Wednesday, August 22, 2012

48 Hours in Oaxaca - A Mezcal Tasting

I recently jetted on down to Oaxaca City, Mexico, well, to drink Mezcal. Oaxaca is an amazing city in South Western Mexico, nestled in a lush valley, and surrounded by magnificent mountains.  The city is a mash-up of indigenous people and Spanish Colonialists - meaning bright colors, soaring churches, and awesome molé.  To name a few things that the we can credit the Spanish for: impressive architecture (said churches), and the art of distilling (mezcal).

Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto - Home of Zignum Mezcal

We landed in Oaxaca, battled traffic through the brightly hued streets, and finally made it to our hotel,  Camino Real, a former convent of Santa Catalina, built in 1576.  We were whisked off to the main dining event of the evening, which was held in what was the church adjacent to the convent.  A feast was already in place - enormous clay vessels full of beautifully prepared rice, vegetables, tortillas, and 3 different kinds of molé.  Be still, my heart.  There was a yellow molé with beef, a red molé with pork, and the traditional black molé with chicken.  (Apology for the lack of photo here - molé rarely photographs well).  Not surprising to you, dear reader, a Mezcal Margarita swiftly arrived into my hand, and one of my favorites - spicy, sweet, and smoky!

On the stage were dancers in traditional dress whirling about, and a band played in one can only imagine used to be the altar.  The dancers came out in many different styles of costume - each from the different regions of Oaxaca - covered in elaborate embroidery, intricate knits, colorful patterns, and shimmering ribbon.

After dinner we went over to a neighborhood watering hole - Los Amantes Mezcalería - where bartender/mezcal guru León poured tastes of his favorite Mezcals from massive, glowing glass vessels.  A guitar player sang in the middle of the small tasting room (working for a tipple, I'm sure), and I let my eyes devour every inch of the walls as I sipped on my Lemon Tea infused Mezcal - smoky yet sweet with the essence of citrus.  The walls of the tiny room are covered in Mezcal artifacts, traditional masks, paintings, and odd sculptures, the shelves painted a minty green reminiscent of Deyrolle in Paris. What a gem.  Praise the gods who made Mezcal there is a tasting room by the same owners here in nyc

Los Amantes Mezcalería

Mesmerizing, no?

Then for a night time stroll around the zócalo, which was full of people out celebrating on a Friday evening.  Street vendors were out tempting the air with the smells of delicious late night treats, and the young and restless were off to their next destination of the evening. 

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán Surrounded by Agave
But this girl was exhausted, so back to the hotel I went, tickled with the mere thought of sleep.  And yet, on my bed, was not only a little taste of that legendary, spicy Oaxacan Chocolate, but this:

The Way to This Girl's Heart
The morning I woke refreshed, and practically ran down for breakfast.  I had heard rumblings the night before that the breakfast in the hotel was incredible - and let me tell you - it was.  Sweet corn tamales, molé tamales with sweet prunes wrapped in banana leaves, fresh pastries, fruit, cooked up sausages, beef, and eggs with spinach, salty Oaxacan cheese, and a full selection of fresh juices from guava, to pineapple, to cilantro.

Breakfast of Champions
We had a big day ahead of us - and we were off to Monte Albán, the archeological site up in the mountains overlooking Oaxaca Valley.  Monte Albán is believed to have been founded in 500 B.C., and was abandoned as late as 1000 A.D. .  At the city's peak, it was believed to have had a population of 17,200 people, making it one of the largest cities in Mesoamerica.

Central Plaza

The site is impressive - a city of residential and civic structures built for games, ceremony, and science.  The central "plaza" of Monte Albán is built like a stadium for large ceremonies, with areas for smaller ceremonies within the complex.  There were places for worship, an observatory to keep track of the calendar by tracking the alignment of the sun, ball courts, and ceremonial tombs.  The site is lush with grass, and overlooks the fertile valley surrounding it.  There is a serene calm to the place, but one can still imagine it filled with people, watching elaborate performances, heated games, or just going about their daily lives.

But we came here for Mezcal, no?  Yes!

A quick primer on Mezcal.  Mezcal is distilled from the maguey plant, a type of Agave plant.  There are over 200 different species of maguey all of which used to make the spirit.  Mezcal's more famous relative, Tequila, is made from blue agave and must be made in the state of Jalisco and a few other limited regions, by tequila law.  Oaxaca, is famous for Mezcal, tequila's strong, smoky, badass older brother, which for the most part is made today exactly the same was it was made 200 years ago.

Myth has it that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, which cooked the center, and released the agave juice.  This "elixir of the gods" was reserved for priests and holy men.  Then, the Spaniards arrived, bringing distillation technology with them.  They were looking for something stronger than pulque (an indigenous alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant), and Mezcal was born. 

