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  • A Cruising Couple | April 7, 2016 9:00 PM ET

    An Insider Look at Mexico’s Mouthwatering Mezcal

    An Insider Look at Mexico’s Mouthwatering Mezcal

    Photos courtesy of Cantimplora Travel unless otherwise noted

    While many of us are familiar with tequila and the havoc it can wreak after a night out on the town, you may be less familiar with the premium mezcals that are silently slipping into your local liquor store. In the past few years, Mexican mezcal has slowly been making its way into mainstream drinking culture as a classier, smoother alternative to tequila.

    Our recent trip to Oaxaca put us right in the heart of mezcal country — 80-90 percent of worldwide production takes place here. Cantimplora Travel arranged the exclusive opportunity for us to meet with Don Alberto Martinez, an artisanal organic mezcal producer, for the inside scoop on how the spirit is created.

    READ MORE: Dispatch: Sipping Mezcal At Rejuvenated Hilton Los Cabos

    What makes mezcal such an art form, and how does it differ from its cousin, tequila? Read on to learn more:

    What Is It?

    Both mezcal and tequila are made from agave plants and produced using similar techniques. Don Alberto Martinez explained that the agave plant takes 10 years to grow before it is ready to be harvested to produce quality liquor. He says the key is when the plant flowers: cut the flowers off and wait a few more months until the bottom of the plant, the pina, is swollen. Many producers don't want to wait and cut their plants too early, which changes the flavor of the mezcal.

    Each of these pinas will produce around 20 liters of mezcal by the time the process is through and Don’s total yearly production is between 8,000 and 9,000 liters.

    Agave Plant

    Photo by A Cruising Couple

    By law, tequila can only be made using the Blue agave plant variety. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made with over 30 varieties of agave, the most popular of which is Espadin. So technically, tequila is a variation of mezcal. Don grows Espadin as well as the Tobala variety of agave on his farm, the latter is harder to grow, but has a smoother flavor.

    How To Make It:

    The biggest difference between tequila and mezcal is how it's cooked. The most popular way to heat the Blue agave for tequila production is in industrial sized, stainless-steel pressure cookers. Mezcal takes a vastly different approach, which allows it to have such a unique flavor.

    To make traditional artisanal mezcal, Don Alberto Martinez described how the plants are harvested and cooked in what is essentially an underground oven. They dig a cone-shaped hole in the earth about 10 feet deep and 10 feet wide at the top. Then volcanic rocks are used to line the hole. Next, they start a fire at the bottom of the pit that burns for eight hours to heat up the volcanic rock until the stones are blazing hot. The pinas are then placed into the volcanic rock oven and covered with about a foot of earth and woven rugs to hold in the heat.


    Don Alberto Martinez leaves his underground oven to smoke, cook and caramelize the pina for eight full days before uncovering them. It is largely this underground baking process that gives the mezcal its distinctive smoky flavor.

    Once the pinas are unearthed, then it's time to crush the agave. Don still uses the traditional method that goes back to the 1600s, where a horse or donkey will pull a large stone wheel in a circle, repeatedly crushing the agave to extract the juice.

    Finally, it's a 10-day fermentation and double distillation and the mezcal is ready for bottling. For the aged, anejo style of mezcal, instead of going straight into the bottle, the mezcal is aged for one year in a wooden barrel exactly like those used for aging whiskey.

    READ MORE: 3 Epic Day Trips From Oaxaca

    There are plenty of Mezcal bars in and around Oaxaca where you can try a variety of different producers and choose your favorite style. Los Amantes is our favorite, a teeny-tiny bar where Mexican celebrities are known to stop by and chat over a shot of mezcal. And of course, be sure to try a mezcal margarita. We think they may be even better than their tequila counterparts!

    Have you tried mezcal? Which do you prefer: mezcal or tequila?

More Oaxaca


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A Cruising Couple A Cruising Couple's Column

A Cruising Couple Dan and Casey are the two lovebirds, world travelers and adventurers extraordinaire behind the popular travel blog A Cruising Couple - adventure travel with a dash of class. Their stories and photographs feature that special place where experiential and stylish travel meet. Find out how you can spend less money, live more adventurously and travel more luxuriously on their blog,
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