Oaxaca City lies at the epicenter of Mexico's burgeoning mezcal industry. But mezcal is only one of the many intoxicants available, and we wanted to try them all.
Photo via Flickr user Aaron Rodriguez
As our driver slammed on the brakes for the fifth time in two minutes in preparation for yet another speed bump, I asked, in halting Spanish, "What do you call these? Mountains of slow?"
"Did you just say 'mountains of slow'?" he responded, barely able to suppress his laughter.
"Yes," I said. "I don't know what they're called, but they're everywhere in Oaxaca!"
"Topes," he chuckled. "They're called topes."
This was the first of many lessons I would learn from Darinel Silva, a US-educated, 34-year-old architect and mezcal lover who is raising a small family in his home town of Oaxaca City, Mexico. Subsequent lessons mostly involved drinking.
Known internationally for its molé—as well as its elaborate, week-long celebration of Day of the Dead—Oaxaca City lies at the epicenter of Mexico's burgeoning mezcal industry. But mezcal is only one of the many intoxicants available, and we wanted to try them all.
During the three weeks my boyfriend Scott and I spent researching mezcal in and around Oaxaca, the architect took us under his wing—and in his car—to introduce us to the most traditional mezcal, the freshest pulque, and the swankiest cocktails in this modern Mexican town of 250,000. Every single one of Silva's suggestions turned out to be golden.
Mezcaloteca Our first stop was Mezcaloteca (mezcal + biblioteca = Mezcaloteca), a nonprofit mezcal tasting "library" dedicated to introducing people to traditional mezcal. If you have even a passing interest in mezcal, this is the place to start your educational journey. The door was closed when we arrived, and we had to ring a bell to be "buzzed" in by the bartender: a tall, blonde transplant from Evanston, Illinois named Andrea Hagan.
She led us through a tasting of several expressions of mezcal, starting with espadín, the most common type of agave used to produce this Mexican moonshine. "Take a small sip first to prepare your palate," she said. "Then you'll be ready to taste on the second sip."
The first sip burned like kerosene. The second was harsh, but I could pick out a couple of flavors. Smoke. Fingernail polish. By the third taste, the mezcal seemed smoother, and I picked up notes of hay, with an oily finish. Hagan poured us two more tastes of espadín, made by two different mezcaleros in two different villages. One tasted green, fresh and bright, while the other tasted of butter and bonfire. She brought out bottles labeled tobala, madrecuixe, coyote, and tepextate, and pointed to pictures on a poster of the agave plants that corresponded to each name.
"This tepextate is my favorite, because the plant it is made from was 35 years old when it was harvested, and the mezcalero who made it is only 21. So the maguey is older than the maestro."
The aroma was sweet and musky, like a barnyard, with a viscous texture and a bite of game.
Hagan buzzed in a young Mexican man with slicked-back hair, who turned out to be her boyfriend, Jorgé, a brewer at a nearby craft brewery, La Santisima Flor de Lupulo. He invited us to visit, and gave us a business card with a small map, which indicated that it was only a few blocks away. "We usually have three beers on tap, unfiltered, which we make in house, in 16-gallon batches," he said. "We also cure our own meats and make our own bread, sausage, and mustard."
La Santisima I wish I could say that we wasted no time getting there, but the truth is, we got lost three times along the way. So we were extra thirsty when we finally found La Santisima, 45 minutes later. The kitchen had closed down for the evening, but the cozy bar was bustling with activity. To our right, three gringos were discussing the merits of retiring to Mexico. At the bar, two young men held hands and stared into each other's eyes, their thighs touching between the barstools. The rest of the room was filled with a few small groups of friends chatting away over beers.
I ordered the pale ale, and despite the fact that I was the cause of our navigational debacle, my boyfriend graciously agreed to let me taste his house-made Stout. Together, we translated the La Santisima Prayer, printed on the back of the menu.
that maintains my spirit. Protect us from bad fermentations, their hangovers and undesirable flavors. Keep us on the good side of drinking, leading us to the other side of the beer.
We agreed that our prayer for good craft beer had been answered. The stout and pale ale were both delicious and true to their respective styles, leading us to order another round, and another, and to return the following day for lunch. That led to our discovery of La Santisima's juicy reuben sandwich and dazzling DIY gazpacho, an exquisitely seasoned tomato puree served with a side dish of chopped cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños. When we returned a few days later for an encore performance, the pale ale had been replaced with an equally impressive extra-special bitter.
Mezcalarita A few days later, Silva messaged me on WhatsApp, asking if we wanted to try some pulque later that afternoon.
As beer is to whiskey, pulque is to mezcal. Made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, this alcoholic beverage is consumed fresh, while it is still fermenting. You can buy it in repurposed five-gallon plastic jugs at the local wholesale market, or you can drink it by the glass at Mezcalarita, which is where Silva wanted to take us.
A tall, A-frame sign on the sidewalk advertised pulque, cervezas, mezcal, and hidromiel (mead). We stepped into a narrow room with a bar along the left side, backed by a full wall of mezcal bottles, from floor to ceiling. Two more rooms opened up from the back and side, offering several options for standing and seating. At this hour, the place was empty except for us. A smiling, matronly woman behind the bar greeted Silva warmly, and he introduced us as friends from California who wanted to try the best pulque in Oaxaca. She blushed, shooed him away, and turned her attention to us.
