Mexico City – On a hot, bright afternoon, Karina Abad, the production manager for Los Danzantes Mezcal, stood inside the company’s distillery on the hills outside of Oaxaca City, a colonial outpost in southern Mexico known for having some of the most complex and delicious food in Latin America.
The facility was temporarily closed for renovation, and the three-foot-tall stone wheel the workers use to crush the agave plant used to make mezcal sat alone in the sun.
“We bottle and produce mezcal here,” Abad explained.
Two employees stood next to the circular palenque where work horses pull the massive grinding stone to mash the roasted agave. Year-round, Danzantes’ employees cut off the tough, thin, purplish green leaves of the harvested agave, which looks like a giant aloe vera plant. With the four-foot-long leaves cast aside, the workers place the plants tough hearts, called piñas, onto a bed of hot rocks and smoldering wood-fire charcoal.
After the roasted hearts are mashed and fermented in wooden vats, the liquid is extracted and distilled in a wood-fire powered copper still.
“It’s an artisan production process,” Abad, who is originally from Oaxaca City, explained.
Mezcal, a traditional Oaxacan spirit long enjoyed by southern Mexico’s ranchers, urbanites, and charro horsemen, is currently experiencing an unprecedented boom in popularity both within Mexico and also north of the border. Mezcal has found favor with young professionals and hipsters both in Mexico City and Manhattan.
Martha Ortiz, the head chef at Dulce Patria, an upscale restaurant in Mexico’s City’s polished Polanco neighborhood, explained that within modern Mexico’s cuisine, mezcal “has an important role.
“It’s a protagonist,” she said.
Mezcal is also served at Pujol, Mexico’s most critically-acclaimed restaurant, and a wide variety of other upscale establishments.
Once derided as a blue-collar offering, mezcal is now being served at tables in gourmet restaurants in major cities across the globe. Carlos Sada, the former Mexican consul in New York City, said it’s the new hot drink for moneyed New Yorkers.
“New York is the city where most of the [exported] mezcal is being sold…New Yorkers are embracing the taste of mescal,” Sada said.
It’s de moda. Ten years ago you found it in very few places. It wasn’t viewed very highly. Now it’s cool.
- Micaela Miguel, owner of Abarrotes Delicatessen
Like tequila, mezcal’s more heavily marketed cousin, mezcal is starting to enjoy a wider audience.
“Right now it’s more for young people…the new generation,” Sada, a Oaxaca native, explained.
The drink is less well-known than tequila, but it also isn’t automatically associated with frat-boy binges and cheap cocktails. The small-batch producers in Oaxaca are keen to introducing mezcal as a spirit best consumed neat.
David Castillo, the 29-year-old bartender at Mezcaloteca, an upscale mezcal lounge in Oaxaca City, said it’s not a drink for college students looking for cheap buzz.
“With industrial drinks that are sometimes mixed [with cheaper alcohol], if you take a shot you’ll feel like a train wreck,” Castillo said. “But a good mezcal, if you know how to drink it, won’t get you too drunk.”
He shook a bottle of impeccably clear 100-proof Tobala Mezcal and poured it into a tumbler.
“It’s dry, really dry- but smoky at the end,” he explained, taking a measured sip.
While mezcal is catching on in Mexico City thanks in part to rising interest in local, artisan-produced Mexican products, in New York City is also finding new fans at high-end eateries and cocktail bars.
On Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an upscale hangout called Casa Mezcal serves a variety of Oaxaca’s spirits along with a lengthy list of tacos and entrees such as chocolate-sauce slathered mole de pollo oaxaqueño. Behind the bar there are 37 different kinds of mezcal, including several bottles of Nahuales, a mezcal produced at the Danzantes distillery in Oaxaca.
Ignacio Carballido, the owner of Casa Mezcal, said it’s becoming popular among connoisseurs of high-end spirits.
“People are more aware of it in a good way. Now they know it's a well-respected and old spirit. Before people thought of it as the crazy drink with a worm inside,” Carballido said.
Mezcal’s “smoky, earthy, and spicy [and] this complexity and strong flavor has captured the eye of mixologists” in New York, he said, a trend that is helping to connect the families who produce mezcal in Oaxaca to a new and expanding market for their product.
