Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Mezcal Day Trips Around Oaxaca

Trip date: October 2023 

Oaxaca isn't just a city in Mexico, it is also a state. And in this state 90% of the mezcal in Mexico is produced. Certified mezcal can only be from the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Zacatecas. Traditionally, and to be certified, all mezcal is made from 100% agave or maguey (maguey is a member of the agave family) and no other sugars may be added during fermentation.

There are plenty of places in town to taste mezcal, but I really wanted to go out into the growing regions and see some working palenques (mezcal distilleries). So Aaron reached out to his friend Dari Silva, who does private tours in the area, and Dari created a plan for a full day trip for us. 

He picked us up early one morning, stopped at his favorite coffee spot on the way out of Oaxaca so we could fuel up, and then we hit the road, driving for about 1 ½ hours south. Our first stop was for breakfast!

Dari stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere and pulled up to an outdoor kitchen set up near Zoritana. We started with tamales, one with beef and one with green chili, and then he ordered us birria tacos with a delicious consummé. Fantastic!

Back on the road, we reached our first palenque about 2 ½ hours south of Oaxaca in the area of Miahuatlán. This area is in the mountainous Sierra Sur region and is known for the large diversity of agave, both wild and cultivated, as well as the long tradition of distilling. 

Dari introduced us to 75-year old Felipe Cortés Venegas who has been a maestro since 1960. A maestro mezcalero, or master mezcal maker, is more than just a title for someone making the agave spirit. These men come from generations of traditional family mezcal production and continue to use artisanal processes today. Felipe learned the craft from his father, who learned it from his father before him, and his son Ageo is now the 4th generation to produce mezcal. Felipe's younger brother Margarito is also a maestro.
We sat down outside on the covered patio and Dari started pouring us tastes of mezcal from different plastic bottles while Felipe explained each. 

A little about mezcal for those of you who might not know what it is. Mezcal is made from the agave plant and can be made from many different varietals. Maguey is the name for about 30 different varieties of plants in the agave genus. The most well-known maguey is the blue weber agave, which is the only plant allowed in the making of tequila. So technically, all tequila is mezcal and all magueys are agaves, but not all agaves are magueys. Claro?

The writing on the bottles include the year the mezcal was made, who made it (Felipe or Ageo) and the varietals of maguey used; such as Tepextate, Espadín, Coyote, Tobalá, Bicuixe, Tobaziche, Arroqueño... 

Almost immediately I realized that this is very similar to wine making/grape varietals/terroir. Once I started thinking of it like that I found it much easier to follow along. I mean I don't see a bunch of grapes and immediately know if they are grenache or merlot, same for those maguays! 

Each taste was a bit different, and none had the overly smoky charistic that we so often think of with mezcal. It was really interesting! After a bit of tasting, Dari led us out on the property to the traditional outdoor distilling setup. 

Everything is done here on the property; Felipe has a very large field where he grows his maguey (as well as some corn and beans) and unlike other maestros, he rarely has the need to buy from others. 

Mezcal is made from the heart of the agave plant, called the piña, so when it's time to harvest the leaves are hacked off until just the piña remains. These are then roasted in huge pits dug into the ground, covered, and left for days.

Then they bring the roasted piña to the palenque and grind it using an ox and stone wheel. 

The pulp and juices are then put into open-air wooden vessels to ferment for anywhere from 3 to 8 days. Their palenque is 30 years old and as is traditional has a wood-fired oven that heats the 2 copper alambique stills during distillation. No electricity, no temperature gauges, just Felipe or Ageo deciding when things are ready. Truly artisan. 

We headed back for more tastings, we did almost 20! This time Felipe pulled out some older vintages and also a few pechuga mezcals. This is when fresh fruit (or raw chicken or turkey breast) are added with the agave in the distillation stage. I loved the one that he had done with pineapple! The flavor was so faint, it was just barely there and it was delicious. 

We decided what we wanted to buy (cash only) and Felipe went back into his storage area to siphon our spirits into plastic bottles labeled with painters tape. 

What a great first stop! Dari pointed out the different varietals of maguey as we drove past agave fields on our way to our next stop- Palenque de los Ramos.

Here is another multi-generational home, farm, and palenque with Victor Ramos learning the craft of mezcal production from his father and becoming a maestro 39 years ago and his son, Emanuel, becoming one in 2005. The two work together in the fields and in the distillery, but they have their own products which are noted on the labels similarly to Cortes and his son. 

