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Your Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca Mezcal

Oaxaca, a southern Mexican state, boasts a diverse array of agave species and unique mezcal production techniques. We’ll explore Oaxaca’s agave varieties, examine mezcalero techniques’ impact on flavor, and tour its mezcal-producing regions. We’ll also explore the artisanal, ancestral, and industrial production methods used in this region.

Introduction to Oaxaca’s Mezcal

Oaxaca stands as more than a cultural nexus; it’s the heartland of mezcal, Mexico’s storied spirit, deeply interwoven with the region’s identity and traditions. As the leading supplier of mezcal, both locally and on the global stage, Oaxaca’s unique climate and varied terrain contribute to the unparalleled diversity of agave species found here, each imparting its own distinct essence to the spirit. This region, rich in history and culture, is home to a wide range of agave varieties, more than any other place in Mexico. It’s this botanical wealth that enables Oaxaca to dominate mezcal production, both in terms of volume and variety.

Mezcal’s production in Oaxaca is a testament to the region’s agricultural and artisanal prowess. The mezcal-making process here is as diverse as the agave it stems from, encompassing traditional and modern techniques that have been refined over centuries. From the sun-baked valleys to the rugged mountains, each corner of Oaxaca contributes its unique character to the mezcal it produces, resulting in a spectrum of flavors that range from smoky and robust to subtle and floral.

The significance of Oaxaca in the mezcal market cannot be overstated. The region not only dominates the domestic market in Mexico but has also carved a significant niche in the international arena. Mezcals from Oaxaca are highly sought after by connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike, celebrated for their depth, complexity, and the skillful craft that goes into each bottle. As mezcal’s popularity continues to soar globally, Oaxaca stands at the forefront, not just as a producer, but as the custodian of a rich heritage that defines this exquisite spirit.

The Importance of Agave in Oaxaca

In Oaxaca, the agave plant transcends its biological role, emerging as a profound symbol of cultural identity deeply rooted in the region’s history and mythology. Revered for centuries, agave is integral not only to Oaxaca’s famed mezcal but also to the cultural and spiritual fabric of its people, connecting them to a rich pre-Hispanic heritage.

Ancient Aztec image of Mayahuel from the Borgia Codex
Ancient Aztec image of Mayahuel from the Borgia Codex

The story of agave in Oaxaca intertwines with ancient myths, notably featuring Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of maguey (agave). Mayahuel symbolizes fertility and nourishment, embodying the life-sustaining properties of the agave plant. This connection highlights the deep reverence and spiritual significance agave has held in the lives of the indigenous people of Mexico, long before the Spanish conquest.

Agave’s significance extends beyond the spiritual realm, playing a vital role in the daily lives of the people. For centuries, it has been a source of food, fiber, and fermented beverages like pulque, an ancient precursor to distilled spirits such as mezcal, sotol, and tequila. The art of fermenting agave into pulque dates back to pre-Columbian times and has been a cornerstone of social and ceremonial gatherings.

With the advent of distillation techniques, agave took on a new role in the form of mezcal. Each variety of agave, from the commonly used Espadín to the rare and wild Tobalá, imparts its own unique flavor and character to mezcal. This makes the exploration of mezcal varieties a journey through the diverse landscapes and microclimates of Oaxaca, each bottle a reflection of its terroir.

The cultural importance of agave in Oaxaca is also evident in its influence on art, cuisine, and community celebrations. Agave and mezcal are not merely agricultural products; they are cultural artifacts, carrying stories of the land and its people, of ancient traditions and modern innovations. As mezcal continues to gain international acclaim, it carries with it the spirit of Oaxaca, a testament to a plant that has shaped and been shaped by a culture for centuries.

Main Varieties of Agave in Oaxaca

The vast variety of local agaves defines Oaxaca’s mezcal. Agave Espadín is the most common, known for its versatile flavor. Varieties like Agave Tobalá and Tepeztate offer diverse flavors, from sweet and fruity to herbal and earthy.

To learn how to identify many of the wild (silvestre) agave varieties in Oaxaca firsthand, join our Ancestral Mezcal Experience!

Identify Mezcal Varieties - Espadin Tobala
Agave Tobala
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Tepeztate Agave
Agave Tepeztate
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Arroqueño Agave
Agave Arroqueño

Agave Espadín (Agave angustifolia): The most common agave used for mezcal production in Oaxaca. Espadin agave has a relatively short cultivation period of about 5-7 years. Espadín mezcals are known for their versatile flavor profile, ranging from sweet and fruity to herbal and earthy.

