An Inside Look At The Art Of Making Mezcal—Oaxaca, Mexico

 

Think of Mexico and chances are that a few of the first beverages to come to mind are tequila and Corona.

But visit Oaxaca, Mexico, and you’ll quickly discover it’s actually mezcal that tops the list for beverage of choice.

 

Mezcal Oaxaca
 

We had never heard of mezcal (let alone tasted it), so we were immediately intrigued by the intimate mezcal bars we found tucked away in ever-so-charming Oaxaca City. Naturally it only took one spicy mezcal margarita to convert us into avid fans of the artisanal liquor. However, it wasn’t until we received an inside look at the process of making mezcal from a local farmer that we truly began to appreciate mezcal for the art form that it is.

 

An Inside Look At The Art Of Making Mezcal—Oaxaca, Mexico

 

An Inside Look At The Art Of Making Mezcal
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

What Is The Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?

 

Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant. But while true tequila can only be made using the Blue Agave plant, mezcal is produced from over 30 varieties of agave. Additionally, most tequilas are made in industrial size, stainless-steel pressure cookers. Artisan mezcals are hand-crafted using a variety of more traditional techniques.

 

Agave Plant
 

Talk to many Mexicans and they’ll tell you that they much prefer organic mezcals to chemical-laden tequilas. This is especially true in Oaxaca, where up to 90% of mezcals are produced, and each batch of mezcal has its own unique, wonderful flavor.

 

Meeting A Mezcal Farmer

 

We had the one-of-a-kind opportunity to meet an inspiring mezcal farmer and learn more about the mezcal making process, an experience we never would have been fortunate enough to have if it weren’t for Cantimplora Travel.

Meet Don Alberto Martinez, a passionate organic mezcal maker.

 

Don Alberto Martinez Organic Mezcal Producer
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

After years of working on strawberry farms in California, Don Alberto finally saved enough money to begin his dream-project: producing high-quality, artisanal mezcals.

 

Don Alberto Martinez Organic Mezcal Producer
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

On a tour through Don Alberto’s mezcal farm, he explained to us that the agave plants can take ten years to grow before they are ready for harvest. The secret is to wait until the agave plants flower and the bottom part of the plant (the pina) is swollen. Many mezcal producers cut their plants too early in order to expedite the process, reducing the quality and flavor of the liquor.

 

Making Mezcal in Mexico
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

When it comes time to make the mezcal, Don Alberto Martinez follows traditional processes. The plants are harvested and cooked underground, beneath blazing hot volcanic rocks. The pinas cook and caramelize in the “oven” for up to eight days, resulting in a distinctive smoky flavor.

 

Underground Mezcal Oven
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
Cooking Mezcal in Volcanic Oven
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

Once the pinas are ready, it’s time to crush the agave. Don Alberto Martinez uses the same method fellow farmers were using in the 1600s: a horse or donkey pulls a large stone wheel in a circle, repeatedly crushing the agave to extract the plant’s juice.

Once the liquid has been extracted, the mezcal goes into fermentation and double distillation. For a smokier version, the mezcal is aged for one year in a wooden whiskey barrel. Then, after all the time and effort, the mezcal is finally ready for drinking!

 

A Cruising Couple Mezcal
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

A Commitment To The Local Community

 

After taste-testing multiple mezcals around Oaxaca, we can easily say that Don Alberto’s mezcales were our favorite. But more inspiring than the delicious drink was meeting Don Alberto and seeing his passion for his craft. Right now, his mezcal business is a very humble production. But with the help of Cantimplora Travel, Don Alberto’s fantastic mezcals are slowly getting out into the world.

 

Mezcal From Mexico
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

Sam and Bernie, the founders of Cantimplora Travel, discovered Don Alberto while looking for a responsible, eco-friendly mezcal producer near Oaxaca City. After meeting Don Alberto and falling in love with his smooth and smoky mezcals, they immediately knew that they wanted to include a tour of Don Alberto’s farms and production process on their signature Oaxaca Road Trip tour. But more than that, they wanted to help Don Alberto grow his business and impact in the local community. Sam and Bernie designed and purchased the bottles Don Alberto needed for his mezcals, so travelers like ourselves could take his art home with us. They are also helping to refurbish his workroom so that visitors have a beautiful and professional spot to taste his mezcales, and 10% of all proceeds from Cantimplora Travel go back to the mezcal farmer.

 

Cantimplora Travel supports local communities
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

It was an honor to witness the profound difference that Cantimplora Travel is making in the lives of the locals, as well as to see firsthand how Don Alberto’s dreams are slowly – but surely – coming true.

 

Where To Taste Mezcal

 

Of course, the best way to get an inside look at the art of making mezcal is to visit Don Alberto Martinez with Cantimplora Travel. Alternatively, if you’re visiting Oaxaca, be sure to stop by Los Amantes Mezcalería. This small but charming mezcaleria is a fantastic spot to sip on mezcal, listen to live music and (possibly) rub shoulders with local Mexican celebrities and artists.

 

Mezcal Bar Oaxaca
Photo by Cantimplora Travel
 

Mezcal is slowly gaining traction internationally; it’s not uncommon to find it popping up on menus in major cities like LA and NY. If you do see it’s one of the ingredients of a trendy cocktail, be sure to give it a try!

Finally, while mezcal certainly shows up in cocktails, often people prefer to treat it as a sipping liquor. The smokiness of mezcal makes it much easier to sip on than your average hangover-inducing tequila.

 

Oaxaca is known for its creative vibes, and many believe that the mezcal is at least partially a reason why creativity thrives here. Whether or not that’s true, it’s worth the excuse to get to Oaxaca with Cantimplora Travel and try mezcal for yourself—you never know what inspiration might strike!

 

Have you tried mezcal? What did you think of it?

 

A huge thanks to Cantimplora Travel for hosting us on their Oaxaca Road Trip. As always, all thoughts and opinions are our own.