First to the Traditional Palenque:

As we drove into Matatlan, Oaxaca, "Capital Mundial del Mezcal", the first thing I noticed were all of the Palenques with their massive stone wheels used to mash the agave plants that lined the road as we started getting closer to our destination.  They were literally next door to one another - each shop making its own type - with tasting rooms and their specialty aguadiente (firewater) for sale!  The excitement!  If only there had been time to visit all of them! 

La Piña
This, in a quick summary, is how they prepare mezcal:  First the agave plants are stripped of their leaves, which are reserved for the smoking process.  About 100 piñas are smoked in a gigantic hole for three days, which is covered in agave leaves, wood, and hot rocks, and left to smoke.  The piñas are then cut up further and mashed using the iconic stone wheel, turned by a horse or a donkey.  The broken down pieces are moved to large wooden barrels, water is added, and they are left to ferment for another three days.  This is where mezcal gets wickedly exciting; there are traditional recipes that include adding pineapple, red bananas, cinnamon, and even a chicken breast or a turkey breast during distillation to impart more flavor.  (Note: the pechuga - chicken - mezcals are amazing.)  After fermentation, the juice is separated, and distilled using a copper still or sometimes a clay still, which too affects the flavor profile.  They then add water to the 120 proof Mezcal to get it back to 80 proof for legal consumption. 

Piña Pit
Mashing the Smoked Agave
Fermenting Agave
Distilling, and More Palenques Across the Street

120 Proof Mezcal

Traditional  production methods inherently make Mezcal small batch, and thus, the quantity is highly limited.  It continues to be a handcrafted spirit by nature, and the plants themselves take seven years to mature.  In recent years, there has been a more international interest in mezcal, and appropriately so, production techniques are changing to keep up with the demand.  Facing much controversy is Zignum, which uses modern industrial methods to make its mezcal, and instead of smoking the piñas, the mezcal is barrel aged at the end of the process.  The result is a milder, smoother version of the husky traditionally prepared mezcal, and yet is quite tasty.  I prefer the joven to the reposado - for I enjoy the clean spicy, almost sharp, smoky flavors. 

Barrels and Impressive Fermentation Equipment at Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto
Slightly Obsessed with this Awesome Label
Thankfully, at this point, it was time for lunch.  We were first greeted with a delightful round of Mezcal to sip, I started with a joven, it was lunch after all.  Followed by an even more delightful round of Mezcaltinis - why, I would like one - or one of each that is! 

Muddled Passion Fruit with 2 oz Zignum Reposado, Agave Nectar, Ice, Chapulin and Salt Rim
Hello, Friend
Lunch was pretty amazing - a spread of local flavors, and most ubiquitous of all were the citrusy, crunchy, chapulines (grasshoppers) a local delicacy.  Those little guys were in everything - the nuts, the tacos, the cocktail rims, the dessert!  It was quite a feast, squash blossoms stuffed with corn and cheese, Tongue Memelitas, filet of fish with capers and tomato marmalade with rosemary and honey, shrimp, a beef filet with mojo de chapulín (garlic grasshopper sauce), and chocolate rolls stuffed with Oaxacan chocolate mousse and guanábana, topped, with grasshoppers.

Totopos con Chapulines y Guacamole & Camarones con Yempura de Pitiona
Filete de Pescado al Limón con Alcaparras, y Mermelada de Tomate con Romero y Miel
Rollitos de Chocolate Rellenos de Mousse de Guanábana y Chocolate Oaxaqueño
And what else arrived at our table?  Zignum Añejo.  The Añejo is also made with Espadin Agave, and is aged for 12 months in oak barrels, compared to the 4 months of a Reposado.  This stuff is like the delicious freak child of Bourbon and Tequila.  A good portion of the smoke is softened by the caramel and vanilla from the aging process, it is extremely smooth, round, and yet has that spicy kick that I've been craving lately.  This, my friends, is a fine bottle of Mezcal.  Certainly not traditional, but sure to be a favorite in my liquor cabinet. 

12 Months of Aged Deliciousness
We had a few hours to ourselves - and I took to the streets.  For I, was not returning without a colorful momento of this amazing city.  After much negotiation, I victoriously purchased a handsome red Jaguar to hang on my wall - but here are a few of my other favorite finds:

Corazón with Milagros

Hand Painted Animals

Colorful Tin Corazóns

Time for Dinner you say?   

Off to Pitiona, a wonderful restaurant run by chef José Manuel Baños in the Historical Center of Oaxaca City.  We started off with a delightful sage cocktail with Zignum joven, and a plate of appetizers that featured Lengua, Totopos, a razor thin carrot taco stuffed with briney vegetables, a handsome filet of fish served with Chichilo-Mole, and Pork with Salsa de Chicatanas.  For those of you who aren't privy, Chicatanas are flying ants that are harvested for 2 weeks a year, and because their harvest requires timing, patience, and skill, they are very expensive - 400 pesos per kilo.  Although this dish was not my favorite dish of the evening, it was such an honor to taste this Oaxacan delicacy.

