How one writer discovered some of Oaxaca’s best mezcal producers on a stretch of steep, winding highway

124

BY NICKOLAUS HINES @NICKOLAUSHINES

The section of Mexico’s Highway 175 between Oaxaca de Juárez and the coast has a bad reputation. It’s winding, climbs a steep mountain range, and travels through desert, jungle and a high-mountain pine forest. The two-, sometimes one-lane, road takes about six hours to drive a distance of about 160 miles. It also happens to be an incredible road trip for anyone interested in mezcal.

In November 2021, my fianceé Heather and I took the trip in a rented white Chevy Aveo. The journey didn’t start as a mezcal trip — it was just a way to get from the city to Puerto Escondido. But after losing count of the mezcal signs we passed on our way to the coast, we pulled into Miscellania Lulu on our journey back. The hand-painted sign underneath the store’s name read “se vende mezcal” and listed tobala, espadin and bicuixe, the latter of which is also sold in the States as cuishe. Demijohns of mezcal sat on a wooden table out front. From the entrance, I could see into the back courtyard where a family sat talking and listening to the radio.

The matriarch came out, greeted us, and pulled out a line of shot glasses and a bag of sal de gusano, a mixture of salt and the dried and crushed moth larvae that live on agave. There were more than a dozen options, some straight mezcal and others infused with fruits and herbs. We sampled three as we chatted with the woman about her mezcal and her preferences. We were hooked, and as we were only about two hours out from the city, we knew right away we wouldn’t pass by the next mezcal sign we saw.

Earlier in our Oaxaca trip, Heather and I got our first taste of local mezcal culture while on a tour with Ricardo González Aragón. Aragón has run mezcal tours for four years (and has his own family mezcal, Inquebrantable) that are bookable through Airbnb and Instagram. We didn’t know it when we were on the day trip with him, but his explanation of agave types and mezcal production while at a palenque in Matatlán laid the foundation for going out to explore on our own, using Oaxaca’s capital city as a base.

The city and its immediate surrounding area is desert, where rows of both wild and cultivated espadin are easily spotted from the road, along with small jabali (wild boars) and coyote. Tall and wide arroqueño stands out, while roadside cuishe looks almost like agave mixed with a small palm tree. Wild tobala grows in higher altitudes closer to the pine trees and rocky earth at the start of the mountains. Along the edge of the curvy cliffside, tepextate hangs from the rock face before the route gets tropical and banana trees take over.

Low angle view of agave plants on a hill, Hierve El Agua, Oaxaca, mexico
Getty Images/Glowimages RF

“According to CONABIO (the national commission for use and knowledge of biodiversity), we know around 200 agave species,” says Lupita Leyva, who has worked with mezcal since 2005, including on agave plantations in San Pedro Taviche and for COMERCAM, Mexico’s government body that regulates mezcal production and certification. “More than half you can find just in Mexico. In Oaxaca, we can find 35 different agave species, but we only use around 20 in mezcal production.” Ask the right person, and you can have the various types of agave pointed out from the palenque (aka a mezcal distillery, specific to Oaxaca).

“Most of the palenques in the area have great mezcals,” Aragón says. “But if you’re looking for something [you know is] safe, I recommend you search for the stickers of certification on the bottles to make sure about the standards of quality. The best tip in my opinion is to look for distilleries with two or three generations at least.”

English is rare in the rural areas of Oaxaca outside of the more touristed city and coastal towns. Sixteen languages are spoken in Oaxaca, most of which are Indigenous languages like Zapotec. On our mezcal stops, there was always at least one person who could understand our broken Spanish. With gestures and a lot of help from Google Translate, we were able to hold mezcal conversations at each place we stopped. 

There are a few common ways of tasting at these palenques. First, there’s a small pour of your choice in a shot glass or copita. Simply point to the demijohn that you’re interested in trying — and it’s best to share the pours, as most hover between 45% and 55% ABV. If you can’t decide what to try among the half-dozen or more options, just ask. Heather was often directed to what each owner considered the fruitiest or lightest, while I was almost always handed a large pour with the suggestion that I’d enjoy it because the mezcal was mass fuerte. Small bags of chips and chapulines (tiny, crunchy grasshoppers), as well as cut fruit, are saviors after a few sips.

pouring mezcal into a glass at comedor ocho de diciembre
Sampling the mezcal at Comedor Ocho de DiciembreNickolaus Hines

We inevitably wanted to take at least one that we tasted back with us. We’d point to our favorites, ask for a big, medium or small bottle, and wait for the owner to head away from the demijohns on display and return with an empty glass bottle. In one case, it was a cleaned-out ketchup bottle, in another it was a standard unlabeled liquor bottle. In all cases, they filled it to the brim from the same demijohns that we tasted from. A Sharpie came in handy to write the agave type on the front to remember for later.

Thankfully, we had started the trip with a stash of pesos. Each copita was rarely more than 20 pesos (about $1), if they charged for them at all. But, much like a wine tasting, we didn’t pay for any tastings when we purchased a bottle of any size. Even the rarest varieties didn’t top about $25 a bottle.

The journey along Highway 175 is beautiful for the wide range of climates and small towns along the route, but most interesting is the mezcal tasting culture. It feels like a Bottleshock experience, only the vineyard tasting rooms are replaced with the agave spirit. For anyone interested in the culture of mezcal outside of the bottles poured in city tasting rooms or the tours available across the region, it’s an unmatched trip to see exactly what makes mezcal so special.

