Mezcal and Fair Trade
Alvin Starkman, M.A. J.D.
Mezcalerías, or mezcal bars in Oaxaca specializing in artisanal mezcal, began opening at a furious pace last year. In an article I authored in October, 2014, I foreshadowed ongoing rapid change in the retail sector, and suggested that numbers would increase; and so they have as of May, 2015, only months later.
The meteoric rise in the popularity of the iconic Mexican agave based spirit continues to spell more mezcal tourism to the city, both in terms of visitors to Oaxaca arriving from foreign countries, as well as from cities throughout Mexico – to learn, to sample, to buy and to export.
I am continually asked “where should I go to drink different mezcals.” This, then, is a compendium of mezcalerías in the city of Oaxaca, revisited for 2015, which includes a couple of local haunts which also serve beer and one lounge. They are all nevertheless known for their sale of the agave intoxicant.
While the listings are accurate and up to date, it should be noted that prior to my earlier article, within a year or so one mezcalería had opened and closed on the zócalo (a branch of La Mezcalerita, with its flagship noted below), another opened on the zócalo just after I had published my first article and closed only seven months later (Sabina Sabe, said to be relocating after tenancy issues), and one which indeed made my list, Tobalá or Toba, simply closed. So there is a shakeup in the industry. Landlord fickleness may be a factor. But it is suggested that those with a reasonable amount of business acumen and / or passion for mezcal, will continue to thrive, and that there will be rapid growth of new players on the scene as the months go by; that is until the saturation point is reached.
Special mention should be made about La Mezcalerita, noted in my earlier article with less than flattering words because of the sparse offerings and environment – at the time. Management has taken significant steps at improvement, so much so that La Mezcalerita is now a mezcal bar to be reckoned with, both in terms of ambiance and selection; La Mezcalerita is now a favorite for tourists and locals alike.
Another major change which has taken hold in 2015, is the tendency for mezcalerías, and indeed many restaurants offering a healthy complement of mezcals, to distinguish mezcals made in palenques certified by the regulatory board CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, previously known as COMERCAM), from those not produced as certified. In order to not run afoul of CRM dictates, non-certified mezcals (technically in fact not “mezcals”) are often noted as “destilados de agave,” “destilados de agave silvestre artesanal,” “agave silvestre,” and so on. There is a concern that authorities may be on the prowl.
An establishment may have an extensive array of house mezcals which cannot legally be termed mezcals because they are not certified, so designating as something in the nature of agave distillate does the trick. There may be two lists at Oaxacan establishments, of equally good quality, yet entitled differently. It is also noteworthy that it is not necessarily the case that when a mezcal is selected from a list with the word “silvestre” in the title, it is made from wild as opposed to cultivated agave. Fair play? Marketing license? I suppose in the minds of some.
Similarly, it should be noted that some (but certainly not all) wait staff and bartenders seem to want to build up mezcal, or their particular offerings, or their perceived knowledge, or all, by stating as fact what is at best opinion or uncalled for dogmatism, and at worst misstatement (i.e. “tobala is a wild agave,” or “tepeztate takes 35 years to grow”). It’s not for me to correct such statements, at least not herein, but rather for the owners of these outlets to better train or monitor – if they are so inclined.
I’ll begin this latest enumeration with mezcalerías not listed earlier, followed by those where change has occurred (i.e. La Mezcalerita), and conclude with those which have simply kept up within the industry.
Once again the days and hours of operation published on signs out front and enumerated herein, must be taken with a grain of salt. They seem to change at the whim of management, based on level of tourism in the city, and if employees and owners are otherwise elsewhere engaged. But in most cases you can find them open evenings Tuesday or Wednesday through Saturday. Some make a diligent effort to be operational during their published times, even those with morning hours.
La Porfiria Mezcalerlía: Porfirio Díaz #907 Centro [cel: 951 221 2539 (2 – 11 pm)]. La Porfiria is one of the new mezcal bars in Oaxaca. It has a modern ambiance with a reasonably good selection of house and certified mezcals. Amongst the former you can likely find an agave distillate made with your favorite species of maguey such as barril, tepeztate, tobalá, and so on. Prices are reasonable, especially considering that your mezcal is served on a smart wooden platter with orange wedges, sal de gusano and chapulines. The appetizer plates are healthy in size and do the trick, especially if you’re in for extensive drinking.
El Espino Gastro Cantina: 20 de Noviembre #103 [cel: 951 197 2696 (from 11 am)]. El Espino opened in 2014. It is large, dark, with relatively loud music and a DJ during peak days and hours, all very smartly done up to keep you there and drinking. With close to 120 certified mezcals, and with a good selection of craft beers, it is worthy of attention if the ambiance is something you crave from time to time. And yes there is food.
