Last week, we traveled traveled through several mezcal-producing communities in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s most biodiverse states. There are a few other mezcal DO (denomination of origin) regions outside Oaxaca (e.g., Michoacán, Guerrero, Puebla), but Oaxaca is the state where most mezcal is produced.
Traditionally, the key markers of an artisanal mezcal are that it’s made from the heart, or pina, of any agave (not just blue agave, required for tequila). Traditionally, the pina is cooked in a pit, crushed with mallets or in a tahona (big stone wheel grinder), fermented in wood through natural fermentation using airborne yeasts, and finally distilled in a clay or copper pot.
Stateside, mezcal is having a moment, hot at hipster bars and established Mexican restaurants, inspiring many to ask, “Where the hell have you been all my life?” Of course, mezcal has been part of Mexican life for centuries; to hear mezcal maven Lou Bank tell it, agave-based distilled spirits were perhaps sipped by indigenous peoples even before Cortez came a-knocking at Montezuma’s golden door.
Mezcal, like wine, tastes powerfully of place. Agaves live in the ground for years, sometimes decades, before harvesting, and mezcal conveys the herbaceousness of local plants, the dry heat of Mexican sunlight, and the unique flavors of specific agave species (e.g. Espadin, Arroqueno, etc.).
Though mezcal can be purchased in the States for upwards of $80 for a good 750ml bottle, those bottles have to be certified by Mexican authorities. Certification costs money, so a lot of the price for certified mezcal is not going back to the people who make this spirit. It’s going toward the cost of doing business. The mezcal we bought was considerably less expensive; the makers are not certified, they don’t advertise, and most of their beverages seem crafted for a tightly local market, neighbors and others, who sip it on many occasions, including family celebrations like quinceañeras and religious holidays.
Traveling through Oaxaca, I shot photos of mezcaleros: agaveros who tend the plants, palenqueros who roast, smash and ferment the pina, and the maestro, the master of this time-honored ceremony of taking a plant that flourishes in a hostile environment and then transmuting it into a spirit that reflects the land from which it came and the people who brought it forth. Here are some of the people who are making it possible for all of us to taste Mexico, the soon-to-be-walled-off republic that continues to fascinate with foods and spirits that make us very happy to be eating and drinking and alive.