How Oaxacan Mezcal Plays a Vital Role in the Local Culture

Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, is known for its colorful festivals, exquisite handicrafts, fascinating ancient sites and stunning colonial architecture. It’s also the best place to try the country’s renowned mezcal, a distillate made from the agave plant. You can sample the smoky spirit at several different bars and tasting rooms around town. While it’s easy to find a mezcal tasting in Oaxaca, a day trip is required to learn more about how Oaxacan mezcal is made and the deep cultural significance it has for the people of this region.

Heading east from the city along the Pan-American Highway, the landscape is mostly dry thorn scrub with a few patches of green. This wide valley, about 5,000 feet (about 1.5 kilometers) above sea level, is embraced on both sides by the Sierra Madre mountains. We pass cornfields, and the occasional alfalfa field, but the predominant crop here is agave. These spiky succulents are used to make mezcal, as well as its more famous cousin, tequila.

Oaxacan mezcal
Rows of agaves decorate the scenery of Oaxaca in Mexico/Daniele Cereda

The Cradle of Mezcal

On approaching the small town of Santiago Matatlán, the rows of agave become more frequent, the plants extending on and on, with blue skies and just a few puffy clouds above. It’s dry this time of year, but during the summer rains, the landscape becomes greener and lusher. Agave thrives in these conditions, as well as higher up in the mountains, where some varieties grow to enormous size—20 feet in diameter or even more.

The law of Denomination of Origin limits the area where mezcal can be produced to a few different regions of Mexico, but the state of Oaxaca is the destination most closely associated with this drink. A sign at the entrance to Matatlán proudly proclaims it the cradle of mezcal. This small town has a rich history of Oaxacan mezcal production, and most of the families who live here are involved in the craft. But some things have changed in recent years: whereas in the past mezcal was mainly enjoyed by local Oaxaqueños and forms an integral part of their culture, now an increasing number of people from Mexico City and abroad are showing an interest in the drink.

Oaxacan mezcal
A worker processes agaves at a mezcal palenque in Oaxaca, Mexico/Daniele Cereda

While espadin agave is the variety used most often in mezcal production, the variations of mezcal are infinite. Unlike tequila, which by law can only be made with blue Weber agave, mezcal can be made from many different types of agave, including both wild and cultivated. It’s fitting that the state of Oaxaca, which is known for both its cultural and biological diversity, including different varieties of agave, is so closely associated with this most diverse of spirits.

Small scale mezcal distilleries, or “palenques,” line the streets of Matatlán, many with large piles of agave hearts, which look like giant pineapples, outside. Filiberto Hernandez, a mezcal maker or “palenquero” at the Gracias a Dios distillery, discusses this variety. “Each mezcal has different flavors…. They all have a slight smokiness, but mezcal made with agave Tepextate has an earthy flavor, while the mezcal made with Cuixe has a floral flavor. Tobalá has a light taste, and Espadín has a stronger taste.”

Oaxacan mezcal
Filiberto Hernandez, a palenquero, harvests agaves/Daniele Cereda

The Centuries-Old Artisanal Process

In Oaxaca, family-run businesses have been making mezcal for generations. Whereas tequila is made on a larger, more industrial scale, the best Oaxacan mezcal is still produced in a small-batch, artisanal way. As with wine, the concept of terroir comes into play: the location where the agave is grown, and the particular climate and soil conditions, affect the flavor of the final product.

Espadin agave is harvested when it’s between seven and ten years old. Other types of agave may take as long as 25 years, or even more, to mature. To harvest the agave, the workers cut off the spiny leaves of the plant, leaving the pineapple-like heart, called a piña. The piñas are roasted in a cone-shaped pit oven lined with rocks. Hernandez explains that this marks an essential difference between mezcal and tequila: “To make artisanal mezcal, we use a wood fire, whereas for tequila they use gas ovens for cooking the agave. Mezcal has a smoky flavor that tequila doesn’t possess, due to this method of cooking.”

Oaxacan mezcal
Agave piña, ready to be roasted/Daniele Cereda

After roasting, the agave is transferred from the oven to the grinding area. A horse or mule pulls a heavy stone grinding wheel around in a circle while one of the workers employs a pitchfork to move the agave and ensure that it gets crushed evenly. The crushed agave is then fermented in large wooden vats. Some hot water aids the process, but no yeast or chemicals are used to hasten fermentation. This step can take several days—longer when the weather is colder and less time when it’s hot. Finally, the fermented agave is transformed into mezcal in a copper vat, which is still heated with a wood fire. Two distillations are necessary, and the resultant product is a young mezcal (called “joven” or “blanco”). If the mezcal is rested in oak barrels for less than a year, it’s called “reposado,” and when aged for at least a year, it’s called “mezcal añejo.”

Oaxacan mezcal
A palenquero hard at work in Oaxaca, Mexico/Daniele Cereda

Oaxacan Mezcal for Every Occasion

Mezcal plays a vital role in life in Oaxaca, and any occasion is considered suitable for drinking. Hernandez explains, “At a party, we drink mezcal. When someone dies, we also drink mezcal. When someone has a scare, it is recommended that they drink a bit of mezcal.” There’s also a ritual element to the consumption. “When I was little, I saw that my father, whenever he would drink some mezcal, would first pour a little bit on the ground,” he recalls. “And even today, older folks still pour a bit of their mezcal on the ground before they drink.”

Oaxacan mezcal
Mezcal is offered to the spirits of the dead and has great cultural significance/Daniele Cereda

The Day of the Dead, beginning on October 31, is the most important holiday of the year in Oaxaca, and mezcal is enjoyed by both the living and the spirits of the dead, who return to visit their loved ones. “We always leave a bottle of mezcal on the altar, along with some glasses,” says Hernandez, “Because those who have gone before us will return to visit our homes, and when they arrive, they are thirsty. This way, they can serve themselves and be satisfied.”

As mezcal’s popularity grows, it’s increasingly featured in creative cocktail recipes, as mixologists find that the smoky spirit adds an exciting dimension to their creations. However, Oaxacan mezcal is mainly enjoyed neat, and this allows the nuances of flavor to shine through. The most important thing to remember when drinking mezcal is that it should always be sipped, not gulped. As they say in Oaxaca: “tómalo a besos” (drink it with kisses).

Oaxacan mezcal
Oaxaqueños consume mezcal to mark different types of occasions/Daniele Cereda