If you’ve ever had a small shot, or even better, a bottle of mezcal sitting on the table in front of you and your family and friends, maybe you’ve stopped to wonder where that artisanal bottle of mezcal with it’s handsome, crisp label came from. Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t mass produced in some soulless factory. Nope, it came from someone’s father’s or grandfather’s property in Mexico where they roast, grind, and ferment the agave for artisanal mezcal production. In Mexico, this place is called a palenque and mezcal is legally only allowed to be produced on these traditional, family-owned palenques.
See, the thing is, after the Mexican government saw how tequila became monopolized and commercialized by a few individuals, they wanted to avoid the same thing happening to mezcal as it gained national and international popularity. The government wanted to ensure that the wealth could be shared across states and local producers, not just in one state, from one agave, by a handful of producers like tequila is today. Not only is that good news for Mexican mezcal producers across the country, but it’s amazing for us, the consumer, who now have hundreds of different mezcals from a variety of agaves, states, and producers to choose from!
While there are nine Mexican states that can produce mezcal and legally call it that, if you’ve ever tried mezcal it’s likely been from Oaxaca, the OG mezcal state. The city of Oaxaca itself is beyond beautiful and charming, with amazing food, culture, and of course, lots of mezcal. Jorge and I drove from Mexico City to Oaxaca for the sole purpose of hunting for exceptional mezcal in palenques outside the city on ranches surrounded by agave-covered mountains and tiny, remote towns with no street names.
We began our mezcal hunt in a small town called San Juan del Rio, an hour and a half from Oaxaca City. It was a scenic drive along dusty, dirt roads that wound through arid mountains. We were well on our way in Jorge’s trusty, red Suzuki Swift, or Swifty as we like to call him, when we reached a toll. We were low on gas so Jorge told the attendant where we were headed and asked how far until the next gas station. ‘You just passed it,’ the attendant replied in Spanish and proceeded to kindly tell us how to get back to the nearest gas station. When we returned to the toll with a full tank of gas, the attendant, who sees who-knows-how-many cars pass by each day, said, ‘San Juan del Rio, right?’ and kindly gave us thorough directions to reach our destination. Jorge and I looked at each other with impressed faces. ‘That guy remembered us and where we were going. People have a totally different mindset here,’ Jorge said to me as we passed through the toll.
Feeling happy and light as air, we turned off the paved highway and onto a dirt road. We drove under the beating mid-day sun with our windows all the way down, letting the wind whip our hair in our faces and the dust collect on the dashboard. Wild agave, including tobalá, mexicana, tepeztate, and jabali, were sprinkled about the hillside. The leaves of the toabala were a pale green and curved inwards with sharp, blood-red spines at the tip. In addition to wild agave, the perfectly planted rows of teal-colored espadín contrasted brilliantly against the rusty soil of the hills. The fully mature espadíns stood 4 feet tall, their sword-like leaves overlapping one another’s, forming an impenetrable wall. This was espadín country and we knew we were getting close to our destination.
We arrived at the first palenque where the master mezcalero, Oscar, welcomed us into his workspace. He appeared much younger than I was expecting and couldn’t have been older than his mid 30’s. He led us up a set of stairs, our shoes sticking with every step from the sweet, spilt fermentation, to the second floor of the palenque where a massive cement wheel rested on a track in front of us. Weighing more than half a ton, the wheel is pulled by a work horse or bull in order to crush the agave hearts that have been previously cooked for three days in a stone-lined pit.
The next step in the process is the fermentation. We walked back down the sticky stairs into the room where fifteen giant wooden vats sit for eight to sixteen days full of fermenting crushed agave hearts and warm water. What you have once the fermentation is complete is a golden, bitter-sweet agave juice whose caramel aromas waft through the palenque.
The final part of this grand production is the distillation of alcohol in heated copper stills. Oscar let us see first hand just how this process works and enlisted Jorge to help him transfer the agave juice and chunks of the agave pulp from the wooden vats into the copper stills. Once full, the copper stills are heated, the alcohol evaporates and then condenses into special jugs through stainless steel pipes. This alcohol is the the result of the first distillation and the process will be repeated a second time to remove excess water and create a second distillation with a higher concentration of alcohol which will be the final product, mezcal!
After all that tiring work of watching Jorge shovel agave out of the wooden barrel, I was ready to try some of Oscar’s mezcal. We walked just opposite of the palenque and up a flight of cinder-block stairs to Oscar’s mezcal storage room. Floor to ceiling was almost entirely covered with mezcal reserves. Oscar poured us several different types of mezcal to try in a hard shell of a local fruit. Next, he showed us how to measure the alcohol content using bubbles, also called pearls, that form on the surface of the mezcal when you agitate it by shaking it or preferably using a piece of bamboo as a straw to suck in mezcal and let it fall out of the bamboo back into the cup of mezcal. The size of the bubbles and the amount of time they stay without popping provides the range of percent alcohol of the mezcal. We left Oscar’s palenque with a deeper understanding of the mezcal process, several liters of espadín, and an excitement to discover more mezcal.
The next day, we made our way to the second of three palenques we would visit during our weekend in Oaxaca. It was in a small town where you’re better off relying on locals rather than street names (if there are any) to get you where you’re trying to go. Jorge pulled up next to an older man wearing a ten-gallon hat, rolled down the window, and asked in Spanish, ‘Good afternoon, do you know where Señor Alberto lives?’ ‘Fernandez or Guerrero?’ the man asked. That’s the charm of these small towns (or maybe the lack of privacy) everyone knows each other by first and last name as well as where they live. With the man’s help, we found our way to Alberto’s front gate. We could see a gathering of family and friends seated outside in plastic chairs at a fold out table. An older man, in his seventies, that we recognized as Alberto, stood up and slowly walked to the gate to let us in. We shook hands and then he walked us over to where the group of ten was gathered.
