I’m currently in the city of Oaxaca in Mexico and was fortunate enough to be here the week of the Guelaguetza Festival. That big dance performance is the main event, but there are all kinds of events happening around town at the same time, including a big Mezcal Fair. So in one place I was able to sample more than a dozen brands and try a couple cocktails as well.
Let me start off by saying I’m no expert on this spirit and have no plans to become one. If you hand me a $10 bottle of 100% blue agave tequila and a $50 bottle of high-end mezcal, I’ll probably go for the former because I know it’ll actually get used. After this full-on schooling, I’m still not inclined to order this stuff in a bar. They say it’s an acquired taste and I’m not sure I’ll ever acquire it. To me it’s smoky, oily, and just drinkable instead of something that makes me go “Wow!” (Watch someone’s face when they try it for the first time: you’ll likely see a furrowed brow and a wrinkled nose instead.)
Having said that, mezcal is probably more fun to talk about than tequila for the people who really like it because there’s a lot more variety in the mix and it would be fun to do a tour of Oaxaca state, stopping at small craft distilleries. Mezcal makers scoff at tequila as being too refined, too smooth, too industrialized. On that they have a point of comparison: the biggest producer here, Beneva, is certainly no Jose Cuervo.
So there was a lot of variety on display at this fair. First of all, you don’t just have young (joven), aged (reposado), and extra aged (añejo). You have designations within those that refer to the variety of maguey/agave plant used, at least for the craft producers. So one company could put out a coyote, espadín, and tobalá line and all will taste significantly different. Some of the types of agave are wild, so they can only be produced in small batches. The tobalá ones are generally the most complex and most expensive and to my palate they did seem to have the most going on in the mouth.
The brand I liked the best was Del Cura, but not really for the reason they probably would like. To me it was the least smokey and most citrus-like of the bunch. I discovered that while I don’t really enjoy this liquor a lot straight up (especially when it’s 48% alcohol), the cocktails were quite good, whether it was a mojito with agave syrup and mezcal or a citrus concoction that also made use of orange mezcal creme–a liqueur that is only 15% alcohol.
One thing that was obvious at this fair is that the producers are getting much more sophisticated about marketing and packaging. The bottles are getting prettier, with more professional looking labels. The prices are surprisingly high as well compared to tequila bought in Mexico. Most list for $15 to $25 and there are some that top the $80 mark.
If you want to do your own sampling easily in Oaxaca and aren’t here during Guelaguetza, no worries. There are mezcalerias all over town with racks of them for you to try. Just walk in and ask for an education. Unlike with me, it may become your favorite spirit.