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Mezcal Crash Course: Two Oaxacan Palenques and a Mezcaleria

Prior to my trip to Oaxaca, I might sheepishly admit that I don’t think I’d ever tried mezcal. I don’t know how, but I guess I always thought it was pretty much like tequila, just a little more…… rustic and smoky. Well, all those impressions have certainly changed! Mezcal is the relatively high alcohol content Mexican agave distillate, the vast majority of which is produced in the state of Oaxaca. One of my favorite days during the 5-Day Oaxaca Getaway with Club Tengo Hambre took us out into the Valles Centrales countryside for a crash course in mezcal.

Destilería de Mezcal: Palenque Ancestral “El Conejo”

Our first family-run palenque visit took us to the home of “El Conejo,” aka Antonio Carlos Martinez. El Conejo is an ancestral palenque, which is an important distinction that we learned about. The three main classifications of mezcal production are ancestral, artesanal, and industrial.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

Antonio was a wonderful host and was so friendly and personable. He walked us through all the steps of how they make their mezcal, starting from the dirt pit where they toss in all the agave hearts (piñas). Then they bury it underground in the pit and roast it with firewood and hot rocks.

After it roasts for a long time (can be up to a week), an interesting step is when they make a hole in the top of the pile, and pour water down into it which causes a huge release of steam, taking with it all the smoke. Mezcal by nature is a bit smoky, but it’s not supposed to be too smoky, so this step ensures that the mezcal will taste right.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo" | Antonio Carlos Martinez

From there, the piñas are removed and hacked into chunks with a machete. Then they have to be crushed so they can ferment. There are a few ways to do this, but here at El Conejo, they do it the really difficult way which is to smash it by hand with a huge mallet. A few of us got to try our hands at this, and it was pretty exhausting after just a few whacks.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

The fibrous pulp gets moved into these giant wooden barrels where they will ferment. We actually got to try some of the juice from these barrels. It had a very mild taste. I think it was basically pulque at this point.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo" | Antonio Carlos Martinez

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo" | Antonio Carlos Martinez

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

Then we moved over to the place where the distilling happens: in clay pots. This is the number one characteristic of an ancestral mezcal. Antonio explained that he can’t sleep much during this distillation process. In some of the other steps he can take brief naps, but during this important process he has to be watching it at all times.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

Finally it was time for the tasting! We headed to the tasting room and were treated to 11 different samples. It is common that a mezcalero will offer tastings of all the batches that they have on hand at the moment.

While mezcal can be aged to a reposado or añejo state, we learned that it doesn’t need to be and many would argue that it shouldn’t be. It’s the purest expression of the terroir of the agave and the maestro’s skill to drink it right away (joven). Why cover up all the work that they did just to age it in oak barrels?

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

Someone in our group made the joke that the best mezcals are found in plastic jugs, labeled with sharpies. I actually came to find out that this is a true observation.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

Our group tried every one of these 11 different types. Mezcal is strong stuff, coming in around 50% ABV. I think I managed about 8 before I said “no mas.” It was so hot (about 94 degrees), and I felt like I was baking from the inside and the outside.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

Each of these 11 different types are a species of agave. There is one ensemble on this list, which is a blend of two kinds. Most of them are wild agaves, except for Espadin which is a very common variety that can be cultivated and has a short maturation time of just 8 years. Many, if not all, of the other agaves do not do well in cultivation and have to be found in the wild, and the wild varieties can take 20-30 years. Unfortunately the wild agave availability is nearly gone, and it will be at least 12 years before more can grow.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque Ancestral "El Conejo"

El Torito in San Baltazar Chichicapam: Artesanal Mezcal

We said adios to El Conejo and headed further east to the little town of San Baltazar Chichicapam. I enjoyed looking out the window at the wild, arid countryside.

Oaxacan countryside | Carr. San Dionsio

Oaxacan countryside | Carr. San Dionsio

We arrived at our second palenque, El Torito which is owned by maestra mezcalera Angélica García Vásquez. Angelica’s husband died when her children were young, so she had no choice but to take up the family mezcal business and this was at a time when a female mezcalera was quite unusual. And in general, she was not always welcomed by the male-dominated industry, to say the least.

She persevered through the hostility, and is still doing very well, assisted by her now-adult children and their families.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito
Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

The roasted agave piñas are chopped up, in preparation for the horse to arrive to pull the stone and crush the piñas. In this case she said the horse was coming the next day to pull the tahona, which is this giant stone wheel.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

This palenque uses copper pots for the distillation, which is what categorizes it as artesanal mezcal.

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito
<em>This is their newest bottle design They are still trying to get the labeling approved<em>

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

Happy and honored that I got to meet this tough woman!

Oaxacan Mezcal | Palenque El Torito

Someone in our group asked both maestro mezcaleros which was their favorite agave, and both of them said they did not have a favorite. They both said that all agaves have usefulness. Isn’t that interesting? It was not about taste or preference, but about utility.

Mezcal Tasting in Oaxaca at Mezcaloteca

Lastly, our mezcal education continued the next night at one of Oaxaca City’s best tasting rooms, Mezcaloteca. Walking in, you are immediately overcome by the very strong smoky aroma of mezcal.

Mezcaloteca | Mezcal Tasting room in Oaxaca

This was a different type of tasting experience. Whereas our previous day’s travels took us to two palenques where we sampled only the mezcal made right there on site, in this tasting room we sampled mezcals from different places. Most of which were all still within the State of Oaxaca, but it’s a large area. It was interesting to compare and contrast the different styles and agaves.

Mezcaloteca | Mezcal Tasting room in Oaxaca

Mezcaloteca sources all their mezcals from local producers, likely from plastic bottles as shown above, and then bottles them in their own bottles with uniform labels for easy comparison. If you’ve ever been to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh, you will notice a similar thing. When the bottles are all very plain and uniform, you focus on the taste and characteristics only and you aren’t swayed by differences in packaging.

Mezcaloteca | Mezcal Tasting room in Oaxaca

Five tastings done!

Probably my favorite of that night was the pechuga. A pechuga is a mezcal that is flavored with meat (usually turkey or chicken), and various other spices. Carla asked us to guess what the flavors were, and nobody could identify it. Turns out it was snails and frogs, and a little cucumber.

Mezcaloteca | Mezcal Tasting room in Oaxaca

At the end of my time in Oaxaca, I feel much more educated about mezcal, and I can now especially appreciate the handcrafted nature of it. And I can definitely read and understand a mezcal bottle label now. It is so much more complex than tequila, simply for the vast differences in agaves that can be used. Do I like mezcal? Well, I have to admit it’s not my favorite because it’s soooo strong. I find it a little painful to sip and pretty corrosive.

But still, after sooo many tastings I definitely picked up on variations of flavor and different characteristics. The smokiness is pretty overwhelming, but I did develop an affectionate nostalgia for that smokiness that takes me right back to Oaxaca. I did have some great mezcal cocktails on my trip, though. It’s not the most traditional way to enjoy mezcal, but it sure does taste good!


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