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The Rise of Mezcal: Great for Cocktails, Better for Oaxaca

That fancy new mezcal in your favorite bar is changing everything in the villages of Oaxaca.

Intensity was in the air. Up in Los Mochis, Mexican marines were tightening the noose on El Chapo, fugitive head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Twelve hundred miles away, things in Oaxaca City were also urgent. That flavor in my mezcal: Was it raw potato? Sunflower seed? How had the microbial population near the distillery affected the local yeast? Did the mezcalero use copper or clay pots? It was midnight at a small, dark bar called Mezcalogía. It would be hard to overstate the import here of a smoky liquid made from a spiny succulent, or the irrelevance of the country’s distant drug-trafficking theatrics.

Outside, the cobbled streets of the colonial city were black with rain. Inside, things were hopping, elbows politely jostling under an old chandelier. At the center of things, circulating with low-key gravitas, was a stocky young man in glasses and a Hendrix T-shirt. A distinct parting-of-bodies preceded his mellow movements, discreet murmurs followed him. He might’ve been a movie star from Mexico City, but I doubt a movie star would command such respect. This was the bar’s owner, Asis Cortés.

Mezcal joints are plentiful here in Oaxaca, but Mezcalogía exists on another plane. Outwardly casual, it’s a temple beneath the surface, and meticulous fanatics come to declaim thoughtfully about finish and mouthfeel. Because of the bar and because Cortés is a sixth-generation mezcalero himself, he is a luminary in the exploding world of mezcal. For the next couple hours I took in that explosion, sampling espadines, tobalás, tobaziches, and pechugas—the latter a mezcal redistilled through a raw chicken or turkey breast, of course. This cousin-of-tequila? It’s the most interesting thing you can put in a glass, the bar patrons insisted. More complex than wine, more subtle than whiskey.

Cortés hails from a small town where his family has made mezcal since before the American Civil War. Remote family distilleries have long been features of the landscape here, as familiar as the agave plants themselves. Culturally if not culinarily, they were essentially moonshine operations. They seldom distributed farther than the neighbor’s house, and usually in an old Coke bottle. Putting a label on it? Selling it beyond Oaxaca? Mixing it in a cocktail glass? These notions were foreign. Then the world shrank, and foreign ceased to exist.

Globalization found Oaxaca and coaxed forth its beloved beverage. If you’re a drinker, you’ve likely seen mezcal kale its way to near ubiquity in recent years. Any bartender with a half-decent mustache has a memorable mezcal cocktail at the ready, while your purists sip it straight, calling out notes of pine or banana, or cardamom, or chocolate, or ash, or almond. To the old mezcaleros in the hills of Oaxaca, this is a baffling new phenomenon.

To me, it can feel like an overly familiar one: just the latest obscure consumable being discovered, appropriated, and fetishized by the disposable-income set. But to the kids of those mezcaleros, this phenomenon is something else entirely. Channel things just right, navigate the country’s byzantine export hurdles just so, and the old moonshine could become the basis of a sustainable local economy, and a first-ever alternative to deep endemic poverty.

Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico and its most indigenous, two braided facts that owe much to geography. When the Spanish plowed through in the 16th century, they found a rugged terrain dividing Oaxaca into isolated village-states. In some ways that’s still the case: Many communities have maintained their own dialects, their own traditions—and yes, their own mezcals.

So how do you penetrate the state’s 36,000 square miles of god-knows-how-many tiny producers? I had been led here by two guys from the United States—my spirit guides, if you will. Clayton Szczech is a serious fellow with a minor pompadour and dark, skeptical eyes. When he was younger, a career test predicted he’d grow up to become a podiatrist or an undertaker. Instead Clayton moved to Mexico to lead tequila and mezcal tours for the similarly obsessed. Max Garrone, bitten by the same bug, lives in California and co-runs Mezcalistas, which is both a deeply researched blog and an ongoing series of tastings. I’ve known Garrone for years, but I can’t quite say I know him well, because he’s mysterious and speaks in riddles. “Mezcal will set you free,” he told me before the trip, raising his eyebrows meaningfully, “unless it doesn’t.” I couldn’t argue.

I told Max and Clayton I didn’t want a cursory tour of all god-knows-how-many distilleries. I wanted to see one—to zero in on a single family at the center of these massive changes. To Max and Clayton it was a no-brainer. The next morning we’d drive out to the village of Santa Catarina Minas.

