Fascinating Oaxaca Mezcal Experience: A tour to taste and understand Mexico’s best spirit
Are you familiar with the word Mezcal? If you’re reading this you probably are, but know that this drink is still being discovered by many and although it might sound incredible to believe, some people haven’t even heard of the word “mezcal” just yet (that was my case before coming to Mexico!). Therefore, if you already have some mezcal curiosity, you can consider yourself a fortunate being, you already have the key to open the door to a very magical world!
This blog post narrates the story of a very fascinating Oaxaca mezcal experience as one of the best things to do in Oaxaca and includes a quick manual to learn all you need to know about Mexico’s best spirit. Bear in mind that the tour described below, will allow you to discover one of Oaxaca’s best hidden gems! Whilst the majority of tourists visit the famous area of Santiago Matatlán, I was interested to visit a town called Santa Catarina Minas – totally off the beaten path and considered to be the birthplace of Oaxaca’s ancestral mezcal!
Table of Contents
- What is Mezcal? A quick manual to all you need to know
- How to book the best mezcal tour in Oaxaca
- Fascinating Oaxaca Mezcal Experience – Oaxaca Mezcal Tour
- Palenque El Conejo – Santa Catarina Minas finest distillery
- Exploring the agave landscape
- Planting your own baby agave
- How is mezcal made?
- The art behind mezcal distillation process – The heart of the fascinating Oaxaca Experience
- Tasting mezcal – Fun times at the palenque
- Lunch and down time in a local swimming pool
- Frequently asked questions about mezcal
What is Mezcal? A quick manual to all you need to know
Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic spirit made from a plant called agave or maguey. The word comes from the indigenous language Nahuatl and means “cooked agave”. This plant is endemic from Mexico and can be found all around the world.
Sierrudo Blanco agave
Since 1994 Mezcal has been recognized internationally as an Appellation of Origin (Denominación de Origen) and has been regulated in Mexico by the COMERCAM (Mexican Regulatory Council for Mezcal Quality) since 2005. This council stated that out of 32 mexican states, only 9 states meet the standards required to produce high-quality Mezcal; these are: Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca.
There are over 200 agave species in the world but only up to 53 of these and their 12 subspecies can be used to produce mezcal. A total of 42 species and 8 subspecies can be found in the State of Oaxaca thanks to its perfect soil nutrients and weather conditions. This state produces more than 80% of the Mexican mezcal which makes it the ultimate mezcal capital of the world!
How to book the best mezcal tour in Oaxaca
Joining a mezcal tour is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca. When searching for a mezcal tour, you’ll probably have to ask yourself: is your major interest to deeply understand all about the mezcal production? or are you more keen on tasting as many mezcal samples your body can handle? Is your intention to just get out of the city to connect with nature while learning about mezcal? or are you the type of traveller that absolutely loves blending in and traveling off the beaten paths to understand local communities and their reality? One way or the other, there will be a mezcal tour waiting for you!
The best mezcal tour is the one that matches your actual needs
I have done several tours myself and I have always experienced a different approach as it really depends on the company you book the tour with, where the distilleries (also known as palenques) are located, your local guide/s expertise and how knowledgeable is the maestro mezcalero (owner of the palenque).
Oaxaca Sacred Mezcal Experience crew
Fascinating Oaxaca Mezcal Experience – Oaxaca Mezcal Tour
Mezcal is one of the fastest-growing spirits in the world. Its popularity is rapidly increasing due to its unique distillation process and broad variety of flavours. However, its sustainability is a growing concern amongst experts in the mezcal community.
Supporting local family businesses and their small batch productions is key to help communities maintain their traditional mezcal processes. For this reason, I chose to join the Oaxaca Sacred Mezcal Experience with WSE Travel.
This is a covid friendly experience that takes you outside the main palenques area of Santiago Matatlán, to meet a stunning hard working Mexican family!
Maestro mezcalero's son wearing a machete
Palenque El Conejo – Santa Catarina Minas finest distillery
Santa Catarina Minas is known to have high-quality mezcal. Located almost 1h away from Oaxaca centro, is still a less transited area and helds 28 different palenques, mostly run by local families that have been producing mezcal for several generations.
