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.
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.