Getting the Most Out of Mezcal

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

On virtually a daily basis, both mezcal aficionados and novices alike comment and post questions online about what they have recently sampled and/or added to their growing collections. I perceive a sense of pride, and a little bit of boasting, all of which is fine in my books. But some have not visited mezcal producing regions of Mexico, specifically in the state of Oaxaca, my bailiwick. And if they have, many don’t know what they may have been missing.

With all due respect to those who might disagree with this opinion, it doesn’t matter how many books one has read about the subject matter, and how many great mezcals one has tasted and opined regarding. Without having visited small, mom-and-pop and otherwise family owned and operated palenques peppering the central valleys of Oaxaca and further beyond, the owners of which lack access to the export market, these wannabe experts lack knowledge about the culture of mezcal. And they should learn about it! Not by simply hopping on a tour bus, or hiring a registered guide to take them to Santiago Matatlán or a couple of the built-for-tourism palenques on the side of the highway. Of course the tour companies and generalist guides provide valuable services, but not for those truly wanting to learn about agave distillates in the course of a day or two of mezcal excursions.

I’m not suggesting that visitors should contract my associate or me to take them on a mezcal tour. There are others who offer mezcal tour services both similar to and different from ours. They should reach out to anyone who can give them an in-depth well-rounded understanding of the processes involved in making mezcal distilled in clay pots, in copper alembics and in refrescadors. And of course subject to time and financial constraints, they should even try to become familiar with other means of production and tools of the trade. But just as importantly, they should venture off-the-beaten-path and get into at least one or two homes of the talented makers and their families.

The impetus for penning this short piece was a comment I received towards the end of a recent mezcal tour, from a young Mexican, a novice to mezcal. He commented on the opportunity provided to him to visit the humble, rural homestead of palenqueros, and to chat and laugh with the family members. While he and his fiancé had read about the experience my associate and I strive to provide, it didn’t really hit home until they were in the midst of it all, witnessing Zapotec cultural traditions in a village environment, seeing how the family lives, preparing comida, speaking with one another in their native tongue (even with the youngsters), and so on.  

It’s absolutely fine to make a pilgrimage to the distillery of one or more of your favorite brands, and I too have done that although not in recent memory. In most cases I have naturally found the experience informative. But one learns what the host wants you to see, and little more. Some are willing to give visitors a glimpse into their lives, but typically, at least based on my personal experience, one learns very little about the culture of the families. The few documentaries about mezcal do a better job, because of the depth of what the producers, editors and moderators want to instruct, illustrate and convey. 

On occasion, when a family member of a palenquero is celebrating a rite of passage, be it a wedding, a baptism, an anniversary or a birthday, there is an opportunity for mezcal tour participants to attend. We have found that our distiller friends and their relatives have virtually always welcomed not only us, but also any touring clients we happen to be taking around to palenques at the time. This provides just as fruitful an experience as entering their homes, albeit different. It enrichens the Oaxacan mezcal excursion experience tenfold, for both the novice and the aficionado! So when the opportunity presents itself, seize it. Don’t let it slip by. It is am extremely rewarding eye opener to even those who have previously quietly considered themselves “experts.” And if an opportunity to attend arises in the course of the day means cancelling dinner at a top-rated restaurant such as Casa Oaxaca, Origen or Los Danzantes, go for it, of course being sure to cancel the reservation, even if it must be at the last moment.

So why do I think many online commenters have not sought out the type of experience I have suggested? Often they post details including tasting notes of brands they have purchased in the US, Canada, the UK or further abroad, virtually to the exclusion of proferring opinions about mezcals not available outside of their home state or First World country. Opinions are just as valuable regarding agave distillates which do not commercially leave Mexico. If the answer is that the person posting is trying to convince others to go to their local retailers, then I would ask why. For many, hopping on a plane to get to and from Oaxaca is fairly inexpensive from some US cities, including LA, Dallas and Houston. Certainly, when one considers the cost of buying from the source, versus at an American retailer or even online, the price of visiting Mexico and buying down here all of a sudden seems like a bargain, or at least quite affordable.

Since each batch of traditionally made mezcal is unique, the likelihood is slim that someone who attends at a retailer for the purpose of buying a product about which he read six months earlier, will be purchasing from the same batch; thus the expression will be different. If the person wants to support that brand, then once again why. Do not the people working at the small palenques which do not have access to the export market need the income just as much if not more so than the export brand owners, the shippers and customs agents, the American warehouses, the distributors and the retailers? Yes, we need to keep a constant flow of quality mezcal reaching non-Mexican destinations and thus have to support export brands, but at the same time we can be supporting the smaller producers, and give them a little bit of the pie.

Begin posting about the products you purchase while in Oaxaca or elsewhere in Mexico which you have acquired directly from the source. You can always buy your favorite and new export brands back home. Support the small guys. Many of my non-Mexican friends fall prey to commenting upon only export brands. It’s not enough to spread out your Oaxaca purchases on a table, photograph them, and say “look what I just bought.” Although I don’t much believe in the value and hype attributed to tasting notes, let’s read details about the mezcal that doesn’t leave Mexico. Let’s do more to highlight the agave distillates from as many palenques as you have visited, beyond posting the photos of the juice in plastic bottles labelled with masking tape. Entice readers to visit your favorite mezcal producing state, rather than go out and buy 750 ml bottles of export brands for $50, $100 or $150 USD or even more.

alvin starkman, mezcal

Let’s get more people down to Oaxaca, to Michoacán, to Puebla, and teach them about the true culture of mezcal. Then, and only then, will they rightfully be mezcal aficionados. And for those who have not sampled from the source, help foster your own and the cultural enrichment of the others you will entice to visit once back home; and help foster the financial enrichment of the palenqueros of which I have been writing. They’ll welcome you with open arms; maybe even more so that the retailer in LA, New York, Vancouver or Dallas.

Alvin Starkman has undergraduate and graduate degrees in social anthropology. He operates Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).  His most recent book is the third expanded edition of Mezcal in the Global Spirit Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.

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