Drink Your Way Through Oaxaca
Oaxaca has become mezcal's spiritual home. While you're in this city of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, meet the people who have been distilling agave for generations following our 2-day, self-guided itinerary.
Oaxaca is like no other city in Mexico. An enchanting, almost magical place, Oaxaca de Juárez (its full name in a state by the same name) is a mix of pre-Columbian, colonial, contemporary, and hip. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city draws a lot of tourists, but it doesn’t feel overrun with them. It’s a rich destination to be enjoyed and there is much to occupy you in the city itself—and in the traditional villages out in the surrounding valleys. And the best way to get into the spirit of Oaxaca, so to speak, is through mezcal.
The Home of Mezcal
The oldest distilled spirit in the Americas, mezcal captures the land, people, and history of a country in an extraordinary and revealing way. Although it is made in eight specific Mexican states, Oaxaca has become mezcal’s spiritual home. While you’re in this city of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, you can meet the people who have been distilling agave for generations, ever since the arrival of the Spanish and possibly before.
Whereas tequila is made from only one type of agave, Blue Agave, mezcal can be sourced from a variety of agaves, some of them wild. Each one lends a different flavor profile, just as Pinot Noir wine tastes different from Cabernet Sauvignon from Pinot Grigio. Also differentiating mezcal from tequila is that it is still, for the most part, created by hand by methods that haven’t changed in over 500 years. Taste mezcal and you taste Mexico.
If you’re a diehard tequila drinker then banish that thought that mezcal is overly smoky and unpalatable hooch bottled with a worm. It’s not. Next, go explore the city and Central Valley and get acquainted with the nuanced faces of mezcal.
DAY 1: Oaxaca City
1 .Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán
Start your day where most people visiting Oaxaca do, at the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, at the corner of Calle Macedonio Alcala and A. Gurrion. You may wonder what this gem of Mexican baroque architecture has to do with drinking. As it happens, the plaza in front of the church is planted with many different species of agave, the native succulent that is fire-roasted and fermented before being distilled to make the booze. Check out how different the plants are from one another—some spindly and spiky, some squat and round, some flowering, and all in various shades of green, even bordering on blue.
2.Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca
Around the corner on the same grounds of the church is the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, the brainchild of a local artist. At the corner of A. Gurrion and Reforma, the Ethnobotanical Garden is open year-round, with two-hour guided tours in English on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and one-hour tours in Spanish daily. Catch the tour in English and learn about the native plants of Oaxaca, including agave, and the locals’ long history of using—and drinking—it.
3. Del Maguey Tasting Room
After absorbing all the knowledge of the plant, it’s high time for agave the drink. A visit to the Del Maguey Tasting Room (Macedonio Alcala 403-7; Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 7 pm)
is a great place to start, as it’s open in the morning (never too early for mezcal!). You’ll learn while sipping from your copita how the flavor of a mezcal is influenced by where and how it’s produced. Most of the free samples are distilled from Espadin, the most widely used type of agave from the dozens that can create mezcal, and yet each tastes extraordinarily different. Why? It depends on where the plant has grown and how the mezcalero (traditional, small-scale mezcal maker) treats it. Showcasing these delicious differences is a chief goal of Del Maguey’s visionary founder, Ron Cooper, who was one of the very first people to bring organic, artisanal mezcal onto the international market. At the tasting room and everywhere, remember: “Sip it. Don’t shoot it.”
4. Lunch at La Biznaga
Before you drink any more (mezcal is typically 40-50 percent alcohol by volume), get a bite to eat. The popular, and nearby, La Biznaga (Manuel García Vigil 512; Monday to Thursday, 1-10pm; Friday and Saturday 1-11pm) makes a wonderful spot for lunch, especially since their fresh pulque is the best in town. Also derived from agave, pulque (3-8 percent ABV) is a pre-Hispanic drink that is milky and simultaneously sweet and sour, which is made by fermenting (not distilling) the fresh sap of certain types of agave.
5.Chocolate at Benito Juarez Market
Not all drinks in Oaxaca are about agave or boozy. Chocolate is an integral part of both traditional drinking and cooking. Follow your nose down to Mina Street and pass by the 20 de Noviembre Market and you can see—and smell—several chocolate shops grinding cocoa beans with sugar, almonds, and cinnamon to make traditional Oaxacan chocolate. To try a cup, enter the Benito Juarez Market and cozy up to a food stall where it’s traditionally made with water (though milk is an option) and frothed with the scepter-looking wooden molinillos.
6. Afternoon Tasting at La Casa del Mezcal or La Farola
After shopping for local crafts (including molinillos) and sussing out where you are going to eat breakfast and/or lunch tomorrow at the 20 de Noviembre and Benito Juarez markets, stop for a restorative beverage before heading back up toward the zocalo. There you will find two old-school watering holes nearby that are more about ambiance than the drinks themselves: La Casa del Mezcal (Flores Magón 210), with its swinging oak doors and jukebox, and La Farola ( Av. 20 de Noviembre), where Malcom Lowrey is said to have written part of Under the Volcano.