By the time the city was switching on, the three of us were on our way out of it. We drove past the centuries-old cathedral and the jumbled morning markets, then the brake shops and additional brake shops on the edge of town. Old as it is, Oaxaca can feel provisional. Maybe it’s the bare rebar protruding from the roof of every other building. A lively debate swirls around this rebar. Some attribute it to an obscure tax law that rewards unfinished structures. Others consider the rebar proof of Mexican optimism. One day we’ll build that second story. It doesn’t seem strange that the truth would be elusive. Oaxaca feels like a city hidden from itself, much of it existing behind high walls and thick doors. When I’d catch peeks of a courtyard or garden, they were glimpses of a bright, secret world.

We hit open road. Clayton and Max gossiped about mezcal people. I stared out the window. There were mountains and empty valleys and the smell of the global south, that mix of warm hillsides and backyard fires. We turned onto a dirt road that led to another and in time we pulled up outside a small compound. It was the Real Minero distillery, or palenque. I saw a pit in the ground and some barrels. “God, look how fancy,” Max whispered.

Over the next half hour I learned what mezcal is. You start by harvesting a prehistoric-looking agave, locally called a maguey. This is no small assignment, as they can take a decade to mature. The leaves are lopped off and the heart, or piña, along with a few tons of its brothers and sisters, is tossed into a pit layered with hot stones and maguey fiber. Under a blanket of straw mats and dirt, the piñas roast in that pit for the next few days or even a month. (With tequila, the agave hearts are often merely steamed—pshaw.) For mezcal, the cooked maguey is then ground to a pulp. Some mezcaleros use a hand tool, others an enormous round grinding stone pulled in a circle by a deeply patient donkey or horse. The resulting pulp ferments in those open-air barrels a few days more, until at last it’s run through simple stills over a wood fire.

Soon we were seated at a long table in a small home near the palenque. The elders of the Angeles family, which owns Real Minero, lived here. We sat in a half-indoor, half-outdoor dining room. In the cluttered courtyard, a child played with a length of old hose. At the far end of the table sat the owner of the house, a wiry man in a worn cowboy hat.

Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza, 66, was focused quietly on the succession of plates being put in front of him. I watched him eat his weight in tlayudas—crisp tortillas topped with avocado, fresh quesillo (white cheese), and salsa. At last he pushed back from the table and adjusted his hat. Then his wife brought out another helping and he smiled sweetly and ate it.

What Don Lorenzo does he has done since he was nine: make mezcal. His father did it before him and his grandfather did it before him. Don Lorenzo has always lived here, he told me, as has nearly every relative he can think of. That mezcal was illegal until 1984 wasn’t a huge deal. The men who made it, like Don Lorenzo, weren’t trying to get rich, they were just selling enough to get by. Full-on capitalism wasn’t really a thing. Paved roads weren’t really a thing. Don Lorenzo made deliveries over patchy, hot hills by mule.

At first he made his mezcal in someone else’s palenque. Then he saved up and built his own. That was 38 years ago, the same year he and his wife had a daughter. She was sitting beside him now, a poised woman with a bushy ponytail and a wry smile. Graciela Angeles Carreño joined the family business, and under her watch those bottles delivered by mule have become one of the most respected mezcal brands around.

After lunch, she led us through town. Tell people you’re off to mezcal country and—you can tell from their faces—a percentage will picture some debauched, Tijuana-like realm. But Minas is quiet and gentle, a place of small homes under a big, hot sky, and of children on dirt roads stealing shy glances. As we walked, Graciela and I spoke about the younger generation leading their families’ village mezcal operations into the global market, and how that can change a family. Don Lorenzo carries a knife, his daughter an iPhone. He attended elementary school until fourth grade; she has a graduate degree. Graciela finds herself doing things that would’ve been unfathomable just a few years ago: giving presentations around the country, hosting a fancy tasting event at a Four Seasons, representing all of mezcal in Istanbul. On top of that are the changes sweeping through Minas. Gawkers like Clayton and Max and me now breeze through their once hidden town, oohing and Instagramming. Graciela understands that authenticity itself must be branded on occasion.