She spoke no English, and we spoke Spanish at the toddler level, so our conversation was rudimentary at best. Nevertheless, we were able to make out the fact that they had a few different flavors of fresh pulque in the refrigerator. She poured us samples of plain agave, guava, pineapple, and something called "avena," which sounded—and tasted—familiar enough that we felt like idiots when she finally brought out a handful of oatmeal to show us what she was talking about.
Fresh pulque is sweet, milky, and viscous, with a pronounced flavor of yeast. It goes down dangerously easy. I had tried canned pulque in San Francisco a couple years prior, and I was not impressed. This was an entirely different experience. I signaled for a pint of pineapple.
Our new friend warned me to be careful when drinking pulque, because it would continue to ferment in my stomach, long after I'd stopped drinking. I pretended to care, but when Scott went to the men's room, I drained every last drop of pulque from the three plastic sample cups he had so carelessly abandoned. Upon his return, I directed his attention to the craft beer cooler at the end of the bar, which was crammed full of Mexican IPAs, hefeweizens, porters, and at least one squash-flavored beer. Sadly, I can't recommend the last one, at least not in good conscience.
Despite brutal hangovers, we were determined to attend a Mezcal Pierde Almas cocktail party the next evening at Sabina Sabe, a craft cocktail bar in the heart of the main village. We were scheduled to meet Jonathan Barbieri, the American expat founder of the high-end mezcal distributor, to finalize plans for an upcoming mezcal-making adventure.
If you were wondering whether the hipster craze had spread beyond Mexico City, this bar would clear up any confusion. Skinny jeans and sleeve tattoos abound, punctuated by man-buns, black-frame glasses, and carefully coiffed facial hair. The cocktails are as crafty and artisanal as anything you'll find in the Mission of San Francisco, requiring muddling, shaking, twisting, and igniting ingredients.
That night's guest bartender was Kelly Wood, a Canadian mixologist from Whistler, BC who had won a trip to Oaxaca City for Day of the Dead in a mezcal cocktail competition sponsored by Pierde Almas. I chose the mezcal-based "gin and tonic" from her pop-up menu, and it arrived in a tall, skinny glass, speared with a sprig of rosemary and topped with a twist of lemon. It tasted like camping, as if I had woken up in a down-filled sleeping bag, surrounded by silence and pine needles and the lingering scent of a smoldering fire.
Piedra Lumbre The next time we saw Silva, we told him how much we enjoyed Sabina Sabe. As we drove away from the Zocalo, the heart of Oaxaca City, he said, "There is another place you should try. It's a little bit of a secret, and it's mostly open on the weekends, but I think you would like it."
He steered his four-seater car north onto Calle de Tinoco y Palacios. After several blocks, the street lights and sidewalks disappeared. On the right side of the road, at the opening of an alley, there appeared a black and white mural of a campesino, wearing a straw hat that sprouted an entire ecosystem of corn and agave, ranching and farming, tradition and hope.
He pointed into the alley. "See that first door door there, under the tree? That's Piedra Lumbre. Just ring the bell, and when they answer, tell them you heard they have mezcal. They'll probably let you in."
When we returned to ring the bell early Friday evening, no one answered. So we ate dinner in the courtyard at a restaurant that had spilled out into the alley. Our waiter claimed ignorance of the nearby speakeasy, insisting he had never heard of it and suggesting that we must be mistaken about the location. But we persisted.
After dinner, we rang the bell again and waited outside the door for several minutes. A 20-something Mexican woman in a cocktail dress approached, and rang the bell herself. Several awkward minutes later, the door opened a crack, and a young Mexican man in a white apron beckoned us to enter, quietly, taking care to ensure we weren't being followed. We stepped down into a sparse fourier that led to a dark bar. Skulls and crystal decanters dotted the indoor landscape, and original black-light art glowed on the walls, giving the space a subterranean feel. The bar menu featured traditional mezcals and custom-created cocktails, and our bartender sported a pointy beard and a handlebar mustache, waxed into wispy curls.
"How are we doing on cash?" I asked Scott, noting the absence of any credit card processing technology. He opened his wallet, revealing a measly 90 pesos. I fished some change out of my pocket, producing another 27 pesos. We had already tipped back a few cervezas apiece for happy hour and polished off a bottle of wine with dinner, so I was secretly relieved that we could afford only one ounce of mezcal between us. We chose a shot of pechuga, a specialty mezcal distilled with seasonal fruits and a chicken breast. It arrived in a clear glass with a cross on the base that was clearly designed to cradle a votive candle, perhaps in a church. Instead, it offered up a spirit that tasted smooth, buttery, and just the slightest bit sweet. The moment the last drop was gone, I felt an intense longing for more. But peso-less and tipsy, we stumbled out the door and down the road to our hostel, where we collapsed into bed.
The following morning, I texted Silva to thank him for the tip about Piedra Lumbre.
"How did you like it?" he asked.
"Very much. We would have liked to enjoy it longer, but judging from the size of my headache, it's a good thing we didn't."
Silva texted back, "We have a saying in Oaxaca. 'Para todo mal, mezcal. Por todo bien, tambien.'"
Translation: "For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good, mezcal also."
That turned out to be the best lesson of the entire trip.