Last week Chef Forgione and I traveled to this amazing city an hour’s plane ride southwest of Mexico City. Oaxaca is the capital city of the Mexican state by the same name. The region is known for geographical diversity, biodiversity, and its rich, indigenous cultures.
Oaxaca has been the art and food capital of Mexico for centuries, well before the Spaniards arrived. A wide range of herbs have their origins here and it is an important region for the cultivation of vanilla. It is also home to exceptional cocoa beans and coffees. From a food point of view, mole rules and this region is home to seven different varieties. Artists have long flocked here because of the rich cultural traditions of the (relatively well preserved) indigenous peoples. Up to 200 unique colors can be made from different indigenous plants. It also is the birthplace of the natural color red. There are many reasons to visit this long celebrated artistic mecca…but we came for the Mezcal!!
What is mezcal? The short version goes like this: like tequila, it is a spirit from Mexico distilled from the agave plant. While there are several similarities to tequila, there are more differences. Mezcal is made from a number of different varieties of the agave plant. Tequila, on the other hand, is made solely from blue agave. Mezcal has been made for hundreds of years in the mountains surrounding Oaxaca, mostly for consumption during religious and cultural celebrations.
Grinding down the roasted agave.
The process for making mezcal is kind of crazy as it involves a ton of labor and passion. The people here either cultivate agave plants on steep hillsides or find wild plants growing in remote areas. The plants need 9-12 years to reach maturity. Once mature they are shed of their leaves by machete and brought to the distillery. The hearts, as they are called, can weigh an astonishing 140-400 pounds! They are halved and then roasted over local rivers stones underground anywhere from 3-30 days. Next, they are chopped by axe, ground by a horse drawn muddler, fermented and finally distilled twice. Mezcals marked for export are lightly filtered and then bottled.
It has only been in the past decade that these hand crafted, small batch spirits have found their way to the American bar shelf. Much of the credit is due to a man named Ron Cooper. Ron, who is an artist by trade, discovered these wonderful distillates 18 years ago while traveling through the region. Since then, he has made it his life passion to bring these artisanal spirits to consumers around the world. Ron owns and operates a company named Del Maguey (pronounced Del Ma-Gay) that purchases finished mezcals from a number of producers. Del Maguey bottles and sells mezcal with the name of their origin village on the front label. Ron, with the help of Steven Olson, has turned this once unheard of spirit into a formidable category in the US market.
We joined Ron, Steve, and 10 of the country’s top bartenders on a 3-day tour to visit the amazing artisans who hand craft these fine mezcals. It was a life altering experience that truly made me believe that these are the finest crafted spirits on the planet. More importantly, every bottle sold has helped change the lives of these incredible people by help funding water, sanitation, and housing projects. These things were not available before Ron starting buying their mezcals. Although there are several great mezcals on the market, I recommend visiting Del Maguey and finding them locally. My favorites are: Vida, Chichicapa and Tobala.
If you have any further questions or recommendations write me on the contact page of my website UnderRipe and I will be happy to make you a believer too!