Agave Tobalá (Agave potatorum): Tobalá, the “King of Mezcals,” is a wild agave growing in Oaxaca’s high-altitude mountains. Its mezcal is highly valued for its complex and refined flavors, often with floral and fruity notes.

Agave Tepeztate (Agave marmorata): Another wild variety, Tepeztate takes about 25-30 years to mature. It’s known for producing mezcal with unique and intense flavors, including herbaceous and earthy notes, and a slight spiciness.

Agave Arroqueño (Agave americana var. oaxacensis): Also known as the Agave Sierra Negra, this is a large agave species that can take up to 20 years to mature. Mezcal made from Arroqueño is often rich and full-bodied, with notes of chocolate, tropical fruit, and a smoky finish.

Identify Mezcal Varieties - Madrecuixe Agave
Agave Madrecuixe
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Tobaziche Agave
Agave Tobaziche
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Mexicano Agave
Agave Mexicano
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Jabali Agave
Agave Jabali

Agave Madrecuixe (Agave karwinskii): This tall, slender variety grows primarily in dry regions of Oaxaca. Mezcals produced from Madrecuixe feature herbal, floral, and sometimes nutty flavor profiles.

Agave Tobaziche (Agave Karwinskii): A variant of the Agave karwinskii species, matures in about 16 years. Tobaziche is closely related to the Madrecuixe, sharing similarities in growth yet distinct in its larger size. Its mezcal offers a peaty, earthy, and smoky flavor profile, balanced with an underlying sweetness of citrus fruit.

Agave Mexicano (Agave rhodacantha): In some Oaxacan towns, people refer to Mexicano as Cuixe. Mexicano is a variety similar to Madrecuixe yet with its own distinct characteristics. Agave Cuixe, a tall and slim variety, has a shorter growth cycle. It produces a mezcal that is light and floral, often characterized by a distinct citrusy tone.

Agave Jabalí (Agave convallis): Known for its challenging distillation process, Jabalí produces a uniquely aromatic mezcal. The flavor profile is often complex, with a mix of sour, sweet, and spicy notes, and a distinctive floral aroma.

Identify Mezcal Varieties - Coyote Agave
Agave Coyote
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Barril Agave
Agave Barril
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Largo Agave
Agave Largo
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Azul Agave
Agave Azul

Agave Coyote (Agave americana var. oaxacensis): Coyote is a lesser-known variety that grows in the mountainous regions of Oaxaca. This agave yields a mezcal with a delicate balance of sweet and spicy flavors, often with a smooth, velvety texture.

Agave Barril (Agave rodacantha): This barrel-shaped agave boasts a robust, hearty flavor profile. Mezcal made from Barril can have a complex mix of vegetal, fruity, and sometimes slightly smoky notes. This makes it a favorite among those who prefer a stronger, more pronounced flavor.

Agave Largo (Agave karwinskii): As the name suggests, Largo has a long, slender piña. Agave Largo grows in the valleys and foothills of Oaxaca and matures in about 12-18 years. Agave Largo yields mezcals with light, floral, and subtly sweet flavor profiles.

Agave Azul (Agave tequilana): Commonly associated with tequila, producers in Oaxaca also use Agave Azul in mezcal production. Agave Azul offers a sweeter, more approachable flavor profile, often with hints of vanilla. This makes it a popular choice for those new to mezcal.

Embracing the Diversity of Mezcal

Each of these agave varieties contributes to the rich tapestry of Oaxaca’s mezcal culture. From the spicy notes of Cuixe to the complex flavors of Barril, the diversity of agaves highlights Oaxaca’s rich landscape. As the world of mezcal continues to grow, so does our appreciation for the unique spirits.

Is all Mezcal smoky-flavored?

The mezcalero’s (master distiller) influence on the mezcal’s flavor profile is a key aspect of its production. Mezcal’s notable smokiness largely results from the cooking process of the agave piñas (hearts). The mezcalero’s decision-making in this phase plays a crucial role in determining the intensity and character of the smoky flavor.

Agave Cooking Process and Smoke Infusion

Mezcal makers traditionally cook agave piñas in stone-lined earthen pits, covered with agave fiber and earth for an oven-like effect. The cooking process can last anywhere from a few days to over a week. During this time, the following choices by the mezcalero significantly impact the smokiness of the mezcal:

  1. Adding a Chimney to the Oven: Some mezcaleros choose to incorporate a chimney into the earthen oven. This allows much of the smoke generated during the cooking process to escape. As a result, the agave absorbs less smoky flavor, leading to a mezcal with subtler smoky notes. Producers often use this technique to showcase the agave’s natural flavors rather than emphasize smokiness in the desired profile.
  2. Sealing the Oven: In contrast, mezcaleros seeking a more robust smoky flavor may opt to seal the oven completely. This approach traps the smoke inside, ensuring that it permeates the agave piñas thoroughly. The extended exposure to smoke imparts a deeper, more intense smoky character to the mezcal. Producers particularly favor this technique when making mezcals celebrated for their rich, smoky profiles.

