OAXACA, MEXICO– August 23, 2014 -Shortly after 8pm, in an amiable haze, I leave the first of many Mezcalerias I will visit over the next three days and step out into the dry air of colonial downtown Oaxaca, Mexico. Immediately, I am swept into a percussive, frenzied parade of colorful spinning skirts, twirling giants, and brassy horns playing traditional Mexican music through Oaxaca’s narrow cobblestone streets. Caught in the spirit of mezcal and all things Oaxaca, I join the candlelit procession of reds, yellows and greens, having faith that wherever such a kaleidoscopic parade ends, an exponentially larger fiesta shall begin.
From small second story balconies, families watch and wave. At every intersection, more Oaxacans join us. The Latin-infused melody of spritely horns and buoyant tubas repeats, growing louder and drums beat with greater intensity as we make our way toward the town square. There, in front of La Iglesia De Santa Domingo, we will join with other celebratory processions from other parts of town in one massive mezcal-infused celebration that can only be described as Oaxacan.
Famous not only for mezcal but for its cuisine, the state of Oaxaca itself, is an underrated cultural Mexican destination. Famed for Oaxacan cheese, complex moles and seasoned grasshoppers, Oaxaca is one of the world’s best-kept culinary secrets. Oaxaca City, located in the state of Oaxaca, is a day’s drive through agave-covered mountains to the beach.
Lining the perimeter of the square, under a full moon, vendors hawk fruit juices and balloons. Elderly women sell tamales, an exotic variety of worms and grasshoppers while the men cook arrachera (skirt steak), over an open flame, chopping the meat and filling tacos and tortas until late into the night. While it is easy to fear gastro-intestinal problems, my greater fear is missing out on some of Oaxaca’s finest street foods, so I eat and then it is time for more mezcal.
Mezcal, known for its soulful properties, is an ancient agave-based spirit, exclusive to the state of Oaxaca. Unlike its cousin Tequila, also an agave-based liquor made only by one type of agave, Mezcal is strictly artisanal. Mezcal is made from more than 30 different kinds of agave, and is always locally grown and distilled by fire, hand and horse. Mezcal’s passionate, leathery, uplifting flavor is subject to change based on how it is cooked and what agave is harvested. No matter the method of preparation, Oaxacan mezcal is as enchanting as it is ever-present throughout the Mexican state.
Mezcalerias, like La Mezcaloteca, are small local family owned bars that can be found throughout Oaxaca. These intimate Mezcalerias have limited seating; serve only, and I mean only, mezcal and the bartenders are extremely well versed in the roots of their particular brand. While La Mezcaloteca and the rest of the Mezcalerias are inviting, given the artisanal nature of the spirit, if I want to truly grasp the spirit, I’ve got to curb my consumption for the evening and then extend my visit outside the city limits into the high Sierra Mountains to the distilleries and the agave fieldswhere the process begins.