When most of us think of Mexico and drinking, we inevitably drift to visions of tequila or summertime beers. Margaritas, American by birth, might sneak in there if we’re caught envisioning Mexico as a restaurant with bottomless chips and salsa, gigantic sombreros hanging on the wall. However, if you’re looking for something more authentic, if you find yourself wondering the deserts of Oaxaca, then it’s mescal on the menu.
Fun Fact #1: Let’s start with the worm. Tequila has the reputation of having a worm in the bottom of the bottle, but apart from souvenirs, this has never been the case. In actuality, it’s mescal that has the “worm”, which is actually the larva of a weevil that infests the maguey agave plants used to produce mescal. (Tequila uses only blue agave.) Back in the day, the worms were used to demonstrate the authenticity of the booze.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Oaxaca itself is an amazing part of Mexico, rich with ancient architecture, breathtaking landscapes, colonial remnants, and fantastic culinary exploration, mescal being a big part of that.
- This is one of those great opportunities to get drunk while truthfully being able to claim that it’s educational, culturally enriching, and responsibly supporting the local economy. Take advantage.
- This is obviously not exactly high on the family activity circuit, but it makes for a great backpacker outing, provides some interesting data for the culturally curious and history buffs, and…well, it’s perfect for drinkers.
Touring the “Factory”
Um, to be honest, touring the “factory” actually had me second-guessing whether or not I wanted to drink this stuff. Things were done the old way, let’s call it artisanal-ly to be polite, such that my first exposure to the mescal process was a charred pile of agave plants on the ground amd littered with flies. It was not exactly appetizing to the eye, but then again, neither are oysters.
The factory, a tiny two-room operation, was conveniently set along a road that carved for miles through swaths of sandy soil broken up by rows of maguey agave plants. Entering the building, the distilling operation looked like a wizard’s basement: rudimentary tubes leading in and out of cauldrons set atop of fire place. A rusty liquid–mescal–dripped into a plastic gas can. Adventurous much?
Fun Fact #2: Mescal and tequila are very similar but have very important differences. Tequila is made from blue agave, and only blue agave from the Jalisco region of Mexico. It operates similarly to the French and champagne. If it’s not from Jalisco, it’s not really tequila. Mescal, on the other hand, is produced with maguey agave and in the Oaxaca region. It’s appreciated for its smoky flavor and is usually drunk straight.
The Taste Test
After the very brief tour, we got down to business. The guide led us into the tasting bar, a venue that looked like a mix between saloon and medical research lab. The shelves reached to the ceiling and were packed with an endless array of potions, mescal done straight up, mescal infused with herbs, infused with fruit, chili peppers, ginger. The bartender commenced to pouring out shots for us, explaining what flavors to look for.
I have to say that whatever happened between the burning bush and the little clear liquid burning holes in my stomach worked. About half-an-hour later, I wobbled back to the van and promptly fell asleep as we zipped through the agave fields, back towards Oaxaca City.
Fun Fact #3: I have since become a sometime connoisseur of mescal. An acquaintance owns a distillery, Illegal Mescal, in Oaxaca and imports top quality stuff to the States, Europe, and Guatemala (where he and I live). For me, the best way to drink the stuff is with two shot glasses, one filled with mescal and the other with sangrita, sort of jazzed up Bloody Mary mix. Sip the mescal then the sangrita, and take time to enjoy the flavor.
- Book a tour easily from Oaxaca City or surrounding areas. The factories are everywhere. It’s probably not a good idea to drive as you’ll be drinking.
- Take along some water. It is in the desert, and mixing that with booze, it might be worth considering your hydration.
- Mescal is not generally mass-produced, so you should expect something humble.