Art and Science of Smoke

The mezcalero’s decisions regarding the oven construction and cooking process represent a blend of art and science. Mezcal producers consider agave variety, desired flavor profile, and their region’s traditions in Oaxaca. Subtle nuances in cooking agave can dramatically alter mezcal’s taste, showcasing the involved craftsmanship and expertise.

A Balancing Act

Ultimately, the amount of smokiness in mezcal is a balancing act, harmonizing the natural flavors of the agave with the smoky tones imparted during the cooking process. The mezcalero’s skill lies in their ability to control this balance, creating a spirit that reflects both the essence of the agave and the unique character imparted by the smoke. This process underscores the complexity and depth of mezcal as a spirit and highlights the crucial role of the mezcalero in shaping its final taste profile.

Mezcal Production Regions in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a tapestry of diverse regions, each contributing uniquely to the production of mezcal. The varied techniques used across these regions, namely artisanal, ancestral, and industrial, reflect the rich history and evolving practices in mezcal making.

Key Mezcal Producing Regions in Oaxaca

  1. Valles Centrales (Central Valleys): This is the heartland of Oaxaca’s mezcal production, encompassing areas around the city of Oaxaca and towns like Santiago Matatlán, known as the “World Capital of Mezcal.” The region’s varied climates and soils give rise to a wide array of agave species.
  2. Sierra Norte: Known for its high altitudes and cooler climate, this region produces distinctively flavored mezcals, often from wild Oaxaca agave varieties like Tobalá.
  3. Mixteca: A region with a rugged terrain and a rich cultural history, Mixteca contributes uniquely to the diversity of Oaxaca’s mezcal, often produced in small, family-run palenques (distilleries).
  4. Tlacolula Valley: Famous for its rich, clay-heavy soil, Tlacolula Valley is home to traditional mezcal-making techniques and a variety of agave species, including Espadín and Arroqueño.
  5. Miahuatlán: This region’s diverse microclimates contribute to a unique terroir, influencing the flavors of its mezcal, which often has a distinct mineral quality.

The Role of Terroir in Mezcal

The concept of terroir is as important in mezcal production as it is in winemaking. The specific environmental conditions – soil type, altitude, climate – where each agave variety grows in Oaxaca contribute significantly to the flavor profile of the resulting mezcal. This terroir-driven diversity is what makes Oaxaca’s mezcal so unique and sought after.

Mezcal Production Techniques

In Oaxaca, mezcal production is characterized by three primary methods: Artisanal, Ancestral, and Industrial. Ancestral mezcal adheres to ancient practices, producing a spirit with a distinctly earthy taste. The Artisanal method combines traditional and modern techniques, resulting in a complex flavor profile. The Industrial method, utilizing advanced technology, ensures consistency and broader availability of the spirit. Each of these production methodologies imparts unique characteristics to this traditional Mexican spirit.

Identify Mezcal Varieties - Ancestral Mezcal Distillation clay pots
Ancestral Mezcal Distillation in clay pots
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Artisanal Mezcal Distillation copper pots
Artisanal Mezcal Distillation in copper pots
Identify Mezcal Varieties - Industrial Mezcal Distillation - stainless steel stills
Industrial Mezcal Distillation in stainless steel stills
  1. Ancestral Mezcal: As the name suggests, ancestral Mezcal adheres to the most traditional methods passed down through generations. This includes roasting the agave in earthen pits, crushing it by hand or with wooden mallets, fermenting it in natural containers like animal hides or clay pots, and distilling it in clay pot stills. Regions like the Sierra Norte and parts of the Valles Centrales still practice these ancient techniques, producing mezcals with deep historical roots.
  2. Artisanal Mezcal: This method is the most common in Oaxaca and involves a combination of traditional and modern techniques. Artisans typically make artisanal mezcal by cooking agave in stone or brick ovens, fermenting naturally in wooden vats, and distilling in copper or clay stills. Each region infuses its character into the process, such as the use of local wood types for roasting agaves or specific fermentation techniques.
  3. Industrial Mezcal: This method employs modern technology to streamline production. Industrial mezcal often uses mechanical crushers, stainless steel fermentation tanks, and continuous column stills. While less common in Oaxaca compared to artisanal and ancestral methods, it represents the industry’s adaptation to meet growing demand. However, the focus remains on maintaining quality and respecting the traditional essence of mezcal.

