Who knew that a secret axis runs through the globe connecting Italy and Mexico? I always suspected that grappa and mezcal had plenty in common. This great interview from the excellent wine blog Hawk Wakawaka with Giannola Nonino who, along with her daughters, has really made Nonino Grappa what it is today. The interview makes it clear that grappa and small producers like the Nonino family have much in common with many mezcaleros. It starts with the family, check out this cool illustration of the Nonino family tree and this history, because families tend to maintain product values rather than industrializing them. It extends right through all the critical elements in craft distilling, carving out a brand in marketplaces that have never encountered your product, working with the right distributors, innovating, and maintaining your values. The fact that Nonino is one of the most prized and well known grappa brands speaks well to those points and provides a great example for the mezcal world.
The number of mezcalerías in Oaxaca, as well as bars in the city specializing in artisanal mezcals, has been increasing virtually every couple of months throughout 2014. The meteoric rise in the popularity of the iconic Mexican agave based spirit has spelled 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’m frequently asked “where in the city should I go to drink a range of mezcals.” This, then, is a compendium of mezcalerías in the city of Oaxaca, which includes a couple of local haunts which also serve beer but are nevertheless primarily known for their sale of the agave intoxicant.
It’s important to note the date of this publication, October, 2014, since retail outlets in Oaxaca come and go, especially restaurants, art galleries and craft shops. But in the case of mezcalarías and bars, notwithstanding the vagaries of tourism in Mexico, it is suggested that their numbers will keep growing, and nary a one will close; locales for leasing can be very small with corresponding low monthly rent, people will travel outside of the downtown core into the farthest fringes of the céntro histórico and indeed beyond in search of a “really cool bar,” and mezcal’s star will continue to rise. So today’s list will by definition, and based on the foregoing, be different from tomorrow’s.
The days and hours of operation noted 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.
In Situ: Morelos #511 [(951)514-1811]. In Situ is one of the most respected mezcalerías in the city. 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, and featuring a botana made by Ulises’ partner Sandra Ortiz Brena. Ownership appears to be somewhat tempering its earlier views on cocktails made with mezcal and acceptable percentage alcohol content. Don’t let the main floor bar deceive, since there is an upstairs with tables and chairs for more relaxed drinking.
La Mezcaloteca: Reforma #506 [4:30 – 10:00 pm.; (951)514-0082;email@example.com; reservations preferred] Mezcaloteca fashions itself a tasting room, and in fact provides an excellent basic education through encouraging patrons to sample groupings of three different mezcals produced in different regions, using a variety of distillation and fermentation methods and made with different agaves. 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 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 [Seven days, 10 am – 9pm; (951)514-2523]. 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 [Tues-Sun, 4:00 – 10 pm;firstname.lastname@example.org] 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 [Mon-Sat, 6:00 – 10:30 pm; (951)514-3939]. 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 100+ types of 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 [by appointment or by chance, evenings (knock); cels 0449511351230 & 0449511560321]. Piedra Lumbre opened towards the end of September, 2014, so is still working on hours, days, painting the exterior from its current simple grey front with no indication of what’s inside. It’s already on its way to creating 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 is still relatively modest, but runs a decent gamut.
Mezcalogia: Garcia Vigil #511 [by appointment or by chance, with stated hours Wed-Sat 4:00 – 10:00 pm; (951)514-0115; 5513921872 (Mexico City number of Alejandro, manager)]. Mezcalogia opened its doors four months ago. It’s working towards a pleasing Los Amantes ambiance. It currently offers 26 mezcals (but with a good, diverse selection including one out-of-state), no commercial labels.
La Mezcalerita: Macedonio Alcalá #706-C [1:00 – 10:00 pm; cel 0449511064432]. La Mezcalerita has a selection of craft beer in addition to its mezcals. The variety of the latter is not all that great, however. Ambiance is somewhat sparse, although it advertises having a rooftop. It does provide an option for those travelers staying near the north end of downtown, such as at Casa Ollin B & B, Casa Conzatti, Holiday Inn Express, or any of the lodgings on the upper part of Macedonio Alcalá.
Tobalá: Murguía 405, at the entrance to Hotel Casa Murguía [evenings]. Tobalá opened its doors (initially at a different location) springtime, 2014. It’s operated on a very informal basis, and has a pleasing ambiance with tables and a simple bar, attracting locals and tourists “in the know.” It’s selection is small (a lá Los Amantes, El Cortijo), but manages to do the trick, representing palenques in four different areas in or near Oaxaca’s central valleys.
The foregoing enumeration is relatively comprehensive, noting 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 bars and cantinas specializing in a broad diversity of mezcals, will email details so that I’ll be able to augment the list on a yearly basis.There are also numerous restaurants throughout the city which 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. The only downside of drinking mezcal in a restaurant as opposed to a mezcalería is that wait staff employed in the former generally do not have the knowledge to be able to appropriately guide patrons to particular products, whereas at least in theory the latter has trained staff on hand with a reasonable level of knowledge. Regardless of where you imbibe in Oaxaca, it is important to drink a diversity of 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 now.
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 150 different mezcals.