Sage Mezcaltini

Puerco con Salsa de Chicatanas
After dinner we decided to venture out for more fun - we hopped over to Café Central, by the same owners as Mezcalería Los Amantes.  Ok, truth, one of my cohorts had acquired a bottle of Mezcal from Los Amantes earlier in the evening on loan, and we were off to the second venue to deliver pesos to the man.

Café Central - Late Night Hot Spot
Did we find said man? No.  Did we dance until the wee hours of the morning? Yes.  This place was alive - stylish Oaxacans dancing to a range of music from traditional mexican to late night dance music.  At some ungodly hour I fell into bed, grateful for such an incredible day. 

Although we were off to the airport pretty early in the morning - I did get a taste of that legendary Oaxacan Hot Chocolate for breakfast - creamy, spicy, and nutty.  If only I could start every morning with such a delicacy...

I can't wait to return to Oaxaca again - I would love to have spent more time in the city, getting to know the people, the back alleys, and tasting more mezcal.  Mezcal the spirit, like Oaxaca, is a bit wild - born from different cultures, creative, colorful, spicy, and that smoke - oh that smoke - how you will crave it once you've tasted it. 


Want More? Go!


Restaurante Pitiona Cocina de Autor
Allende 108, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico
01 (951) 51 40690 y 51 447


Mezcalería Los Amantes
Allende #107, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico
Miércoles a Sábado
17:00-22:00 hrs

Los Danzantes
Macedonio Alcala No. 403-4,
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico

Café Central
Hidalgo 302, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico


Camino Real Oaxaca
Calle 5 de Mayo 300, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico


  1. Miss Daphne DuquesneAugust 23, 2012 at 10:28 AM

    This is amaaaaaaaaaaazing. So jealous. I love love love the "good morning miss emerson"... and those milagros!

  2. Great post - I'm always happy to see Oaxaca get some press and recognition for the amazing place that it is.

    But I almost un-followed you based on the opening paragraph. I'm sure you would get more comments in anger if you used the terms 'pesky Nazis' or 'pesky Khimer Rouge' rather than pesky Spanish Colonialists.

    It has so little to do with the rest of your article, and has so much to do with the cultures in Oaxaca that the Spanish influence should be dealt with in a more serious manor, or just skipped entirely.

    I attended a Mexcal festival in the north square of Oaxaca in 1999, and it was a wonderful eye-opening experience. Oaxaca is a culinary nexus as far as I am concerned; a place all foodies should visit.


  3. In response to Been - it was intended to be humorous, an attempt
    in poor taste) to lighten the weight of the controversial story of colonialism. If anything, all Mezcal lovers should give some credit to the Spanish influence, for without it, our beloved spirit would not be.

    None the less - the paragraph has been edited.

    I appreciate your input, and thank you for reading.


  4. Just curious - did you organize this through a tour agency? The other parts I can do myself but I wonder how did you set up the mezcal tasting and the "show" when you first arrived?

  5. Hi there @CakesM !

    Thanks for reading! I'm thrilled to hear that my article has inspired you to travel to Oaxaca. I was there with a group, but i know you can hire people to do Mezcal tours of the area. I have googled around a little bit about it, and it seems like it's not too hard to set up. Maybe call a hotel, and get their recommendations for a Mezcal Tour. Or, start at Mezcaleria de Amantes - they can point you in a good direction.

    As for the show, i believe its every friday night in the Camino Real Oaxaca. It was really great, and the food was delicious. I recommend it!

    Thanks again, and have fun in Oaxaca!


  6. Thank you for sharing your trip. We are headed there in ~ a week and this gives me more inspiration beyond the two days of Mezcal field tours and two cooking classes. Cant wait!

  7. You don't say where it was that you had that wonderful-looking lunch.. ?

    I spent 10 days in and around Oaxaca in September last year and it really is a special place. I ate like a royalty every day on the street and at the markets as well as in restaurants (Pitiona is fantastic) and tried dozens of different mezcals but I still feel as if I only scratched the surface of one of the world's great food cultures. Salud!

  8. Ah, I thought so. I will certainly check it out when I return. Thanks for replying!

  9. And you guys haven't taste the completed menu. I'm sure that some of you guys will not want to come back home often try the mescal and the real Mexican food. And I appreciate the great image that the author of this article has projected from my home state. Cheers to everyone.

  10. @Diaz garcia agreed! There is so much to taste in Oaxaca, and we barely scratched the surface. I can't wait to return to Oaxaca to eat more and drink more mezcal. Thanks for reading! xxG

  11. Thank you for projecting a great image of my home state. And you welcome, I always read interesting articles like yours. Congratulations.


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