Troy Hightower

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Artisanal mezcal has gained greatly in popularity in recent years—production has risen more than seven-fold in the last decade— and much of the best comes from Oaxaca and Puebla, so we have a chance to get a decent introduction to this other distillation of agave heart.

Tequila and mezcal are both similar and different. Tequila can only be made using blue agave grown in specific regions of the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made with any of over 200 types of agave, known also as maguey, grown in many more Mexican states, including Oaxaca and Puebla.  These range from from the spiky-leafed espadín to the short, wavy-leafed tobala to the treelike barril. Like tequila, mezcal is made by harvesting mature agave, cutting away to the heart, or pina, roasting that—in mezcal’s case, in a wood fired stone-lined pit—hence the smokiness—and fermenting the result in open air vats with natural yeast. The result is then distilled, either in copper or clay pots, and then after a second distillation becomes joven mezcal.

Some purists say that joven, unaged, is the only true mezcal, but more open minded mescaleros feel that there is room in the market for reposado and anejo mezcal, aged in wood. Experts can supposedly tell the difference between copper and clay-distilled spirits—the theory that the traditional clay imparts an earthier flavor—but bartenders we talked with said it’s very subtle. The biggest difference in flavors between mezcals can be attributed to the type of maguey grapes in wine.

The final filip is a variation called mezcal de pechuga, which means breast, and is created when the mezcal is distilled a third time, along with a proprietary mix of wild fruit, nuts, spices, and even mole, and with bundles of chicken breast hung from the still over the boiling liquid. The added botanicals give a sweetness and, and the meat is said to add collagen to provide a richness. Some distillers use turkey or rabbit, and there is a rumor of iguana. The mezcal doesn’t, however, taste like chicken. The pechuga con mole poblano we tried was sweetish, earthly, and spicy...and delicious.

To assist consumer understanding, artisanal mezcal will list the town from which it comes, the type of maguey, and possibly the name of the mescalero—that’s how lists in bars and restaurants are organized. In our four-day stay in Oaxaca we have the opportunity to try quite a few—there are mezcalerias all over town, plus the restaurants. But it’s really only a surface scratch. 

There are many mezcalatecas or mescalarieas in Oaxaca, and we have the opportunity to do some comparative tasting on a couple of occasions. The bar at the restaurant El Destilado has an extensive list, and we manage to score two stools on an exceptionally busy night. Their house brand is 5 Sentidos—which refers to the five senses, as well as five master distillers in five regions. We sample joven shots made from the most common maquey, Espadin, which is clean, rich and slightly smoky, and from there move to the more exotic Tobala—which is more complex with earthy, floral, and spicy characteristics.    Tepextate is more tropical in nature, and seems even deeper in intensity, with spicy notes. Finally, the Pechuga de Mole Poblano has a slighltly savory sense with an overlay of spice and dried fruit, a nice oily mouth feel, with a very long finish.

El Distilero also sports a list of exotic craft mescal based cocktails, and we sample a couple: the Tepache Marg, made with mezcal, orange bitters, chile poblano liqueur and tepache, a spiced pineapple liqueur—different, but quite tasty. The Negroni Solera 82 Dias features mezcal, red vermouth and Campari aged in a small wood barrel. It tastes like a negroni, but with an exotic smoky twist from replacing the gin with mescal.

On New Years Eve, we wander a few blocks across the hood from our apartment and find two stools at La Mezcalerita—preparations are underway for a big NYE blowout celebration on the roof terrace. The bar again has an extensive list, and we start tasting two 30ml shots from their house collection, the varieties Tobasche and Tobala. Both are nice, fairly light, and slightly smokey. We ask the barman to recommend a couple that he thinks are really good, and he first pulls out a bottle of the Tepextate variety with the wonderful brand name of Viejo Indecente—“dirty old man”. This has a much richer, deeper flavor with a smoke that’s substantially more intense and sweet at the same time. Next he pours the Mexicana variety from El Jolgorio (beautiful label art), which combines baking spices, deep smoke and a lingering long finish—just incredible. Quality and price go hand in hand, as in so many things, and these last two are three-plus times the cost of the first. Finally, we feel we should try pechuga again, and are poured a shot of Real Minero, which is triple-distilled in clay ollas from the espadin variety. There are notes of clove & cinnamon, dried fruits and a noticeable hint of—yes—chicken broth. While interesting, the previous two are definitely more to our taste. 

We have a small bottle of tobala that we acquired from our local guide to artisan villages, Alberto and his wife Claudia, who are trying to establish a market for it under the brand Chosa Nostra—we’ll have a toast to the new year at midnight, or however late we make it……..

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