Shortly after 8pm, in an amiable haze, I leave the first of many Mezcalerias I will visit over the next three days and step out into the dry air of colonial downtown Oaxaca, Mexico. Immediately, I am swept into a percussive, frenzied parade of colorful spinning skirts, twirling giants, and brassy horns playing traditional Mexican music through Oaxaca’s narrow cobblestone streets. Caught in the spirit of mezcal and all things Oaxaca, I join the candlelit procession of reds, yellows and greens, having faith that wherever such a kaleidoscopic parade ends, an exponentially larger fiesta shall begin….
From small second story balconies, families watch and wave. At every intersection, more Oaxacans join us. The Latin-infused melody of spritely horns and buoyant tubas repeats, growing louder and drums beat with greater intensity as we make our way toward the town square. There, in front of La Iglesia De Santa Domingo, we will join with other celebratory processions from other parts of town in one massive mezcal-infused celebration that can only be described as Oaxacan.
Famous not only for mezcal but for its cuisine, the state of Oaxaca itself, is an underrated cultural Mexican destination. Famed for Oaxacan cheese, complex moles and seasoned grasshoppers, Oaxaca is one of the world’s best-kept culinary secrets. Oaxaca City, located in the state of Oaxaca, is a day’s drive through agave-covered mountains to the beach.
Lining the perimeter of the square, under a full moon, vendors hawk fruit juices and balloons. Elderly women sell tamales, an exotic variety of worms and grasshoppers while the men cook arrachera (skirt steak), over an open flame, chopping the meat and filling tacos and tortas until late into the night. While it is easy to fear gastro-intestinal problems, my greater fear is missing out on some of Oaxaca’s finest street foods, so I eat and then it is time for more mezcal.
Mezcal, known for its soulful properties, is an ancient agave-based spirit, exclusive to the state of Oaxaca. Unlike its cousin Tequila, also an agave-based liquor made only by one type of agave, Mezcal is strictly artisanal. Mezcal is made from more than 30 different kinds of agave, and is always locally grown and distilled by fire, hand and horse. Mezcal’s passionate, leathery, uplifting flavor is subject to change based on how it is cooked and what agave is harvested. No matter the method of preparation, Oaxacan mezcal is as enchanting as it is ever-present throughout the Mexican state.
Mezcalerias, likeMezcaloteca are small local family owned bars that can be found throughout Oaxaca. These intimate Mezcalerias have limited seating; serve only, and I mean only, mezcal and the bartenders are extremely well versed in the roots of their particular brand. While Mezcaloteca and the rest of the Mezcalerias are inviting, given the artisanal nature of the spirit, if I want to truly grasp the spirit, I’ve got to curb my consumption for the evening and then extend my visit outside the city limits into the high Sierra Mountains to the distilleries and the agave fields
where the process begins.
Forty-five minutes outside of Oaxaca City, I come to the modest village of San Baltazar Guelavila. Here, Los Angeles based entrepreneurs Fausto Zapata and Vicente Cisneros, distill El Silencio, their increasingly popular brand mezcal that began as a simple passion project and has quickly begun to appear in some of the premiere cocktail lounges in the United States.
It is here, at a small Palenque, or , El Silencio uses more than fifty local hires and a horse to ensure that their product makes its way from the rattlesnake-infested agave fields, to the distillery, and into the bottle before being shipped to the United States. All of this is done under the watchful eye of Master Mezcalier Pedro Hernández, a ninth-generation “Maestro Mezcalero
If the previous night parade was an example of Oaxaca’s urban hysteria, the perilous trek into the Sierra Madres could only be described as rural pandemonium. Along with several Jimadors (the men who harvest agave), their machetes and various other impossibly sharp tools, I load up in the back of well-worn flat bed and we begin to zigzag along sinuous ridgelines and narrow, rocky mountain roads.
With little to hold on to, it is easier to stand for balance in the back of the truck, which teeters and totters along an ever-narrowing road. I keep my eyes open for tree branches crossing the road ahead. The tree branches are heavily spiked, home to spiders, and while we are moving at less five miles an hour, no amount of mezcal, no matter the quality could fix an unanticipated tree branch to the face.
