If you're headed to Oaxaca – or really anywhere in Mexico – you should know a little something about the spirit called Mezcal.
Think of mezcal like a smokey and complex cousin of tequila. It's the pride of Oaxaca, Mexico, where it has a long and rich history going back centuries. Today, it's become incredibly popular with bartenders around the world.
Unlike the mass-produced tequilas you find in liquor stores near and far, nearly every mezcal you'll find is artisanal – no two batches taste alike. And with the differences between individual producers to the dozens of different varieties based on which agave plant is used, you can find every flavor, from smokey to salty, fruity to floral, or herbal and green.
Here is a brief introduction to this unique spirit.
Oaxaca, the Birthplace of Mezcal
You can find great mezcals and bars slinging it all over the U.S. and Mexico, especially Mexico City. But if you really want to learn about this artisanal spirit, you need to go to Oaxaca.
This state in central Mexico is known for it's rich and complex food as well as its history, with pre-hispanic peoples whose traditions remain a focal point in local customs and cultures. And mezcal is a part of that rich history.
Though mezcal is produced in a handful of states throughout Mexico, the vast majority comes from Oaxaca. And to get to the heart of this amazing spirit, you need to go the source.
All About the Agave
You can't have mezcal without the agave.
Agave is a group of plants that have succulent leaves and a center called the piña, or heart. They grow very slowly in hot and arid conditions and need little water. Native to Central America, agave plants have been used for hundreds of years for food and drink.
In Oaxaca, they refer to the agave plants used to make mezcal as maguey.
Mezcal Versus Tequila
Just like wine comes from grapes, mezcal and tequila are made from agave. And just like many different kinds of grapes make wine, there are many different kinds of agave plants.
True, higher quality, tequila is made from one type of agave: Blue weber. Meanwhile, mezcal can be made from 30-50 maguey plants. The amount varies depending on who you talk to. On menus throughout Oaxaca and Mexico City, you will regularly see about 20 or more types of mezcal.
The other major difference between tequila and mezcal is the production method. While Blue Weber agave needs at least five years to mature for tequila production, maguey plants are anywhere between seven and 30 years old. And some of them only grow in the wild.
And that sets the stage for just how different the production process is between these alcoholic cousins. Tequila production is an industrial affair, using ovens and a distillation process that's common for many spirits around the world. Aging in oak barrels gives it some signature flavor, and styles will vary from producer to producer. But with tequila, you know what you're going to get.
Mezcal production is entirely different. It's far more artisanal, often shepherded by small, family-run businesses. It's less regulated and has only recently entered the mainstream.
Making a bottle of mezcal looks like this: Producers harvest the maguey, some of which are as old as 30 years and grow only in the wild. Mezcaleros chop the plant down, leaves and all, to its piña, or heart. These are roasted in a fire pit for a day or longer – giving mezcal its signature smoky taste – before they're crushed to release a sugary juice. Ferment and distill this juice, and you've got mezcal.
Thrifty Tip: The full process of making Mezcal is much more complex. The best way to learn about Mezcal and its producers is to go on a tour! Check out tours in Oaxaca through Airbnb Experiences, where you'll learn the in's and outs of production, taste, and use in cocktails including stopping at local Mezcalerias like Cuish.
Once you factor in all the different kinds of agave, their age, and different production methods, there's so much variety to mezcal. Even bottlings of the same type of mezcal from one producer will taste different.
That's what makes mezcal exciting.
Where to Start Drinking Mezcal
Other than ordering cocktails made with mezcal, the best place is to start is just to start trying different types of mezcal.
All across Oaxaca City, you'll find plenty of Mezcalarias like Los Amantes – bars pouring from just one mezcal producer.
You can try 1 or 2 ounces of Espadin, Tobala, Tobaziche, Barril, Tepezate, Arroqueño and more – just a few of the many different types of mezcal.
Then add in the ages of joven (young), and reposado and añjeo which are aged in oak. It can be very overwhelming.
Espadin is the most approachable kind of mezcal and a great starting point. It's fruity and smooth and the most widely available agave – and its most popular.
Thrifty Tip: There aren't a ton of liquor stores to buy Mezcal in the center of Oaxaca City. Instead, each Mezcaleria will sell you bottles. Buy a bottle or two to bring home of your favorites! It will never be cheaper, even with a checked bag fee. Just pack a few bottles in your suitcase.
Start with 1 ounce of Espadin and then go from there. Compare Espadins at different Mezcalerias or order different types from the same. Head to the rooftop of Le Mezcaleria and order a few different mezcals to share with friends. Tasting a few side-by-side will give you a feel for just how different mezcals can be.
Your order will come in a shot glass, but do not gulp it down all at once. Mezcal is meant to be sipped … or as they say in Oaxaca, take little “besitos” or little kisses. Appreciate the complexity of this artisanal spirit that took years to make!
If hard liquor isn't your thing – and even if it is – you need to try pulque (pronounced puhl-kay). This refreshing, low-alcohol drink is made from the sap of the maguey plant and predates mezcal. It's only 2% to 4% ABV and tastes somewhat similar to kombucha.
Our tour guide warned us to be careful. You can drink pulque quickly and after a few glasses (or six) you can get pretty drunk – or as she said, “go boneless.”
Mezcal is one of the most interesting spirits with a long history. It is incredibly popular around the U.S. and you'll find it at any craft cocktail bar.
Tasting and learning about Mezcal in Oaxaca will give you an insight into the local culture. Give it a taste – or at least a few besitos!
Read More: Don't Miss Oaxaca, Mexico's Up-and-Coming Hot Spot, The Top 9 Foods and Treats You Need to Eat in Oaxaca,
Want the best flight deals and travel tips delivered to your inbox?
Sign up for Thrifty Traveler, and like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter & Instagram
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.
There are in fact several shops that sell mezcal by the bottle, as well as a wide selection of vendors at the mercado in the middle of Oaxaca Centro.