By Lydia Carey
Oaxaca has so many things to offer—incredible food, beautiful landscapes, charming architecture—but one underappreciated gem is the state’s small, family-run distilleries sprinkled throughout the countryside. Here you find the masters of mezcal, the “elixir of the gods.” It’s a rapidly growing superstar among distilled spirits worldwide.
A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to visit some of these tiny oases in the Oaxacan desert and came back with the memories of five palenques (mezcal distilleries) that are captivatingly beautiful. Such visits are a good way to experience this distinctly Mexican liquor.
While the settings invite flights of fancy, each palenque is serious about the business of mezcal. Come to these distilleries prepared to engage your senses and your mind about this important Mexican tradition.
Run by the Ángeles family, the Real Minero distillery and tasting room got a luxurious revamp in 2018, converting the 20+-year-old family distillery into the bright and modern setting you find today. The company’s offices are set among a vast array of wild agaves that they are planting and propagating to protect against biodiversity loss in the area.
A cozy collection of tables and chairs is set among the gardens for private tastings, and a large outdoor greenhouse demonstrates the results of their cultivation project. A five-minute drive from the offices is where guests can take a tour of the production center. Two massive pit ovens sit under a wooden framed roof, ready to cook up to 10 tonnes of agave hearts at a time.
Five stations set up in the back part of the property demonstrate the ancient clay-pot distillation process traditional to this area, and among rows and rows of aging mezcal in shimmering glass bottles is a small underground tasting room that can be booked for private events.
In the same town as Real Minero, Santa Catarina de Minas, a new distillery, sits in the middle of a vast section of desert: Rambha Mezcal is less than a year old.
With only the cactus between it and the majestic hills beyond, Mezcal Rambha is still in its nascent stage, simply decorated and laid out. A long family-style wooden table takes center stage. Hammocks hang from the posts that support the covered outdoor tasting room, and a string of brightly-colored baubles tinkle in the wind.
The distillery has plans for a full kitchen that will soon provide lunch between sips of mezcal for its guests. A much smaller operation than some on this list, owner and mezcalera (mezcal maker) Rosario Ángeles will take you through the distillation process and even let you try your hand at macerating the agave hearts with a giant wooden pole (that calls to mind The Flintstones cartoon) in a low, narrow “canoe” that is carved into the floor of the distillery. This crushing process for making the agave mash before it goes into the fermentation tanks is typical of the area.
Already hosting visitors on local mezcal tours, Mezcal Rambha is open by appointment with Ángeles. The idyllic setting is sure to tempt you into a post-mezcal siesta in one of those hammocks.
The entrance to Los Amantes distillery and hotel is both inauspicious and tricky to find, but once you are through the gates, the landscaping — which uses endemic plants, cacti and the surrounding views of the countryside — will both soothe your soul and impress you with the property’s expansiveness.
This distillery combines urban industrial chic with the homegrown beauty of rural Mexico. Started by Oaxaca artist Guillermo Olguín, it offers a wide variety of mezcals that will please even the daintiest of palates, including a triple-distilled joven, a double-distilled reposado, añejo and some wild-agave varieties.
The distillery (and mezcal bar in Oaxaca city) works with a local family for most of their mezcal production, using cowhide fermentation and clay-pot distillation, both fascinating techniques to get to know.
Visits are by appointment only right now, but they are open on a regular schedule, and programming a tour is a pretty simple process. Guests can see the distillation area, taste a few varieties in the glassed-in tasting room or even have a picnic in the nearby fields.
Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City. She has been published widely both online and in print, writing about Mexico for over a decade. She lives a double life as a local tour guide and is the author of “Mexico City Streets: La Roma.” Follow her urban adventures on Instagram and see more of her work at www.mexicocitystreets.com.
*This excerpt was published with authorization, to keep reading please search for the link to Mexico News Daily.