In Mexico, inside the historic La Naval liquor store in Mexico City’s trendy Condesa neighborhood, Angel Hernandez, a store employee with more than two decades of experience buying mezcals, held up a bottle with a 596 peso (US$46) price tag.
“This is a special one,” he said, standing in front of a shelf stocked with mezcal, in the middle of a store that features a wide array of premium wines, whiskies and tequilas.
“We have about 30 [different mezcal brands]. In the last 10 years, there’s been an increase,” Hernandez explained.
Next to the mezcal section at La Naval there is a case of expensive artisan cheeses from premium European producers. Down the street from the store at the neighborhood 7-11, there was a bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila being sold for 142 pesos (US$11) and a limited selection of cheap, industrial, plastic-wrapped cheeses.
The craftsmen leading mezcal’s renaissance are aiming for a more exclusive market segment.
Down the street from two orange sculptures of single-speed bicycles and a 15-foot-tall banner announcing the arrival of a new luxury apartment complex, premium mezcals are being sold along with marinated olives, cocoa-covered almonds, chai tea, and gourmet pastries at the Abarrotes delicatessen and bakery in the Roma neighborhood, Mexico City’s hipster-chic epicenter.
Outside the front door, a brand new Ducati motorcycle sat parked on the sidewalk. Inside, on the first shelf, there was a display for artisan sheep’s milk cheese from a small town north of Mexico City; it was marked at a price of 568 pesos (US$44) per kilogram.
Micaela Miguel, Abarrotes’ 26-year-old owner, elegantly dressed in khaki riding pants, a gray shirt and gold jewelry, surveyed her store’s mezcal collection, saying each one has its own story. “I went on a lot of trips to visit mezcalerias,” Abarrotes said. “You fall in love with this [production] process that’s been there for generations.”
She picked up a bottle of Siete Misterios that had a price tag marked “790 ps” (US$61) and looked at the hand-written note on the label.
“It’s from a batch of 1950 [bottles], a really small production run,” she said.
Abarrotes is just one of several dozen bars and stores selling high-end mezcal in La Roma.
“It’s de moda. Ten years ago you found it in very few places. It wasn’t viewed very highly. Now it’s cool,” Miguel explained.
Her view is echoed by Juan Vakero, a bartender at the Danzantes Restaurant and Mezcal bar in Coyoacan, another one of Mexico city’s rapidly gentrifying hipster enclaves, who explained “mezcal was a drink for humble people, but now it’s becoming fashionable.”
Overall, even as other parts of Mexico’s economy modernized rapidly over the last century, Oaxaca has remained tightly bound to its rural roots and isolated from the global economy. After 20 years of NAFTA trade with the U.S., many small town residents in Oaxaca remain disconnected from major highways and trade routes.
Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America researcher from the Americas Society, a New York City-based think tank explained, “Oaxaca remains an example of the old Mexico…in which income inequality, lack of access to technology, poor public services and lack of social mobility remain very much a part of the landscape.”
Far from the factories in the north, many of the state’s residents have chosen to migrate toward la frontera in search of work.
With nearly four million residents, and the second highest rate of poverty and highest rate of social unrest in Mexico, Oaxaca has served as one of the main sources of immigrant workers in the U.S.
Mezcal’s newfound popularity is helping to connect agave farmers, mezcal producers and other Oaxacans to the modern economy and is providing a new source of income for tens of thousands of residents.
Castillo, the bartender at Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca City, said mezcal’s popularity is helping shore up the local economy.
“Life here has been affected a lot by immigration, and now some children of mezcaleros have come back to work for them.”
With the sun high in the sky above the agave-covered hills of Oaxaca, Karina Abad walked though the distillery’s adobe-brick walled storage room, past shelves lined with bottles of Danzantes. Standing next to a rustically painted baby-blue lithograph of the Virgin Mary, she surveyed the mezcal collection, noting how it’s been sold in New York and Germany.
“It makes me proud,” she said. “that something from Oaxaca is being recognized.”
Nathan Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @LatAmLENS.