Roasted Hearts and Winding Roads: Adventures in Oaxaca's Mezcal Country

A cask of mezcal in Oaxaca.

“Reserve of the Gods”

The wooden cask reads “Reserva de los Dioses”, or “Reserve of the Gods”. Indeed. At a mezcal distillery in the highlands of Oaxaca, an erudite, well-dressed man is pouring generous shots of liquor into real glasses. He looks to be in his mid thirties and says he has been in the mezcal business for 12 years. He learned from his father, who has been in the business for 40 years. The father sits in the shade of their roadside shack. He wears a hat and holds a walking stick, radiates dignity. He is chatting with a few other old men, and you can just tell that he is a local leader of the Mexican variety; he may not serve in any official capacity, but he is clearly a problem solver, a resolver of debates, the man with the plan.

His plan, it seems, involves making some damn good mezcal. His distillery, “Fabrica de Mezcal El Zompantle,” is right here by the side of the highway. The size of a small house, the open-sided building has a tin roof and a dirt floor. Agave hearts are piled in the parking area, and, below the eaves, roasted agave fiber ferments in giant barrels.  A copper still simmers near an open cement tank of mountain spring water. Beyond the still, the mountain drops away to a vista of trees and sunlight.

An artisinal mescal distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Fermenting agave at “El Zompantle.”

 This is our second distillery of the day. At our first stop, a grumpy, wooly-haired man showed us his operation, which looked very similar to “El Zompantle.”

Outside the distillery we saw a pit, circled with hunks of coal and cracked, black stone–here the agave hearts are buried and roasted. When I asked the proprietor how  long he roasted the hearts, he looked at me suspiciously, as though he thought this gringa might be his next stiff competition in the mezcal market. I tried to look innocent and hapless.

“A week,” he said gruffly and stared at me hard, as though sending me a message: don’t even think about it.

Not far from the pit, we saw a giant grinding stone, which looked almost pre-Colombian. Once the roasted agave is removed from the pit, it is ground to fiber by the stone, which is pulled by a burro. Next the fibers are moved to wooden vats, where they ferment for 11-14 days. At the end of the fermentation period, the liquid is ready for distilling.

The end result is not for everyone. The liquid we sampled in the proprietor’s wooden “office” was smoky and sweet, with an oily undertone. It’s not what I’d call smooth, but after a few sips the world looked brighter, almost psychedelic. We bought a bottle of his pechuga, or mezcal sweetened and infused with fruit and chicken breast, for 120 pesos.

I like the mezcal we sample at “El Zompantle” better: the clear liquid has higher notes and lacks the oily undertone. We buy two unsealed bottles for the astonishingly low price of 60 pesos (5 USD) each and go on our merry way. Which after two rounds of sampling suddenly feels very merry indeed.

editor’s note: To get to “El Zompantle”, take the highway to Mitla and keep driving, following signs toward Hierve el Agua. The distillery is on the left side of the highway if you are heading toward Hierve el Agua. The road is crazy and winding and dotted with Mezcal distilleries. 


12 Responses to “Roasted Hearts and Winding Roads: Adventures in Oaxaca's Mezcal Country”

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  1. El Codo says:

    A few of these places have “reserva” for special “clientes” and it isn’t advertised. One such fibrica had a worker trying to start and old flatbed truck, on his way to go collect more “piñas”. I dug in my toolboxes (my truck had a utility bed chock full of doors and shelves) and spent an hour or two cleaning out a rat’s nest of wires, and rewiring practically the entire ignition system.

    My “reward” was a milk jug of honey-colored Mezcál that was definitely not part of the for-sale inventory. It was smoooooooooooooooooooooooooth, all the way to when I regained consciousness six hours later. Lucky I had a camper. Oh my god, as I departed for Tehuantepéc the next morning, even my hair hurt.

    • churpa says:

      Hahha. Great description regarding “hair hurting”. I was fortunate enough (though some strategy was involved) to avoid a mezcal hangover on this trip, but that’s only because I know exactly what you are talking about from past experience.

      • It’s been my experience that mezcal absent of anything else does not leave one with a hangover. If you had a hangover I would suspect the owner was either adding chemicals to decrease the fermentation process time, alcohol, or aguardiente. Matatlan has earned a bad reputation for the above. I’ve managed to find a couple of palaques that sell me pretty good stuff. Can’t swear that it’s 100% chemical free but I can tie on a pretty good one without ill effects in the morning.

        • churpa says:

          I agree that good Mezcal will not give you a hangover if you drink it straight and in reasonably spaced intervals. I think my mistake was to also drink beer….

  2. Tina V. Rosa says:

    Absolutely world-class photos! And that dry wit goes well with the sampling….

  3. dobie says:

    Great story of how they make the stuff and absolutely fantastic photos!

  4. BC says:

    Great pictures! Was wondering the purpose/use of the partially buried copper vat?
    If you like unusual crafts, south of the resort town of Huatulco they make light weight replica suits of armor.

    • churpa says:

      I am unclear as to the exact purpose of the buried copper vat. It looks to me like it might be part of a disconnected pot still, but I am not sure why it is buried. Suits of armor sound awesome! I am def. checking that out next time I am in that neck of the woods.

  5. Art Mayers says:

    Often quite romantic views of making mezcal. What is often left out is safety. If methanol fraction is not removed it can cause blindness and death. That is not a detected by taste but is controlled by temperature during distillation and the removal to the first fraction of distillation. How is this regulated, I suspect not at all. It might be reserved and sold at the bottles I see for 15 pesos and thus resulting in the drunks I see and the funeral bells I hear. Mezcal by small makers is another name for moonshine.

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