Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Of course buying mezcal while in Oaxaca for a short visit has its obvious advantage over purchasing at home. Whether hailing from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, or even Mexico City, cost will be significantly less. But there are other, arguably more compelling rationale aside from price, to pick up a year’s consumption of agave spirit when in southern Mexico. And truth be told, the reasons alone are good enough to warrant a trip to Oaxaca. Forget about the money you’re saving, and consider the rest.
But first about price. If you come to Oaxaca, and just stay in the city, your savings might not be that great. If you are buying familiar brands, they are “certified,” meaning that for the Mexican market the tax department gets a whopping 69% which is passed on to you. And, I think it’s a pretty sound assumption that the closer you remain to the state capital, the more you will pay. Put another way, the further you go out from the city to source your mezcal, and the more remote the areas you explore, the less you will pay. So for example, the cost of tobalá distilled in clay will be significantly more costly in Santa Catarina Minas which is less than an hour’s drive from the city, than about the same quality product if purchased way out in the hinterland in Santa Catarina Albarradas, hours away.
Now for the rationale which I would suggest is more important than money saved.
Tasting Mezcal Prior to Purchasing
Whether buying your mezcal in the city at a local mezcalería, or out in the villages where it is made while in the course of a mezcal tour, you should be able to sample before you buy; if it’s not your cup of tea you should not feel any obligation to purchase just because you have sampled a few. Yes, in a downtown mezcalería you will likely pay to taste and appraise, however on a mezcal excursion to a few palenques in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, there should be no cost to sample. When was the last time you were in a retail outlet back home and were welcomed to have a complimentary snort before you bought? Likely never.
Granted, if you know the reputation of the brand, or of the palenquero through online gossip networks or otherwise, or have previously sampled the distiller’s products, you may have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle. And many aficionados know roughly the mezcal flavor profiles of different species of agave. But since no two batches of artisanal (or ancestral) mezcal are the same, you are nevertheless at least to some extent flying blind when buying without sampling. It’s even more precarious if considering purchasing an ensamble (mezcla) at your local spirits outlet. If the label states the percentage of each agave specie or sub-specie it’s certainly some help, but if not, then you really cannot be certain of what you’ll be getting.
Buying in the city of Oaxaca after sampling isn’t always the best way to do it since you sample from one container, then buy a sealed, labelled bottle, having to assume that what you sampled and what you are buying are both from the same batch, unless of course you can read the same lot number on each of the two receptacles. It is not necessarily the case that the two are from the same batch, though I would suggest that it should be. On the other hand, sampling a palenquero’s product at his distillation facility is often different, depending on the mezcal excursion upon which you embark. Frequently the palenquero gives you a sample from a 20 or 50 liter tub, then if you like and want to buy it he fills a bottle from that very same tub. You can’t get any more consistent.
Vendor Mezcal Knowledge
There are extremely knowledgeable retail outlet owners and staff around the globe. Many have read extensively and have spent an inordinate amount of time online, been trained by brand reps, and some have been to Oaxaca to hone their expertise. But those who live in the state and have a mezcal pedigree should be a notch above the rest. On a cautionary note however, some folks working in Oaxaca mezcalerías (and even some of those who take visitors to the region around to the distilleries), bars and restaurants might be relatively new to agave spirits, and accordingly care should be taken by both mezcal aficionados and novices wanting to learn the basics.
But a healthy complement of us here in Oaxaca have been around mezcal for years if not decades, steeped in the industry through learning from our palenquero friends and/or family, having participated in all stages of production, and as regular imbibers. We know mezcal inside and out. However in my humble opinion no matter what our level of knowledge we remain students of the spirit. Still we are a cut above the rest, whether shopkeepers, restaurant and bar workers, or teachers and academics eager to impart our mezcal knowledge by taking visitors to Oaxaca into the hinterland to see, smell, taste and above all learn.
Appreciating the Culture of Palenqueros and the Hard Work Required to Produce Arisanal and Ancestral Agave Spirits
And finally, getting out of the city of Oaxaca and visiting palenqueros and their families in their villages, in their small rudimentary distilleries, and sometimes even in their modest homes, provides a new appreciation for the spirit, a passion which one cannot possibly obtain buying mezcal in a store or even urban mezcalería.
There’s nothing like walking up to a palenque and immediately smelling that unmistakable aroma of caramel and butterscotch emanating from agave which has been removed from the chamber of hardwood, rocks and earth. Or wincing from the billowing smoke produced while workers seal the oven, or from a palenquero stoking the flames under one of his clay pot stills. Books and youtube videos cannot replicate the feeling, the understanding, or the appreciation you gain. The romanticism is real.
You come to understand as never before the hard work which goes into producing that 750 ml bottle of mezcal with a polished multi-colored label designed by a New York marketing firm. What you buy in a store will seem so far removed from the reality of how mezcal is produced, in some cases means of production and (most) tools of the trade arguably dating back millennia. And you may even be welcomed to participate in the process, of course only to the extent considering doing so piques your interest: filling a still, gingerly tossing agave into the oven, working the horse, trekking out into the field for harvesting of the maguey, and every other phase of production of a handcrafted 100% agave spirit.
For me personally, having been trained as a social anthropologist, culture is the key. And that can only be understood and appreciated through visiting the men, women and children who produce mezcal, in their day-to-day settings. Yes, the young progeny of palenqueros and palenqueras; distillers typically don’t learn how to make the spirit through reading books or going online. Literally beginning before they have learned to walk, they are being steeped in a family tradition dating back generations.
There is sometimes an opportunity to step into their homes which double as tasting rooms. Often depending upon whether or not they have access to the export market, they may live extremely modest existences, or their lifestyles may approximate yours. In both cases across the board their mezcal should be of excellent quality. And whether in their abodes or at their palenques, you will have an opportunity to interact with the families which helps you to understand their motivation, their worldview, and their pride.
You’ll return home with an appreciation of the skill and hard work which goes into making mezcal. The experience will in most cases be the polar opposite of touring a Sonoma or Niagara winery, a craft distillery or even a nano-brewery. Of course each is enjoyable and provides a valuable learning experience. However none compares to visiting Oaxaca and making a priority of gaining a true understanding of handcrafted mezcal.
Alvin Starkman owns Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).