Emanuel and Dari showed us around the outdoor distillery. This one is a tad newer, about 20 years old, before that they both worked at Victor's father's, Pablo Ramos Sanchez.

It was great to get to walk around in the fields here and look at the different maguey. The maguey belongs to the Agavaceae family of agave and most of the plants are "monocarpic", they only flower once and after flowering they die. On top of that it takes 8 to 10 years for most of these to reach maturity before they can be harvested! It's a long process!
We left the fields and entered the Ramos' storage area, filled with glass and plastic jugs and barrels, to do some more tasting. Again, various varietals, blends, vintages, etc. All delicious and much more delicate than I was expecting. Really lovely. 

We were a bit into tasting when Dari told Victor that we would be leaving soon as we hadn't had lunch yet. Victor offered his wife to make us a snack! So we headed into the kitchen and the generous Mrs. Ramos served us some delicious homemade beans (they grow them on their property), tortillas, fresh pico, and an absolutely delicious cucumber juice! So sweet!!

Back in the tasting/store room, when we made our decision on what we wanted to buy, the mezcal was again siphoned out of huge plastic barrels and into the bottles. 

Great mezcal, great family! 

Before driving the 2+ hours back to Oaxaca, Dari took us for a late lunch at Xhobe Humo y Sal.  The restaurant is down a set of dirt roads which doesn't seem to lead anywhere, but then you are there! The ladies in the open kitchen showed me the pots of mole they were cooking and how they blew on the fire to keep the stove top hot. All of the food was excellent and the accompanying sauces had a great depth of flavor from chilis and seasonings. This Oaxacan style chili relleno was particularly good!  

You don't have to head 2+ hours outside of Oaxaca to tour and taste mezcal, but Aaron had already been to some of the areas closer and I was happy to go for a day trip. I highly recommend Dari if you want a private guide who can create a plan on where to taste. He can take you to the maestros in many areas. He's been working with them and importers for years. He's on WhatsApp at +52 951 547 2645

Now if you already know where you want to go, you can hire Sami who is a private taxi driver and is on WhatsApp at +52 951 222 5426. We booked Sami to take us to the Matatlán area, which is just about 50 mins away.

Sami picked us up in the morning and we had him take us to the absolutely delicious Itanoni, a small restaurant and tortilla factory using locally grown corn. I had a quesadilla with squash blossoms, so good, and also a fried egg on a tortilla.

Santiago Matatlán is considered the "World Capital Of Mezcal". Our destination was the Dixeebe palenque which is owned by maestro mezcalero Valentin Cortes and his son Asis Cortes. The Cortes family has an almost 200 year tradition of making mezcal in the area and Asis is very well known both in Mexico and the US as a distiller and evangelist of the spirit. 

We were greeted by Asis' brother Giovani and his lovely fiancé Fernanda and shown around the distillery. They had recently roasted piñas and the vats were full and fermenting. Giovani gave us bits of roasted maguey, which was so good!

They then invited us into the cellar to taste; here the mezcal is stored in huge glass vessels which is quite a beautiful site in the dim cellar. 
Then we moved upstairs where they have a nice little tasting bar set up with views of the surrounding mountains and the town. Here we tasted from actual bottled product, ready to be sold and packed in suitcases- which is exactly what we did!

Before leaving Matatlán, Giovani and Fernanda took us into town to visit El Pulquito. Pulque is the fermented sap of the maguey plant, it's not distilled and has about the same alcohol level as a beer. They also serve aguamiel which is the sap that is not fermented. All great! I bought some sal de Chapulin here also (grasshopper salt) which goes great with mezcal!

Giovani told us about a roadside grilled chicken spot for lunch, so we had Sami take us there and invited him to lunch with us before heading back to Oaxaca. Another great day tasting and learning about mezcal!

I also booked Sami to take me to the airport on my way out of Oaxaca. Highly recommend him as a private taxi!

**Don't forget! If you are heading out to do tastings 1) the majority of these maestros do not speak English, so unless you are fluent, have an English speaking guide or friend with you. 2) be sure to have cash. There will likely not be cash machines anywhere unless you are at a big tourist spot**

All Oaxaca photos here.

Other post from this trip:

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