The modest cinder-block house only took up a small piece of the property, the rest was left for the palenque, the goats, an outhouse, and the table where they all gathered around. They greeted us with warm smiles, told us to take a seat, poured us a shot of mezcal, and insisted we eat some of the cheese, tostadas, and chicharron (fried pork skin) that was on the table. Like most people we’ve met in small towns, they assumed Jorge and I were a married couple. When they found out we weren’t, they enthusiastically told us to come back and get married in town where they would give us an excellent deal for a cow, goats, chickens, and 60 liters of mezcal for the wedding. I had a feeling this family was going to show us a good time.
An older woman walked over to us with a large bushel of pinkish yellow fruits in hand. It was Alberto’s wife. She had a kind, tanned face that showed many decades of living under the harsh Oaxaca sun and her hair was wrapped in a colorful cloth on the top of her head. The bushel of fruit was a piñuela and it comes from the agave where it gets its name. The piñuela is the fruit of the agave that they cook to for several days in order to make piñuela mezcal. They invited us to peel open a piece of the fruit to try its sweet, sticky insides. I watched one of the children bite into the fruit with his front teeth (or what was left of them). One tooth was missing and hadn’t grown back in and the other one was coated in silver. I followed his lead and bit into the fruit myself. I tasted a caramel-like nectar thanks to the days the piñuela spent cooking in a wood-burning pit in the earth.
After tasting the pure piñuela fruit, I had a completely different experience with the piñuela mezcal in my hand. Initially, all I tasted was alcohol. Not surpsising because the mezcal contained 70% alcohol and still needed to be brought down to the legal maximum of 55%. However, after tasting the fruit itself I recognized the fruity notes in the mezcal immediately. This became even more evident as we tasted the mezcal that was ready for market with a lower percent alcohol. Even though it’s served in a shot glass, these subtle flavors in mezcal is why you slowly sip it, savoring its smoky goodness, and not take it in a single shot.
As we were getting ready to go, the family made sure we didn’t leave empty handed. Alberto’s wife brought out a steaming plater of barbacoa (slow-roasted goat meat) onto the table. We filled hand-made, white-corn tortillas with tender pieces of barbacoa while the family insisted we eat more and more before we even had a chance to finish what was on our plates. As we finished eating, Alberto’s son handed us a couple three liter bottles of Coke filled with barril and piñuela mezcal. We thanked the family profusely for their hospitality and continued our journey to the third and final palenque.
We drove even further away from Oaxaca City until we were in the town of Miahuatlan. We sat in the car with the A/C blasting while we waited for Raul, the owner of the third Palenque. Raul looked different than the other mezcaleros. Firstly, at 28 years old he was much younger, but also he looked more like a clean-cut city kid than a ranchero. He climbed into the car with us and from the back seat, he directed us to his family ranch. As we arrived, five excited dogs greeted us with wagging tails and loud barks. Two large bulls grazed in the shade of a large tree and chickens were pecking at the ground around the bulls’ hooves. The ranch looked very well-kept and inviting. The main house was a cheery bright yellow and across from it was the large cement wheel and roasting pit (standard for every palenque). This palenque in particular was known for its cuish mezcal thanks to its plentiful, wild supply.
We entered a windowless shed where Raul stored his mezcal. He gave us cuish, madre cuish, and an ensemble of madre cuish and espadín to try. When Jorge and I took our first sip of the cuish we looked at each other, Jorge’s eyes lit up, and we knew this cuish was something special. It was even better than we had hoped and was a reminder of what this whole trip was about, finding incredible mezcal. It was like the liquid gold we were searching for on this mezcal treasure hunt. We also took a couple liters of the ensemble because it was a mezcal you don’t come across very often. After we had finished the tasting, Raul brought us apples to snack on as we casually walked around the ranch and talked all things mezcal, Oaxaca, and ranch life. Raul’s ranch was a peaceful escape from the city and I had fun admiring the animals and playing with the calico farm cat.
We took the scenic route on our drive back to Miahuatlan as Raul identified different wild agaves for us. After dropping Raul off, Jorge and I stopped for delicious road-side tasajo (a thin, salty, tender Oaxacan beef) tacos and made the two hour drive back to Oaxaca City where we would spend one more night before heading back to Mexico City.
With our exciting weekend of hunting mezcal behind us and a scenic six hour drive back to Mexico City ahead, all that we had experienced and learned started to seep in. The next time we share a crisp bottle of mezcal with family and friends, we’ll see it for what it really is, the heart and soul of a family who has been making this very Mexican alcohol for generations. We’ll see the charred agave hearts cooking in the pit in the earth and the cement wheel and the bull used to crush the agave. We’ll smell the sweet, caramel aromas of fermentation and taste the fruitiness of the agave with each sip. We’ll see the maestro mezcaleros perfecting their craft that was passed down to them for generations to share with their family and friends. Above all, we’ll see Oscar, Alberto, and Raul who welcomed us onto their planenques and into their families for that weekend. They gave us some of the best mezcal we’ve ever tasted and we couldn’t wait to share our treasure trove of mezcal with family and friends.