Where to Sample Mezcal in Oaxaca
The sweet smell of something novel and intangible filled our senses. Novel to us, but the people of this valley have known it for generations. The smell, not unlike molasses, but not exactly like it either, combined with row after row of agave, their pointed blades branching out under the blue sky, told us we were getting close. We were in search of the source of Mexico’s oldest distilled drink – mezcal. A recent addition to trendy bars across the United States, this fiery liquid has been enjoyed by the people of Mexico for at least five hundred years.
In Oaxaca, mezcal is fundamental to everyday living. It’s a way to welcome people to your home, celebrate a special occasion, and a cure for many ailments. It can be an offering left at the grave of an ancestor. Drink it properly, I am told, and you won’t get a hangover.
El Rey de Matatlan has been distilling this traditional liqueur since 1950. We’ve tried many mezcals in Oaxaca and this, in our opinion, is some of the finest. We’ve come here to see the production in action and sample the many varieties.
We get off the bus and walk into the little bar beside a tired horse tethered to an ancient grindstone in front of a copper still spewing steam. Jaime greets us with a smile and ushers us forward.
Jamie explains that mezcal can be made from many types of agave. Espadín is the most common. It is the easiest to cultivate, takes only ten years to mature and can be grown in large quantities. In recent years, other wild varieties have been used. Tobalá, a tiny and extremely popular variety, grows only at high altitudes under oak trees. It takes 15 years to mature, and only yields about two bottles per plant. Tepeztate can take as many as 30 years to ripen. Many have tried to find methods to cultivate these stubborn succulents, but they remain resistant to any attempts at domestication.
The new popularity of these wild varieties is a great boon to local producers, but also a cause for concern. Demand, both in Mexico and abroad, is far outpacing the supply. Each bottle produced brings these wild plants a little closer to extinction.
Jamie, however, seems little concerned as he continues to explain the production process. Throughout its history, mezcal production has been a small operation. Families cultivate small plots of agave. When it is ready for harvesting they remove the leaves and roots, leaving just the heart, or piña, which can weigh over 80 pounds each.
Unlike tequila, which is roasted in ovens, to prepare the agave for mezcal the piñas are smoked in earthen pits for several days. This gives the drink its distinctive smoky flavor. When they are sufficiently smoked, the piñas are mashed under a stone wheel driven by a horse. After the mash ferments it is distilled in a large copper still. The final result is the powerful and tasty spirit for which the region is famous.
At the bar we sample several varietals. Limes dipped in a mixture of salt, chili, and ground worms, is used as a palate cleanser between samples. Alysa and I are particularly enamoured with the aged mezcal, or añejo. This dark brown version is aged in oak barrels for eight years, giving it a smooth and gentle flavor that just slightly tickles the nose when sipped. We will be bringing a bottle back with us to share with the friends we make on our further travels.
While there are countless tasting rooms, restaurants, and bars in the city to try mezcal, we highly recommend visiting a distillery for a the complete educational experience.
To get to El Rey de Matatlan
Take any Tlacolula, Mitla, or Teotitlan bound bus or colectivo (9-12 pesos). Tell the driver you want to get off at the road to Teotitlan. The distillery is located on the right side of the highway right next to the turn off.
(Note: there is another distillery next to El Rey de Matatlan whose employees may try to usher to their tasting room. We did not try their mezcal, so we cannot vouch for them).