7. Shop at Mis Mezcales
If your urge to shop hasn’t been sated at the mercados and you’re looking for mezcal-related products (e.g., smart packages of sal de gusano, or worm salt, for sprinkling on slices of tart oranges while sipping mezcal), Mis Mezcales (Reforma #528-B; 10am-9pm) is the place for you. This is where you can buy and bring home a taste of Oaxaca.
8. Mezcal School
Ready for more mezcal education? School—and a stool—is in session at the nonprofit bar (yes, you read that right; it’s a bar with a mission) La Mezcaloteca (Reforma #506; 4:30-10:00 p.m.), where, by reservation, you order a flight of three different mezcals from their collection of about 100 to gain a better understanding of how the type of agave, terrain, fermentation, and distillation impact the final flavor profile of the spirit.
All that walking, sipping, and shopping have no doubt worked up your appetite for dinner. Atmospheric Los Danzantes (Calle Macedonio Alcalá 403; Monday to Sunday, 1:00-10:45 pm), with its stunning courtyard-like dining room and beautifully plated food, is a refined spot for traditional Oaxacan food with an elegant twist while drinking their own mezcales (Los Nahules, Alipus, Mezcalero), local craft beers, and Mexican wines.
And now, the night is yours, to explore any number of excellent mezcalerias that the city has to offer. Our top five:
- El Destilado (5 de Mayo #409) with a speakeasy feel and open late
- In Situ (Morelos #511; head upstairs) and its 180 different mezcals and free botana (Mexican tapas)
- Los Amantes (Allende #107), a welcoming slip of a bar with its own mezcals and quirky decorations
- Piedra Lumbre (Tinoco y Palacios #602; knock) for a great drinking vibe and a decent selection
- La Mezcalerita (Macedonio Alcala #706-C) selection of craft beers as well as mezcal in a pleasant setting
DAY 2: Get Out of Town
There is only so much you can learn about the deep culture of mezcal by staying in the city of Oaxaca. You need to get out into the valleys to where it’s made. Unfortunately, it’s tricky to find the palenques (the small farms where mezcal is produced) on your own as they are truly off the beaten track, on dirt roads and secondary highways, and without signs out front. So what to do now that you want to know who is making that nuanced mezcal that you’ve been drinking?
Hire a knowledgeable guide, Mezcal Educational Tours is worth checking out for a customized, agave-focused day. Or on your own by car, bus, taxi, or collectivo take a day trip to Santiago Matatlán, the world capital of mezcal, and satisfy yourself by touring commercial and touristy distilleries. By no means ideal, but you’ll still gain a fair understanding of the production process.
- Along highway 190 from Oaxaca towards Mitla there are a few touristy distilleries, but before getting to Mitla (the most important Zapotec archaeological site), turn right on the highway with a sign saying “Tehuantepec”, and head to Santiago Matatlán to visit the commercial distilleries.
- On the way to or from Santiago Matatlán you can check out the following must-sees:
- The village of Teotitlan de Valle, off 190, which is famous for rugs and, for foodies, the Mendoza sisters’ restaurant, Tlamanalli.
The large and vibrant Sunday market of Tlacolula de Matamoros. You can spend hours wandering around the market, buying food, crafts (cheap place to pick up jicaras for drinking mezcal), and lunch at the commodores, as well as drinking frothy and rich tejate, the traditional cacao beverage which local women get up at 3 a.m. to make for market day. The mezcal available probably won’t be great, but the pulque, if you can find it, will be. But before you head off to explore other Mexican cities, don’t leave Oaxaca without eating these five must bites.
- On the way to or from Santiago Matatlán you can check out the following must-sees:
At the markets, you’ll see toasted and seasoned grasshoppers for sale in bulk. To experience their concentrated, sun-dried tomato flavor in a dish, eat at hip and welcoming La Popular (García Vigil # 105).
An aromatic, heart-shaped leaf, it’s often left whole to encase cheese and meat. Head slightly out of the center of the city to Itatoni (Belisario Dominguez 513, Reforma, closes at 5pm) to eat the local Herb inside a tortilla made from heritage corn, the restaurant’s specialty and mission.
This large crisp tortilla is served open face like a personal-sized pizza at the markets or folded into a giant quesadilla and enjoyed on the street at night, such as at Tlayudas Libres on Calle de Los Libres between Murguia and Jose Maria Morelos.
Built for melting, this milky Oaxacan string cheese is sold in balls, which resemble white ribbons bundled together. Eat it anywhere you see a street vendor or person at a commedor shredding it by hand by hand for melting into a tlayuda or quesadilla.
Tasajo and Cecina:
The meats of Oaxaca, beef and pork, respectively, are best enjoyed grilled to order in a designated (and smoke-filled) aisle of Mercado 11 de noviembre by the entrance on Miguel Cabrera.