It’s hard not to worry for a mellow, remote village that is voluntarily enlisting in the First World’s demented and depleting capitalism. That sweet kid playing with the hose in the courtyard earlier— in the States he would’ve been whimpering for a PlayStation. At the same time, my concern issues from a well-fed mouth. When we passed a playground, Graciela talked about the schoolmates she grew up with. By the time she graduated, most of the boys—her friends—had been forced to look for jobs across the border. A generation of lost men, she said, many of whom never made it back. Now imagine an alternative emerging, she added: not just making a living right here, but doing so from your own family traditions, with your own family hole-in-the-ground, and paying fair wages.

The next day was El Día de Reyes, or Three Kings’ Day. Real Minero organizes the village festival, which means Graciela organizes it, and after a church service and procession through town, everyone comes to the palenque for a big party. We agreed to return the next day for the festivities.

Max, Clayton, and I spent the rest of the day exploring other mezcal areas. In one village half an hour away, we paid a visit to Asis Cortés. He and some friends were at one of his palenques, pulling hot piñas from a roasting pit. Shirtless, they hauled them under a baking sun to the place where they would be ground down and fermented. We pressed on, over unpaved roads through scrubby hills. A town would appear, a dozen small, thick-walled shops and darkened homes, then the vista would revert to hills again. One village had just a single store for food, with no official signage, just COMEDOR scrawled in marker. In another, a small man solemnly rode a donkey past a coffin shop.

On day three we drove back to Minas, where a group of willing men had gathered to carry towering agave stalks, or quiotes, in the afternoon procession. When the guy doling out quiotes asked if I’d carry a monster of a specimen, 20 feet tall and surprisingly dense, I agreed. After the men were paired with their quiotes, the girls from Minas were paired with us. A shy young woman walked over and wordlessly began decorating my scraggly branches. It’s one of life’s lesser-known tender experiences, having a stranger tie balloons to the agave stalk another stranger has asked you to hold. A local marching band played, and a man rang the church bell gaily.

Around and around we walked, angling our quiotes to not hit the low-hanging power lines. My shoulders ached. But it felt remarkable to be here at one of those times when history changes right under your nose. Someone once pointed out to me that, for a brief moment, Charlie Chaplin and 50 Cent were both alive at the same time. That’s how Minas struck me. Here was their sophisticated branding strategy for emerging European markets, and over here a dirt-road religious parade.

After another hour, Real Minero appeared, mirage-like in the distance. We trudged the final quarter mile, then at last leaned our quiotes against the wall of the palenque. Over the next several hours, local musicians played, kids whacked a piñata, and an entire village hung out in this world Don Lorenzo and Graciela have built. We danced at a level I’d forgotten existed. I danced with the young woman who’d decorated my quiote, and I danced with strangers and with children. Did the local musicians play hauntingly beautiful songs from the village? Hell no. We danced to “YMCA,” and somehow it felt like a song written for Santa Catarina Minas. Unsurprisingly, Graciela ruled the dance floor. When a Spanish “Achy Breaky Heart” came on, she had us doing this sidle-left-sidle-right routine. It’s a testament to the broader powers of mezcal that we required very little of it to move like that.

In the early morning hours, Clayton, Max, and I made a bleary, ill-advised drive back to the city. I tried to review all the mezcal minutiae I’d absorbed—what was barril again? I tried, also, to grasp the roots of the civilization that produced it. On an outcrop in the Tlacolula Valley we had passed the ruins of a Zapotec settlement dating to 500 c.e. The descendants of that population still live in a nearby town, I’d heard.

But mostly I found myself thinking about a room full of books that didn’t exist yet.

After our visit to Don Lorenzo’s home, he and Graciela had squeezed into Clayton’s car and we’d driven to a distant corner of town. There was nothing there but a parched bluff overlooking a brown valley. Standing on the bluff was an unfinished earthen building. Welcome, Graciela said, to our first public library.

It’s hard to describe the unlikeliness of those words. I’d have been no more surprised to learn this was the future site of an Apple store. But here’s the thing about turning your family mezcal business into an international one: You start making money. Not a lot. A pittance by U.S. standards. But enough to get something going, and to rally work parties on Sundays after church.

The kids here have so little, Graciela said. But there was happiness in her words, as if she could already hear herself changing that “have” to “had.” She pointed to the patch of dirt that would be an area for doing homework, another that would lodge visiting librarians, another for concerts. I stood in what would one day be the doorway and looked at the valley and felt the first lump in my throat ever inspired by a construction site. And then we got back in the car, because there was more mezcal to make.

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