Regional Techniques Reflecting Tradition and Innovation

Each region in Oaxaca, with its unique environment and traditions, contributes to the mezcal’s flavor profile and character. The techniques—artisanal, ancestral, and industrial—reflect a spectrum from deeply traditional to modern approaches, illustrating mezcal’s evolution while honoring its roots. Artisanal methods blend traditional and modern techniques, while ancestral methods adhere to ancient practices. Industrial methods represent the adaptation to growing demand, maintaining quality and traditional essence. This diversity not only enhances the richness of Oaxaca’s mezcal culture but also showcases the adaptability and creativity inherent in this traditional Mexican spirit.

Conservation and Sustainability of Mezcal

With the rising global popularity of mezcal, there’s a growing concern about the sustainability of wild agave species. Overharvesting, especially of wild varieties like Tobalá and Tepeztate, is a critical issue. Rapid growth and high sugar content in Espadin agaves are leading to the transformation of vast tracts of wild agave land into large-scale monoculture fields. Cultivators are working to grow wild varieties and implement sustainable harvesting practices, striving to preserve these precious resources for future generations amidst the challenge of escalating global demand.

Women Mezcaleras in Oaxaca

The primary challenges for these pioneering women include overcoming societal expectations and navigating a predominantly male-centric business environment. Access to resources, both in terms of raw materials and funding, poses another hurdle, as does gaining recognition and respect in the local and international markets. Despite these challenges, women mezcaleras are making remarkable strides, introducing new flavors and production techniques while preserving the spirit’s cultural heritage. Their involvement is not only enriching the diversity of mezcal but also reshaping the industry’s future dynamics.

In recent years, the Oaxacan mezcal industry has witnessed a significant and transformative development with the entry of women mezcaleras. This shift challenges traditional gender roles in a field historically dominated by men. Women entering the industry bring fresh perspectives and innovation, yet they often face significant obstacles.

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Conclusion

Oaxaca’s mezcal culture is a rich blend of tradition, ecology, and innovation. Each agave variety and production technique plays a vital role in shaping the unique flavors and character of Oaxacan mezcal. This exploration into the world of mezcal not only enhances our appreciation for this traditional Mexican spirit but also highlights the importance of preserving the cultural and ecological heritage of Oaxaca.

Through understanding the diverse agave varieties and mezcal production techniques of Oaxaca, we gain a deeper appreciation for this storied and flavorful spirit, a product of intricate processes and a reflection of Mexico’s rich cultural and ecological diversity.

As we enjoy these spirits, it’s essential to remember and respect the delicate balance of tradition, ecology, and sustainability that they represent. The agaves of Oaxaca are more than plants; they actively tell the story of a land rich in history and tradition.

Oaxaca Mezcal Tours

Immerse yourself in the authentic spirit of Oaxaca through our sustainably curated signature mezcal tours: the Ancestral Mezcal Experience and the Artisanal Mezcal Experience. Each tour offers a unique insight into the world of mezcal, connecting you directly with the traditions and people behind this iconic Mexican spirit.

each offering unique benefits to enhance your understanding and appreciation of this legendary spirit.

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The Oaxaca Artisanal Mezcal Experience – Book Here

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Frequently Asked Questions about Mezcal

What is mezcal?

Mezcal, a traditional Mexican spirit with over 500 years of history, comes from distilling the agave plant, which has more than 200 varieties. Its name originates from the Nahuatl word “mexcalli,” meaning “cooked agave,” and Maestros Mezcaleros mostly craft it by hand in small batches. Of the agave species, only about 30 are suitable for mezcal production due to their sugar content, contributing to their unique characteristics and flavors.

Where is mezcal made?

Mezcal, an ancient distilled spirit from Mexico, mainly comes from the state of Oaxaca, responsible for about 80% of the market’s supply. Originating about 500 years ago, authorities regulate its production under NOM-070-SCFI-1994, with COMERCAM overseeing the process. Although various regions can produce mezcal, only ten states have the authorization to use the denomination of origin for mezcal. These include Oaxaca, Michoacan, Puebla, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Durango, and Sinaloa. Maestro mezcalero artisans traditionally craft mezcal using a variety of agave plants, especially Agave espadin, in small-scale distilleries called palenques.

What is the difference between mezcal and tequila?