La Madre Mezcalería: Morelos #405 [(951) 501 2027; certainly weekends from about 8:30 pm, but other evenings may be open as well, so perhaps call or check social media; if open you’ll see a wrought iron gate with a few votive candles for illumination]. This is a small funky mezcalería, dedicated to the promotion of the unique, fine mezcals produced by a select number of maestro palenqueros in the Miahuatlán district of Oaxaca, more particularly in or near the municipality of San Luis Amatlán. It currently features 15 mezcals produced in four palenques (including that of Reyna Sánchez, one of only a few female producers [as opposed to promoters in their family businesses]). Part of the mission is to make the mezcals available at rock bottom prices, and accordingly a flight of three for 120 pesos is now offered. Beer is available. Soft guitar music is sometimes featured.
La Medida Mezcales y Vinos: Macedonio Alcalá #403 (upper level) [www.mezcallamedida.com; Mon - Thurs 6 pm to midnight; Fri – Sat until 2 am.] This is a wine, cocktail and mezcal lounge, not included in the initial article because I could not categorize it as a mezcalería. I still cannot, but have decided it’s worthy of mention because of the number of mezcals (about 60, all certified) and the different imbibing environment it offers. Where El Espino is not for everyone because of its boisterous ambiance, La Medida offers something different; for those wanting relaxed comfortable surroundings, those with healthy pocketbooks (shots from 60 up to a whopping 280 pesos), and those who are perhaps visiting the city with a partner or friends not particularly interested in drinking mezcal all evening – there are both wine and cocktail lists.
La Mezcalerita: Macedonio Alcalá #706-C [cel: 951 106 4432; 1:00 – 10:00 pm]. La Mezcalerita has stepped it up since last year, and now can be considered one of the premier mezcalerías in Oaxaca. Its selection of both commercial labels and agave distillates is impressive, as is the number of craft beers listed and actually available. Ambiance is pleasing with barn board style tables, chairs and décor, and interesting music both Mexican and 70s rock (last visit The Doors was playing). The rooftop was closed on a night in April. What sets it apart is patrons being able to select either one or two ounce drinks, meaning that if you are interested in sampling a significant number of offerings, doing so won’t set you back a bundle and will enable you to return home or to your lodging relatively intact. Although recommended for those staying anywhere in Oaxaca’s centro histórico, it provides an extremely easily accessible option for those travelers staying near the north end of downtown, such as at Casa Ollin B & B, Casa Conzatti and Holiday Inn Express.
In Situ: Morelos #511 [cel: 951 514 1811]. In Situ is generally considered the most respected mezcalería in Oaxaca. One of the co-owners is author / journalist Ulises Torrentera. The bar boasts over 180 different mezcals, and often hosts evenings featuring a representative of a particular brand, with healthy samples of the product served at rock bottom prices, including a botana. Ownership has tempered its earlier views on cocktails made with mezcal and acceptable percentage alcohol content; at least to the extent of having had cocktail nights and featuring palenqueros who make mezcal which is less than 45% ABV. Don’t let the main floor bar deceive, since there is an upstairs with tables and chairs for more relaxed drinking and socializing.
La Mezcaloteca: Reforma #506 [(951)514-0082; 4:30 – 10:00 pm, six days; reservations preferred] Mezcaloteca fashions itself a tasting room, and does provide a good basic education through encouraging patrons to sample groupings of three different mezcals produced in different regions, using diverse distillation and fermentation methods and made with different agaves. However it should be noted that other mezcalerías are now also offering “flights” of mezcals. Owners and employees are very dogmatic in their views about (read “against”) aged mezcals (Mezcaloteca’s party line, similar to that of In Situ). The teaching is admirable, but is still no substitute for getting out of the city and visiting real artisanal palenques not constructed for the tourist trade: putting the theory (tasting and explanation) into practice through in-the-field experience, witnessing first-hand what you’ve been told in the downtown Oaxaca “class.”
Cuish: Díaz Ordaz #712 [(951)516-8791]. Together with the foregoing two mezcalerías, Cuish represents one of the earlier mezcal bars to come onto the scene from the outset of the modern mezcal boom. It’s located in the south end of the centro histórico, in a somewhat seedy yet safe part of downtown. It has a more speakeasy feel to it, with comfy couches on the second floor and a remarkable air of informality.
La Casa del Mezcal: Flores Magón #209. La Casa del Mezcal is one of the oldest running cantinas in Oaxaca, dating to 1935. It’s known for its location right across from the Benito Juárez market, and its old west atmosphere with swinging oak doors and long exquisite bar, loud jukebox music, smoke, beer and of course mezcal. It does have a selection of house mezcals, but is more for drinking and soaking up the ambiance than for learning about the spirit’s subtle nuances. La Casa del Mezcal is definitely worth a visit if you want to experience a typical Mexican cantina.