Where to Stop From Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido

The central valleys are the heart of mezcal production in Oaxaca. Leyva notes that she has seen a few distilleries around Puerto Escondido, which is technically within the designated mezcal production zone, but they’re primarily for tourists and aren’t the same as what’s traditionally made in the valleys.

Leyva says the communities of Ocotlán, Santa Catarina de Minas, Ejutla de Cresp and Miahuatlán de P. Díaz are of special mention. Before getting to the coast, the best way to experience palenques is to “take the time to get in every village to see one or two,” she says. “Some of them will take from a 20-minute to one-hour detour from the 175 highway.”

Along Highway 175, Aragón recommends stopping in Santa Catarina Minas to visit the mezcaleria Cuatro Amigos, where you can taste ancestral mezcals from four different producers. Closer to the edge of the mountains, he suggests Yuu Baal palenque in the small community of El Nanche in Mengolí de Morelos, near Miahuatlán.

Leyva notes there are a few signs that you’ve made the right stop. “First of all, you have to pay attention to the landscape,” she says. “If there are any agave available, plantations or wild ones, that may be a sign of their use. If there’s a maestro mezcalero, he should for sure be at the distillery, or his wife or family.”

The best tasting experiences on my journey centered near the small producers along Highway 175 near the town of Santo Tomás Tamazulapan, about two hours out from the city. Breaking up the journey to or from the coast in this way will leave you with a greater appreciation for mezcal — and a suitcase full of bottles.

Miscellania Lulu

It’s easy for mezcal purists to dismiss infused spirits, especially when those infusions incorporate a worm. Here, it’s a shame to pass by what are clearly beloved sipping mezcals with local fruits, herbs and, yes, worms sitting at the bottom of the glass demijohns. The options to choose from are immediately clear after pulling into the dirt driveway (just be sure not to speed a rental car over the signs that read “reductor,” which warn of aggressive speed bumps ready to take out any low-riding vehicle’s undercarriage). A personal highlight was the bicuixe, which made me fall for cuishe as a whole, as the harvesting and production were described during one last sip after tasting a number of options and buying a half-liter bottle of cuishe to take home.

Address (approximate): Santo Tomás Tamazulapan, 70866 Oaxaca, Mexico, 16.254625, -96.571412

mezcal carlitos oaxaca mexico sign
Nickolaus Hines

Mezcal Carlitos

Five-gallon glass jugs with bold white lettering sit atop a wooden bar at Mezcal Carlitos. Here, you can taste tepeztate, coyote, arroqueno, a larva-infused gusano and even a barrel-aged mezcal with the founder himself. On my trip, it was clear that special attention went into the coyote in particular, which has a distinct minerality that sets it apart. Carlos keeps his Facebook page active and up to date, and prides himself on having visitors from Canada, Europe and the United States stop by to taste his product.

Address: Oaxaca – Puerto Angel, 1ra, 70866 Santo Tomas Tamazulapam, Oax., Mexico

Comedor Ocho de Diciembre

It’s hard to miss Comedor Ocho de Diciembre — partly because of the distinctive faux-brick sign with sky blue lettering, partly because a reductor forces passerby to slow down in-between the two entrances to the location. Out front, small Mexicano, tepextate, cuishe, madre cuishe, jabali, arroqueno, espadin and perdido plants sit in a line from the entrance sign. It’s a rare chance to see the major types of agave in the region in their young form and then follow up with a taste of what the mature agaves produce. A homestyle restaurant next door provides welcome nourishment, and on our visit puppies and a mother hen with her chicks ran out front as we sipped the producer’s mezcal.

https://3fa7e71bee7aca4725c2a1eac89285d2.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Address (approximate): Piedras Negras-San Mateo Rio Hondo Km 114, Segundo, 70866 Santo Tomas Tamazulapam, Oax., Mexico, 16.264606, -96.577602

In Oaxaca de Juarez

There’s no place to start a mezcal journey like Oaxaca’s capital city, Oaxaca de Juárez (or simply Oaxaca City). “Oaxaca City has the best infrastructure in terms of touristic services,” Aragón says. “It’s also super close to mezcal villages like Matatalna, Mitla, Tlacolula and Santa Catarina Minas.”

In town, Espacio Mezcal is a small establishment that stocks a seemingly endless number of mezcals. Drawings of dozens of types of agaves cover the walls, and the bartenders will guide you through custom flights that tell a story of a certain variety, location or production method. When in Oaxaca, drink Oaxacan mezcal, with the option to supplement any tasting with a local craft beer or a pour of cannabis-infused mezcal.

In Puerto Escondido

Agaves are largely a desert-loving plant that primarily grow on the other side of the mountains from the coast. That said, this is Oaxaca, where mezcal is as common as lager in Germany, so quality mezcal can even be found near  this hard partying and surfer-friendly beach town. Omara — owned by Carlos Sada, the head of operations at The Producer mezcal who lives in nearby Rinconada — keeps a selection of favorite Oaxaca mezcals behind the bar. Ask for a taste by region or by agave type to go alongside fresh seafood and local fare. Cocktails are available, but sipping mezcals are more than easy to find along the back bar.

The Oaxaca Post