This is the case of Palenque El Conejo. The maestro mezcalero Conejo (as he likes people to nickname him) is a fun, hard working mexican man, father of four, who is compromised with his family mezcal business. He owns a large piece of land where he is proudly growing more than 12 species of agave. He knows every square of land he owns and has a story to tell about each maguey he has ever planted! I was really impressed by Conejo’s passion and dedication – there was this spark in his eyes that surely didn’t pass unnoticed!
Palenque El Conejo
During my time in the palenque, I also got to know Conejo’s family. As mentioned before, the production of mezcal is a family affair and is a dedicated hands on process in which each member of the family is responsible for a different task. While Conejo takes you out to the agave fields and does the harvest with other family members; he also is involved in the production process of the mezcal (see below for more details) and guides the mezcal tastings too. Meanwhile, his wife cooks the food for the tour, helps label the bottles and takes care of the youngest members of the family. Their sons are growing up witnessing the whole process and will eventually start to slowly take part of it once they grow a bit older.
Two generations - Maestro mezcalero and one of his sons at the palenque
Exploring the agave landscape
The visit at Palenque el Conejo started with a brief explanation to pin down where to find mezcal in Mexico, identify what are the different species that can be found in Oaxaca and then we got properly introduced to the maestro mezcalero and his family.
Our guide Victor, is a young entrepreneur and very knowledgeable local who really understands the mezcal business and has been running mezcal tours for a while now. He was really patient and helped translate in English everything the maestro mezcalero carefully explained to us during our visit.
Conejo drove us through the agave fields on his own pick up (cool stuff) to see the different types of maguey and learn on site about them all, while we played games to “guess the agaves” and drink some delicious mezcal!
On our way to the agave fields
During our walk across the agave fields, we learned how to distinguish the different plants. We were educated about a wide range of agave types: barril, largo, cuishe, coyote, espina negra, sierrudo blanco (almost extinct), marteño, barril café, arroqueño, tobalá orejón, tobala chino and the super famous espadín!
Maestro mezcalero Conejo showing the crew different agave species
Some agave species can take from 7 to 30 years to grow and be fully ready for the maestro mezcalero and his family to harvest the plants for the production of mezcal. This means that Conejo might harvest some plants his own father planted several decades ago! Isn’t this amazing?
My friend Max and I admiring one of the many agaves
Max and Tania signing one of the agaves
Once we learned about each agave plant, we had a tasty snack. They set up a picnic right in the agave fields and we ate delicious food especially made for us by Conejo’s wife! That felt pretty special and was part of the local fascinating Oaxaca mezcal experience I was searching for! Our guide also provided us with bottles of water throughout the day, which I really appreciated!
Our local guide Victor at the agave fields
Picnic with Conejo and his family at the agave fields
Planting your own baby agave
Ian and Tania planting their agaves
The highlight of this fascinating Oaxaca mezcal experience was that each of us had the chance to plant our own baby agave! Conejo asked us what our favorite agave was and he found one for each to plant!
Okay, let’s take a moment to acknowledge, How cool is that!?
I named mine Bobby and promised I would visit him in a few years! He is the cutest Chino I’ve ever seen! I am a proud momma!
Our baby agaves are now ready to live a new amazing life
The crew walking across the agave fields
How is mezcal made?
There are 3 different distillation processes: artisanal (the mezcal is distilled in copper alembics and a rounded stone wheel – called tahona – is regularly pulled by a horse or a donkey to crush the maguey after its cooked); ancestral (similar process but without the use of a horse, sometimes they can use a very heave stick – called mazo – to crush the maguey before the fermentation) and industrial (using a more modern process, usually distilled in stainless-steel columns making possible larger production volumes). This last process is less respected and sometimes not even accepted by mezcal purists.
Conejo’s palenque produces both artisanal and ancestral. It will depend on the quality he wants to obtain and his clients requests too.
The art behind mezcal distillation process – The heart of the fascinating Oaxaca Experience
This process might be similar in different palenques, but each family will probably add their own personal touch to it! Conejo makes sure he puts a christian cross on top of the mixture during the fermentation process – something I have never seen before!
- First the piñas (agave heart) are cooked in a pit in the ground
- Then the roasted agave is crushed using a rounded stone wheel or heavy stick
- Large wooden barrels are used for the fermentation process. Depending on the weather this part of the process can take from 3 to 7 days approximately.
