Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” (“For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same”). This saying reflects the integral role mezcal plays in Oaxacan culture. With agave growing in hundreds of small-scale family plots, mezcal is a modern-day cultural phenomenon in Oaxaca—one with deep historical roots. Some argue (especially after eating the worm found at the bottom of many bottles of mezcal) that this liquor has psychedelic properties. It does not, and bears no chemical or psychic relationship to mescaline, which comes from a mushroom, or peyote, which comes from a different sort of cactus. Mezcal is merely a flavorful and potent form of alcohol.

Hundreds of distilleries produce and market mezcal in Oaxaca. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Hundreds of distilleries produce and market mezcal in Oaxaca. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Mezcal has been the “national” drink of the state of Oaxaca for centuries. Like its more famous cousin, tequila (tequila is a mezcal, mezcal is not a tequila), mezcal is made from the maguey, a.k.a. agave, cactus, but there is a huge difference: tequila is always made from a single distinct species of agave, while mezcal can be made from any of the 30 or so types of agave (most commonly it is made from the one called Espadin). Although it can be drunk new, rested, or aged, just like tequila, the flavor is smokier and more complex. It is not recommended for mixed drinks, although various iterations of mezcal martinis are popping up on restaurant menus in Mexico and the United States. The Oaxacans generally savor it straight up, drinking slowly, biting into a slice of fresh orange coated with a combination of sal gusano (salt, chile, and freshly ground worms) after each sip.

Mezcal-making follows a series of steps that have been the same for centuries. Though perhaps more mechanized than in the past, it is mostly the same hands-on, handmade operation: using machetes, mezcaleros cut the plants, weighing up to 90 pounds, by hand. They hack the leaves off, leaving the heart, or piña, which does resemble an oversized pineapple. The piñas are cooked for three days, in a pit oven over piles of hot rocks. Hence the smoky flavor. The piñas are then crushed and mashed, and their juices are left to ferment in vats or barrels of water. In time, it is bottled, and you have mezcal: blanco, reposado, or añejo (white/young, rested, or aged, respectively).

For a serious trip into the world of Oaxacan mezcal, take a mezcal tour with Alvin Starkman, author of a book on the subject. You can reach him to set up a tour or explore the world of mezcal online.

Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Oaxaca.