You’ve probably tried tequila but what about mezcal? A drink of amazing variety and complexity, mezcal is handcrafted in Oaxacan villages. The artisanal production ensures that each batch has its own unique flavor.
Heading east from Oaxaca City along the Pan American highway, you pass field after field of green spiky agave plants. For the most part these are agave espadin, the type of agave most commonly used to make mezcal. Unlike tequila, which is made solely from the blue agave, mezcal can be made from a variety of different species of agave.
There are several distilleries along this section of the Pan American highway, but continue on past the Mitla archaeological site until you arrive at the small town of Matatlan where a large sign announces that you have arrived at the cradle of mezcal-making. Many local families who produce their own version of this spirit will be happy to show you the mezcal production process. Matatlan is off the main tourist routes, but it is definitely worth the trip.
Agave potatorum is the scientific name of the highly prized agave used to make Tobala mezcal. Producers search the high reaches of the pine and oak forests of Oaxaca state for this rare, wild variety of agave. Much smaller than a cultivated agave, it takes eight agaves of the Tobala variety to provide the equivalent amount of nectar that is obtained from one agave espadin. For this reason, Tobala is distilled in very small quantities, and is highly valued for its sweet and earthy flavor.
Like tequilas, mezcals vary widely in price and quality. The white, unaged mezcal is called joven that sometimes comes with a worm inside the bottle (actually it’s a larva found in the agave plant). Reposado mezcal is aged for six months and añejo is aged for a year or more.
A slice of fresh orange coated in sal de gusano (salt mixed with chile and ground worms) is the best accompaniment to a fine mezcal—which should be taken straight, and sipped slowly to appreciate its complex flavors, and why it’s the distilled pride of Oaxaca.