Ultimately, the distillation process can involve several stages. The first distillation will take out the initial thick mixture from the fermentation and the second will be used to raise the alcohol percentage of the mezcal. There could be a third distillation to obtain even purer alcohol.
Maestro mezcalero Conejo explaining the distillation process
Tasting mezcal – Fun times at the palenque
After coming back from the fields and learning about the distillation process, we all gathered at a table with mezcal glasses to taste different samples of the mezcal Conejo produces! This is where the fun reaches peak levels! I have already been to several mezcal tastings and I can confirm here is where things escalate!
Oops, things escalated at the palenque
Lunch and down time in a local swimming pool
It was hot that day and we were already feeling the magic of the mezcal, so I really couldn’t think of a better ending for our fascinating Oaxaca mezcal experience than eating food and dipping our feet in a local swimming pool at Quinta Ortiz! (very nice touch, since it is sooo difficult to find a swimming pool in Oaxaca centro!)
Having lunch at Quinta Ortiz, Oaxaca
Cheerful Tania bringing some mezcal home
This was overall a very fun and educational off the beaten path tour with one of the best local guides! Planting our own agave was a surprising extra! I totally recommend it!
Frequently asked questions about mezcal
I was a mezcal newbie a few months ago and I had so many questions about mezcal! This is why I have put together a few FAQs that will surely bring you more clarity!
Is mezcal for me?
When I first arrived in Oaxaca, I didn’t know much about Mezcal. I normally don’t drink liquor and I initially thought mezcal wasn’t for me. I gave it a couple tries in local mezcalerias without really knowing what I was ordering; the taste felt really strong and sometimes smoky, so I said to myself that mezcal wasn’t for me.
However, after 2 months living in the city, I had the chance to join a proper mezcal tasting and I suddenly discovered that it is not that I don’t like mezcal, but that I hadn’t tried a really good high-quality mezcal! (que fresa! – so posh!). A whole new world opened up in front of me.
I started to be “mezcal curious” and once I learned more about mezcal, I started to appreciate the spirit and the beautiful production process behind it! My favorite mezcal so far, comes from an agave called “Marteño” also referred as “Madre Cuishe” – still in search of my favorite brand!
How do I choose a good mezcal?
In my opinion, there is not just one good mezcal. Every palate is different, meaning that every person will appreciate different types of mezcal in a very unique way and eventually find their favorite agave distilled brand – this is an experimenting game! For this reason, bringing mezcal as a souvenir to your loved ones could be a tricky task!
Mezcal vs. Tequila – What’s the difference?
Tequila is a type of mezcal! When I learned this it totally blew my mind! We can certainly say that all tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequila!
How to drink mezcal? Can I mix it with other drinks?
Mezcal snobs have a whole drinking process, from how you pour the mezcal to how you swallow it! The main takeaways for me are:
- It is nice to smell it first, see if you can guess the type due to its fragrance
- Then drink it very carefully, tasting it by giving little sips (or kisses)
- Hold it for a couple seconds in your month, guess the flavours or even the plant
Go simple, enjoy your mezcal while having a nice meal and / or a chat with your loved ones!
Typical mezcal glass
It is very common to find mezcal cocktails and mixed drinks with mezcal. Don’t worry, this is no sacrilege! This spirit is so integrated into the mexican society that they’ve developed a whole culture around it! If you are not a liquor type of person, I encourage you to still give it a go to any of these mezcal cocktails (another totally different fascinating Oaxaca mezcal experience)!
Is mezcal expensive?
Finding inexpensive mezcal is possible; however, even though I am still a mezcal newbie, I already know that there is good and better mezcal. Prices can differ depending on the area where the agaves grow, the size of the batch produced, where you buy it from (in Mexico it is regularly less expensive than the United States, for example) and obviously, if you buy it from palenques directly or not, etc.
Plan your trip: A quick guide to book your next adventure now
This is a detailed guide that will help you plan your trip from scratch and successfully prepare everything ahead of your departure. I follow these steps to book my trips and now you can do the exact same!
Purchase your flight
Book your accommodation
Don’t forget your travel insurance
Choose your tours
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