As the last bastions of tire tread give way to an irrationally rocky, unmarked, Martian-like path toward the agave fields, we still have almost an hour to go. As we make a turn, the truck nearly capsizing, I learn the real meaning of the word sideways.
The sun is merciless and the bottle of water I brought may soon simply evaporate. All I can think of is death, an impeding crash into a cactus-lined ravine followed by dehydration induced hallucinations brought mercifully to end by the bite of a poisonous rattlesnake.
I consider the mezcal I consumed the previous evening and then the Jimadors who risked their life to harvest it, and for a moment, I feel guilt. Then notice the with all the cajoling and careening, they are laughing and having the time of their life… So what’s my problem? I guess it’s all worth it for the drink.
Any semblance of humanity has now vanished. A duo of buzzards circle and I’m scratched up. Having narrowly avoided death, I am also invigorated as we make our way from small agave plants along a hillside to the mature ones.
Agave when ready for harvest is between ten and twelve years old. With the agave’s spiny leaves, a blazing arid sun and armed militias of angry bees, removing the thick leaves is a laborious, dehydrating, often painful process. Not to be shamed, take off my sunglasses, grab a machete and, bees be damned, go to town on some agave leaves.
Under the watchful eye of the El Silencio donkey staked a few yards away, the thick agave leaves are hacked off and discarded until all that remains of the once six-foot succulent, is the giant pineapple at the core, also known as the pia. This is then extracted, rolled and loaded onto the back of the truck and taken back to the distillery.
The labor-intensive process repeats until the Mexican sun finds repose and the tumultuous ridgeline ride back to El Silencio headquarters begins. Before we take off, Fausto pulls out a bottle of El Silencio and we taste a drink. With my foot on an agave pineapple, as it burns its way down my throat, I look out forever into the Sierras and taste a lot more.
Back in the truck, and having survived the first trip up the mountain by simply standing and ducking branches there is now the added challenge of an eighty-pound agave pineapple rolling around as we traverse our ay back to civilization, but with a little liquid courage, the ride is far less daunting.
We return to the Palenque, ax-wielding employees hack furiously dense, sticky pineapples into quarters. Once the harvest is appropriately hacked, the pieces are loaded into a hand-dug hole filled with volcanic rock and burning mesquite wood. The choice of wood dictates the mezcal’s flavor. Once the pineapple pieces have filled the smoldering hole, the pile is covered with a tarp, then three inches of soil and left to cook underground for seventy-two hours.
Upon completion, the pieces are moved into another pit to extract the cooked sugars. A scrappy horse pulls a giant
grinding stone in circles, crushing the pieces of pineapple until the charred remains of wood are merely a sticky pulp. The pulp is then mixed with spring water and fermented, turning it into an agave wine at which point, it begins making its own alcohol.
Finally it is distilled. The alcohol is vaporized and ultimately twice distilled and held to an intensive taste test done only by the Maestro Mezcalero to make sure that it meets the El Silencio standard. Once it has passed the test, it is bottled on sight by local women, boxed and put in storage where it waits to be shipped to the United States.
Under the shade of the Palenque, we join the villagers and the team from El Silencio for carne asada and a variety of several moles so complex that each is worthy of it’s own story. The village is alive, as it has been for centuries with the spirit of mezcal.
As I marvel over the spread and slow sips of mezcal, I notice that the sun is setting, and as I look out into the Sierras as Mexican sol dips away, I also realize that somewhere out there, under the watchful eye of the El Silencio donkey and the fledgling agave plants of mezcals to come, are my sunglasses.
The following night, there is no parade. The streets of Oaxaca are emptier, and though they are, now there is so much more there. We make our way to a rich mole dinner to close out the day. I’m sunburned, dehydrated and elated. As we walk, I look into the Mezcalerias and watch as mezcal is poured. That night, poolside, as we toast the successes and the journey of the day, I know that the mezcal with which we toast has had a journey of its own… But it’s not just a journey. It’s a parade… A giant, timeless, parade. And where that parade ends, the fiesta begins.