover.”
Pepe, a Oaxaca-based Spanish teacher with a sideline in flogging mezcal to gringos, agrees about the lack of hangover. For him, drinking mezcal is more akin to getting high than drunk. “It frees you emotionally. Makes you confident, boosts the ego. When you drink it you dance and talk to women.” His words confirm what I already suspect: there’s something macho about mezcal, which is why some mezcaleros put a scorpion in the bottle. “You gain strength from the scorpion,” says Pepe, “And it’s a way of showing you’re a man.”
Perhaps, but these days mezcal is celebrated more for its sophisticated flavour than its propensity to bring about merriment or bravado. Drinks experts speak of it in a language usually reserved for wine, with talk of ‘terroir’ and ‘the nose’. In London, Paris and LA it is the toast of the drinking scene. For a growing band of devotees, mezcal is the ultimate artisanal beverage, a drink of infinite complexity that rewards deep research and a willingness to delve into the back country to find the best stuff.
It’s quite a reversal: until relatively recently, mezcal was viewed within Mexico as mere moonshine, a poor relation of tequila, Jalisco state’s $2bn global behemoth. Tequila, which is made exclusively from blue agave, is technically a variety of mezcal, but the industrial processes involved in its production – often including the addition of artificial colouring and the boiling, rather than roasting, of agave – bear little resemblance to the artisanal methods used in the palenques of Oaxaca.
In Antonio’s palenque, 20 miles south of Centro, I cradle my clay-distilled espadin, another variety of agave. There’s a cluster of half-a-dozen or so bubbles floating on the surface of the liquid. Experienced mezcaleros can gauge the alcohol content by the number of bubbles. This one is 49 per cent. I raise it to my lips, inhale the fumes, and sip. The first taste is overwhelming, an anti-sceptic blast followed by fire cascading down my oesophagus. By the second I can distinguish different notes: smoke, menthol, a grassy, woody finish. “With the clay you still get the purest taste of agave,” says Antonio.
Mezcal’s distinctive taste – and mythology – has a lot to do with the mercurial nature of the plant from which it is made. Artisanal mezcal production is essentially an elaborate form of agave worship, an obsessive quest to capture the elusive essence of an elusive plant. A spiky succulent similar to aloe vera, agave can be spun into a wide range of sought after products, from creams to cosmetics to sugar substitutes. But cultivation is challenging. Of the 30 species that can be made into mezcal (there are 136 species in total), only espadin and blue agave have been successfully farmed on a large scale, and even they can take a decade or more to mature.
More prestigious varietals – for example tepextate, which makes for an unusually dry and herbaceous mezcal – must be harvested from the wild and can take over 30 years to ripen. This is why making quality mezcal generally includes no ageing process. “When an agave spends 15 or 20 or 30 years maturing and gaining in complexity on the mountainside, why would you then make it taste like an oak barrel? We serve it straight from the still – that’s the only way to preserve the true flavour of the agave.” says Mario.
The laborious nature of artisanal mezcal production contributes significantly to its mystique. In a drinks market that fetishises all things “craft”, its homespun, rickety image is a major asset, offering drinkers a connection to a process stretching back millennia. “These days people are more interested in the process,” says Mario. “They want to find out about different varietals beyond the obvious ones like espadin.”
Like many who care deeply about mezcal, Mario is worried about the drink’s future. As demand has grown, so have concerns about whether the current rate of harvest is sustainable. Another problem is drinks companies buying large plots of land and planting thousands of espadin where other wild agaves may have grown. “When they plant espadin they destroy the ground and stop wild agave from ever growing there again,” says Mario.
Another strange consequence of mezcal’s surge in popularity is that the artisan producers driving its resurgence often aren’t legally entitled to sell their produce as “mezcal”. Two decades ago, in an attempt to create a lucrative market out of the drink, the Mexican government created a “Denomination of Origin” limiting mezcal production to nine states. In the same way that tequila can only be sold as tequila if it hails from certain areas (mainly in Jalisco state), for a mezcalero to receive the official accreditaton they must complete a registration process that, for many small-time producers, is prohibitively expensive.
On the way back to Oaxaca city from Antonio’s I pass field after field of farmed espadin. Someone points out a Bacardi factory in the distance. Last year Diageo got in on the action, joining the likes of Cuervo and Scotch whisky producer William Grant & Sons in putting big money into mezcal brands. The circling of these big companies is a reminder that while these are undoubtedly exciting times for mezcal, that excitement comes with a shot of worry – and an acknowledgment that popularity may be the gravest challenge this storied drink has yet faced.