My journey with mezcal has been a long, bumpy ride. I can’t tell you exactly when I bought my first bottle of mezcal, but I think I can narrow it down to sometime in the early 90’s. In all likelihood it was purchased at the Army’s version of a liquor store in Camp Humphries, South Korea. I really had no idea what mezcal was at that time. All I knew was it was relatively inexpensive and to drink it was to add macho points to one’s social status. I was a young man at the time and macho points were important. I was the person who insisted on eating the worm. I’m not about to make a claim here that Monte Alban mezcal is rotgut swill. I’m sure it has its place and I’m willing to bet that a good mixologist could turn it into something magical. That said, I’m unlikely to ever drink it again.
My next foray into mezcal would have been in 2006. I was traveling in Oaxaca and at the time there were small mezcal shops everywhere. These shops were keen to let a potential buyer sample a little bit of everything they had. It was a nice way to get a free buzz to be sure, but I still wasn’t a fan. At that time I don’t recall being overly fond of tequila either.
While mezcal may not have made me a fan, Oaxaca did. I began to seek out things Mexican and specifically Oaxacan. At some point after that trip, I developed a taste for tequila. In all likelihood, that probably happened in Antarctica. I can recall thinking that tequila sunrises were a good idea to celebrate the once yearly sunrise. I don’t recall if that actually was a good idea, so it must have been, right? I also recall that there was premium tequila available on station. Whether someone brought that themselves or whether it was available at the station store, I do not recall but the fact that it was there is what cemented my preference for tequila. Aside from the cheap stuff used in the aforementioned tequila sunrises, I was now a tequila aficionado sampling the good stuff whenever the chance presented itself.
In 2015, we moved to Mexico and my love affair with this country and her culture blossomed as did my love affair with tequila. Readily available, inexpensive, and varied tequila became the “go to” and nearly exclusive spirit in our house and when we went out. But much like a forlorn mistress waiting in the wings, mezcal was always there lurking. She’d catch my eye from time to time, usually at the insistence of a bartender, sometimes served as a complimentary aperitif. I tasted mezcal from time to time but never really got a taste for it.
After six months in Tulum, we moved to San Cristóbal de Las Casas. It would be here that my mistress would eventually seduce me and lure me away from my other love. It started innocently enough, as it often does. It was probably only hours after we first arrived that we headed out to the central part of town and ended up stopping at a mezcalaria. Not for the mezcal, mind you but for the location. Given that I was at a mezcalaria, however, I felt obligated to have mezcal. The menu was overwhelming as they often are so I just tried something random. I ended up with a shot of Zignum reposado. This particular mezcal was a bit of a surprise. It lacked that overpowering smoky taste that is associated with mezcal. Unfortunately, I found that it also lacked any real character. You see, it turns out that Zignum is made by some mega liquor corporation who know a great deal about making money, but seemingly nothing about making mezcal. They roast their agave in autoclaves rather than the traditional clay ovens. This is why it lacks the smokiness and also why it lacks character. Aside from the lack of character, the production methods do little to consider the sustainability of agave. All that said, tasting it did open me up to the notion that mezcal hasn’t got to be overwhelming, but it didn’t happen quickly. I can specifically recall being back in Oaxaca for Dia de Los Muertos in 2105 and still pretty standoff-ish about mezcal at that time. Oh, to have that time back again.
Craft Beer is a Gateway Drink?
There is a very lively and robust craft beer scene in Mexico. I hope to cover that a bit more before we make our imminent departure. When we first arrived in San Cristóbal, the Bruma brewery had a tap-room just a few short blocks from our house. It became a few times a week ritual of mine to go have a beer or a few after work. At some point the Bruma tap-room closed, which saddened me. My afternoon rituals soon migrated to Dos Amores and this, my friends, is where mezcal finally hooked me. There was certainly some dodging and parrying on my part. I wasn’t an easy convert, but the proprietor eventually swayed me with something he refered to as “tobalá”. I would eventually learn that tobalá was the variety of maguey (agave) that this mezcal was made from. Mezcal tobalá soon became my “go to” and remains so, but I’ve branched out and these days am very keen to attempt to taste everything an any given mezcal menu, though sometimes the menus can be quite lengthy.
I no longer find mezcal to be overwhelmingly smoky. I’ve learned to slow it way down and appreciate the vast differences that can be found in mezcals and other agave distillates. It’s those differences that now excite me.
We’ll be in Oaxaca again next week and I’ve even scheduled time off work so that I can take a two-day tour with Mezcal Educational Tours and I couldn’t be more excited about seeing the production process, sampling the goods and learning all I can about this elixir from the gods.
While we’re in Oaxaca, we’ll be staying at Overlander Oasis. If you’re reading this blog because you’re on an overland trip of your own and our paths will cross, stop by and let’s have a mezcal together.
Would you like to have drinks with us? Do you know any great drinking establishments that we should check out along (or even off) the Pan-American Highway (we love quirky)? Would you like us to review your bar or a particular alcoholic or caffeinated beverage? Do you know of a beer fest or other drinking themed event along the route? If you answer yes to any of the above, Contact us!