Mezcalillera: Murguía 403-A [(951)514-1757]. From old to new, the sleek and modern Mezcalillera is one of the more recent entries onto the mezcal scene in downtown Oaxaca. It dubs itself “La Miscelánea del Mezcal,” promoting high end certified products for sampling and sale as well as some agave / mezcal related paraphernalia you can pick up to take home. It claims to carry 63 brands comprising 190 varieties, though the shop doesn’t appear to have that much spirit on hand. Mezcalillera seems more geared to sampling and buying, than sitting and sipping for an extended period of time.
Mis Mezcales: Reforma #528-B [(951)514-2523; 10 am – 9pm; seven days]. Mis Mezcales has the broadest range of mezcal-related gift ítems including T-shirts, glassware, pottery, and books and tasting wheels as does In Situ and Mezcalillera. Its selection of mezcals is perhaps not as large as Mezcalillera and certainly not as grandiose as In Situ, but it does have a nice modern sipping ambiance. Like Mezcalillera, Mis Mezcales appears to be more of an establishment for a brief visit to sample and pick something up to take home.
Los Amantes: Allende #107 [firstname.lastname@example.org; Tues-Sun, 4:00 – 10 pm] Los Amantes provides a wonderful yet tiny drinking environment decorated with vintage bottles and related mezcal items. The only downside is that it carries only products made in its distillery. However, it has indeed become a hangout for locals, perhaps in part because it does offer some of its premium small batch production when available, and has a strong welcoming air to it.
El Cortijo: 5 de Mayo 305-A [(951)514-3939; Mon-Sat, 6:00 – 10:30 pm]. As with Los Amantes, El Cortijo sells only its own spirits. But again there are times when it is producing specialty mezcals, new batches, and so on. Like the others, it can provide a tasting education, but certainly not to the extent of the mezcalerías which carry mezcal from different palenqueros, produced in a diversity of regions and states using different agaves and production methods (i.e. clay v. copper). El Cortijo lacks the panache of Los Amantes but is worth a visit and a couple of shots.
Piedra Lumbre: Tinoco y Palacios #602 [cels 951 135 1230 & 951 156 0321; evenings from 6 pm, Wednesday through Saturday (knock)]. Piedra Lumbre opened towards the end of September, 2014. The exterior is painted simple grey with small signage and otherwise no indication of what’s inside. Presumably this addresses the issue of being a retail sales outlet with issues relating to CRM. Different mezcalerías deal with the matter in different ways. It has a pleasing drinking environment, with its adjoining gallery, tables and chairs and welcoming ambiance and management. It’s geared for private functions, predominantly mezcal and food pairing events. The selection runs a decent gamut.
Mezcalogia: Garcia Vigil #511 [(951)514-0115; 5513921872 (Mexico City number of Alejandro, manager); by appointment or by chance, with stated hours Wed-Sat 4:00 – 10:00 pm]. Mezcalogia opened its doors during or about 2013. It has a pleasing Los Amantes ambiance. It currently offers about 30 mezcals (but with a good, diverse selection including from out-of-state); no commercial labels.
The foregoing enumeration notes the main mezcalerías in Oaxaca. But it is not suggested that there are no others. Keeping track of the latest mezcalería inauguration is a difficult task despite social media. It is hoped that those who come across other mezcalerías, and bars and cantinas specializing in a broad diversity of mezcals, will email details so that I’ll be able to augment the list yearly if not more frequently.
There are also numerous restaurants, bars and cantinas throughout the city which are not noted yet carry a wide range of mezcals, both commercial labels and house mezcals, the latter usually noted by type of agave and town of distillation either on the drink menu or a chalk board (i.e. La Biznaga, Zandunga, La Olla, and the list goes on). And there are other mezcal outlets which sell exclusively mezcal, which are similarly not included in this enumeration because their environments are not conducive to sipping in what I consider to be a pleasant environment; and the variety of product is not particularly large, though covers the basics. These include La Unión de Palenqueros de Oaxaca on Abasolo, Mezcal Artesanal Mezcalería on Doblado, amongst others; certainly consider paying a visit for a different experience.
Regardless of where you imbibe in Oaxaca, it is important to drink a diversity of agave distillates and mezcals and form your own opinion with a view to honing the palate. Many of the mezcals you’ll appreciate in Oaxacan bars, mezcalerías and even restaurants, are not exported from Mexico, and most, especially the ensambles, you cannot even find outside of Oaxaca; so enjoy while on your visit.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He is the author of “Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.” Alvin has been an aficionado of Mexican spirits for over 20 years, and has a personal collection of more than 200 different agave distillates.