Weeklong touring of palenques, mezcalerias, restaurants
The reclusive US based Sociedad de Mezcaleros began and ended its insatiable exploration in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, as should any tour focused on an in depth education of the manufacture of mezcal (aka mescal), its use as a cooking ingredient, and of course flavor nuances and tasting notes – based on varietal of agave, means of production, terra firma, altitude, water source and aging. After all, the world’s finest mezcales are distilled in and around the central valleys of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.
After well over a year of planning, the truly comprehensive mezcal tour of Oaxaca proceeded with flawless precision in March / April 2012; even through random heavy downpours and the occasional earth tremor. Every hour of the itinerary was scheduled with visiting palenques to expand mind and palate; sampling, eating and imbibing to often bacchanalian proportion; and visiting both off-the-beaten-track sights as well as a selection of Oaxaca’s not-to-be-missed traditional cultural attractions.
The Sociedad presidente had virtually demanded that his man-on-the-ground in Oaxaca maintain the grueling schedule for the group. “Leave it the way it is; I know these guys and they can handle it,” he exclaimed. “With each assembly of agave aficionados we bring down we have to look at their personalities and primary motivation; these particular people want to learn as much about mezcal in the shortest period of time possible, and most of them simply don’t have the luxury of touring at a leisurely pace.”
Indeed most of the charter members of the Sociedad spent only four full days in Oaxaca. But a few did stay on longer to take in what less than a week of intensive day and night activity could simply not accomplish.
In the end, most of the newly inducted members of the mezcal order:
• met with eight or more palenqueros ranging from producers using modern innovative roasting and fermenting techniques, to those employing more traditional methods, to purists distilling and storing utilizing only clay pots, known as cántaros;
• participated in the ceremonial filling of an in-ground oven with agave piñas;
• had the opportunity to ask their every question of palenqueros ranging from the most rural campesino to the most exacting and detail oriented chemical engineer;
• sampled from not only production facilities in Oaxaca’s central valleys, but also from downtown Oaxaca mezcalerias and tasting rooms, and restaurants noted for their diversities of mezcales using a cornucopia of agave types – arrequeño, cuish, tobalá, jabalí, mexicano, tobasiche, espadín, san martin, and the list goes on (pulque was also featured in selected rural and urban venues);
• ate in the most quaint comedores imaginable where they were invited into rural roadside kitchens, as well as dined in Oaxaca city’s upscale eateries oft reserved for politicians, literati and others in Oaxacan haute society;
• participated in the almost lost technique of making hot chocolate from scratch with a rural Zapotec family beginning with grinding toasted cacao beans on a stone metate over fire, and at the other end of the continuum learned from internationally acclaimed urban chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo the art of preparing modern Oaxacan cuisine incorporating mezcal into recipes – marinated skewered shrimp, fruit and veggies al mezcal flambé, and requesón cheese pie with Oaxacan chocolate and mezcal;
• were the special invited guests at the inauguration of a photo exhibit entitled Mezcaleros de Oaxaca, by renowned Mexican – American photographer Spike Mafford;
• at their option participated in private guided tours of a smattering of Oaxaca’s UNESCO recognized sights, and in demonstrations by some of the most talented craftspeople in the state, the latter with either agave or mezcal thematically connected.
Organizers kept many details of the tour under wraps and unknown to participants until the hour dictated disclosure. “When it comes to mezcal and agave in Oaxaca, there’s just so much more we can do,” beamed el presidente, leaning over a fine oak bar one earlier morning towards the tour’s end. No doubt other surprises are in store for new initiates into the Sociedad de Mezcaleros.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) with wife Arlene. Alvin’s interests lie in all things mezcal, pulque & agave; helping tourists to the region to get the most out of their Oaxacan vacation; and writing to promote Oaxacan travel and tourism.