Both mezcal and tequila, Mexican distilled spirits made from agave, differ significantly in their production techniques and agave varieties. Producers make tequila exclusively from blue agave, often resulting in a sweeter taste, whereas mezcal production uses over 30 types of agave, creating a diverse flavor profile. Mezcal’s unique taste also comes from its traditional cooking process, which involves baking agave hearts in underground pits. Typically, distillers distill both spirits twice, but mezcal can reach an alcohol content of up to 55%. In contrast to the more industrialized tequila, producers traditionally craft mezcal in small-scale distilleries known as palenques.

What is the difference between ancestral, artisanal, and industrial mezcal?

The production methods distinguish ancestral, artisanal, and industrial mezcal. Producers make ancestral mezcal using traditional techniques, such as cooking in earthen pits, milling with a stone wheel (tahona), and distilling with bagasse in clay pots. Similarly, artisans produce artisanal mezcal using traditional ovens (earthen or masonry) and tahona for milling, but typically distill it in copper stills. Industrial mezcal involves more modern methods, with cooking in diffusers, milling with mechanical grinders, fermenting without bagasse in stainless steel tanks, and using stainless steel distillation columns. These production styles result in distinct flavors and qualities of mezcal.

What are the worms found in mezcal bottles? Can you eat them?

The presence of a worm in a mezcal bottle originated from a post-WWII marketing campaign to distinguish certain mezcals on liquor store shelves. While these worms, native to agave roots, are a part of Mexican cuisine, their inclusion in mezcal bottles is not traditional or necessary for the spirit’s quality. Contrary to some beliefs, these worms are not hallucinogenic. They’re sometimes used in “sal de gusano” (worm salt), a savory blend of dried worm, chili, salt, and lime, often paired with mezcal for an umami flavor. The worm’s association with mezcal stems from its natural habitat in the agave plant, where it’s part of an ecosystem that includes various wildlife. The addition of the worm to mezcal bottles is more about marketing and less about enhancing the spirit’s flavor.

Is all mezcal smoky

Mezcal traditionally exhibits a smoky flavor because the production process involves roasting harvested agaves underground with hot coals, allowing them to come into direct contact with smoke. This method, consistent for hundreds of years, imparts a distinct roasted taste. However, not all mezcals are intensely smoky. In fact, a well-crafted mezcal should not be overpowering with smoke. Excessive smokiness can sometimes indicate a flaw in the production process. While some North American brands might emphasize smoky flavors for market appeal, it’s essential not to let this overshadow the complex and varied flavors of a quality mezcal. Distillers generally strive for a balance, where the smokiness complements rather than dominates the spirit’s character.

Does mezcal help with digestion?

Many believe that mezcal aids in digestion, particularly after consuming large, heavy meals. The ethanol and other compounds in mezcal can stimulate the secretion of digestive enzymes, which helps in breaking down food more efficiently. Additionally, mezcal has properties that act as an anti-inflammatory in the stomach. These characteristics can contribute to a reduced feeling of heaviness and discomfort after consuming a big meal, making mezcal a popular choice for a digestive aid.

Are there health benefits to mezcal?

Mezcal, when consumed in moderation, offers several potential health benefits. Its ethanol content can enhance digestion by stimulating digestive enzymes, aiding in the breakdown of food. Mezcal may also contribute to regulating cholesterol and triglyceride levels, owing to its ability to dissolve fats. Known for its relaxing properties, it can help alleviate stress and anxiety. Additionally, its role in reducing cholesterol could improve blood circulation, potentially reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems. Responsible consumption is key to reaping these benefits.

How many varieties of agave are used for mezcal?

Approximately 30 varieties of the more than 250 known species of agave plants are suitable for mezcal production. This variety allows mezcal to express a rich array of terroirs, similar to wine. Each type of mezcal showcases a distinct flavor profile, influenced by the specific agave species’ natural habitat and historical background, as well as the craftsmanship of the Maestro Mezcalero. This diversity is what gives mezcal its unique and complex character, with each sip revealing subtle nuances tied to the agave’s origin.

Can you get a hangover from mezcal?

Mezcal, like any alcoholic beverage, can cause a hangover if consumed in excess. Despite myths claiming mezcal’s purity and unique composition prevent hangovers, the truth is that mezcal contains ethanol, higher alcohols, methanol, and other compounds found in distilled spirits. The liver metabolizes these substances, and their interaction with various factors like dehydration, acetaldehyde, methanol levels, and the body’s immune response to alcohol can lead to hangover symptoms. While mezcal’s distinct production process and the agave’s polysaccharides contribute to its unique flavor profile, they do not alter the way our bodies process alcohol. Therefore, responsible consumption is key to enjoying mezcal and minimizing the risk of a hangover.