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The heart of mezcal in Oaxaca

Mezcal is a drink that has gained popularity around the world and Oaxaca gives it a unique identity and energy.

Oaxaca has given impetus and cultural character to mezcal, the drink that has managed to position itself throughout the world. The hands and hearts of its creators give it a unique identity.

Our final destination is San Baltazar Guelavila, located in the Municipality of San Dionisio Ocotepec, where some of the best mezcal brands in the world are produced. I am the only Mexican in the group of journalists who traveled on the bus to discover the process of making mezcal. We made an hour from Oaxaca to San Baltazar and upon arrival the smell of burnt agave pineapples left us perplexed.

Now we all settle into the wooden tray of a truck that is rumbling down a stone path that will take us up the mountain to plant some baby agaves that were delivered to us.

In addition to journalists, the crew includes the best bartenders from Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas, who were also invited by the Mezcal El Silencio team to discover how this spirit is distilled. This ultra-premium mezcal has grown rapidly, its production increased 400 percent over last year.

Agave Mezcal

Burnt agave pineapples surround the palenque of this mezcal where a mare walks in circles to turn a wheel that squeezes the agave heads. The palenque is located inside a small distillery in El Silencio, where the jimadores, bottlers, day laborers and the mezcal master Pedro Hernández follow the ancestral customs of the artisan production of mezcal.

“Among spirits, the mezcal boom has far surpassed tequila.”

Sasha Gamboa

The first step for its preparation is to walk up the mountain, where the agave stalks that have been sown between eight and twelve years are harvested. The jimadores come up with their sharp shovels to tear them out of the ground. A group of workers throws the leftover pineapples into the stone well – which is adjacent to the palenque – to burn them with mesquite wood. After all this process, the pineapples turn into must, an agave puree that is poured into wooden tubs and mixed with natural spring water.

During fermentation, the must begins to generate its own alcohol. This liquid is distilled in copper stills so that the alcohol becomes vapor and finally becomes mezcal.

Agave resists extreme climates, so it does not need fertilizers and, once produced, does not require preservatives or synthetic substances. “The journey that Mezcal El Silencio starts from the plantation of an agave in the highlands of San Baltazar Guelavila”, says Fausto Zapata, director of the brand.

The families of the laborers and jimadores receive us with a feast like a party. In clay pots, typical dishes from Oaxaca come to the table, among them a black mole with chicken that is worth tacking with a handmade tortilla, chichilo with the aroma of herbs and boiled vegetables that accompanies the pieces of pork. On the table there are, in addition to Coronitas, an endless number of candle-type glasses filled with mezcal.

An artisan carves gourds with our names to take us a souvenir that will be used to drink mezcal. Journalists do not stop asking questions about production and how they will conserve production in the coming years if the land where an agave is grown cannot be reused.

Agaves en Oaxaca

Fausto tells us that to accommodate the growing demand, his mezcalería instituted a sustainability program since its inception and they have planted 20,000 agaves, in addition to those used for normal production. “It is imminent for all mezcal producers to participate in sustainability practices as demand will soon exceed supply. Failure to do so will put agave species at risk, “says Fausto Zapata.

Among spirits, the mezcal boom has far surpassed tequila. And it is that according to the report of the Regulatory Council of Mezcal (CRM), in three years the production of distillate increased 48% from 980 thousand 375 liters to 1 million 451 thousand 718. The increase was due to the fact that the producers decided to overproduce and store the mezcal before a possible increase in the price of agave, the raw material with which the distillate is produced.

The mixologists who travel with us tell us that, in addition to the offer of cocktails that they make to their clients, there are those who still prefer to drink it alone and at room temperature.

We leave San Baltazar full of energy despite the long journey, living the story behind mezcal awakened something in us. The tour inspired me to tell this story in the most interesting way possible. And the experience did not end there, upon returning to the city of Oaxaca, the bartenders competed in teams to create, with products available in local markets and with Mezcal El Silencio, a drink that represented our experience. Twelve teams were formed and a drink presented in a black clay mug with a hand-painted bookmark (which served as a shaker) became the winner of the trip.

The bartenders used ingredients that they do not find easily in their places of origin: cocktails with dark chocolate, grasshoppers, vanilla beans, axolotls, agave honey, piloncillo and even a marrow used as a glass, are proof of the inspiration that living one day causes in the land of mezcal.

Pictures: Debora Ducci

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