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Trip to Santiago Matatlán - The World Capital of Mezcal

While living in Oaxaca for a couple of weeks, we took a chance to travel to Santiago Matatlán - a little town an hour away from Oaxaca city center, known as the world capital of Mezcal. We experienced firsthand how Mezcal is produced, the entire history, and tasted many different flavors of this traditional beverage.

Per our tour guide, 90% of Mexican mezcal production happens in Oaxaca.

This was again an Airbnb Experience experience that I booked as a surprise for Leo's birthday. We tasted a couple of different mezcals during our stay in Mexico. We both like the culture of drinking Mezcal, so I thought we might learn more about this drink.

The host of this experience took good care of us, picked us up with his Dacia Duster early morning, and drove us to the production facility in the heart of Santiago Matatlan. We had a lovely walk through the agave fields, where he introduced different types of agave plants.

Leo and Maja on the agave field
Looking beautiful surrounded with agave

After that, he guided us through the whole production process, from burning the agave plants to final distillation. Full of knowledge, we became more eager to try different types of Mezcals, so we moved to the tasting area, where we started our journey by trying about 12 different types. We had to guess the different tastes and aromas of each; sometimes, we were successful; other times, we had no idea what we were drinking.

Our host with 4 different mezcal bottles
Our host and mezcal expert

We used this Mezcal tasting wheel, where we had to choose the combination of flavors that we tasted.

Mezcal Tasting Wheel

Anyway, quite boozy and enriched with the new knowledge, we drove to our next place, where we visited local legend, the man from the cover of National Geographic, running a lovely home production of Mezcal, farming and enjoying life. The rumor has it that even George Clooney was filming a commercial for his brand of Mezcal there.

Leo and Maja with 2 glasses of mezcal
More tasting

We were chilling at his terrace, with a great view over the valley. It was such a relaxed early afternoon, and, you guessed right - time for more tasting.

After that, even more boozy than before, we drove to our last stop at the local market, where we had well-deserved and necessary lunch.

We came home late afternoon and went directly to bed to have a nap; I guess we were just tired from the whole day of walking and learning ;)

It was a great experience, Leo looked happy, and that's what counts in the end!

So talking all about this delicious beverage, you must be curious to learn more about it.

What is Mezcal?

Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic drink that by definition and by Mexican law must be made from the agave plant, a slow-growing succulent native to Mexico and parts of Texas. Eating well

The production of Mezcal today is pretty much as it was 100 years ago. The main difference is that the Mezcal nowadays is considered a higher standard drink, and priced higher than in the past. Mezcal grew on its popularity.

However, the production is still very traditional, which is one of the differences compared to tequila. It is less industrialized and therefore contains fewer chemicals.

I can confirm that a good mezcal doesn't cause so much hangover the next day.

How is Mezcal produced?

Mezcal is made from any agave.

Agave plants take from 5-30 years to be ready to harvest, and this is one of the reasons that Mezcal is so special and unique.

Agave closeup

It's quite a process for farmers to produce it. And it's still made traditionally and not industrialized compared to the main rival tequila.

Once the agave is ready to harvest, they cut the leaves away to get the heart of the agave called piña.

Farmers preparing agave for the oven
Preparation for the oven

The next step is to roast the piña in the pit oven - a large hole in the ground. This is also where the name comes - from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which means "oven-cooked agave." First, they line the pits with stones, burning wood, and more stone on the top to ensure the slow-burning. Next, they line up the piñas and cover everything with processed agave pulps, soil, and cloth to seal the whole pit. This is the most traditional way to roast it and is used around Oaxaca; there are also more industrial ways to do it in the ovens.

The oven where agave is burned

After a couple of days, when agave is perfectly roasted, they crush it by:

  • hand using wood mallets
  • stone wheel pulled by a horse, donkey, or electronic machine,
  • a wood chipper.
Stone wheel for crushing roasted agave

This step brings out all the liquid juices and sugars from the piñas.

They actually had a beautiful donkey in this production facility, however, he was not the one to pull the wheel, but more for posing.

Leo and a donkey
Leo (left) and the donkey

These crushed agave is then moved to the next part, fermentation—the tanks where the fermentation is taking place. Usually are from stone, wood, or steel. They leave it there, in the open air, to ferment for a couple of days to a week, depending on the weather.

A wooden barrel with agave while fermenting

Once the fermented to perfection, the next step of the process takes place - distillation. It's done in stills made of copper, clay, or stainless steel.

Distillation stills
Copper steel
Copper still
Our host and clay still
Clay still

After that, Mezcal is bottled. There are three general types of Mezcals:

  • Joven is young, unaged, and is transparent.
  • Reposado is the darker.
  • Añejo is the darkest Mezcal, with the most smooth taste.
Three different bottles of mezcal
Different types of Mezcals

What is the difference between Tequila and Mezcal?

As tequila is a drink known worldwide, the mezcal is less known, but in my opinion, a way more diverse drink.

The main differences are:

Production: Mezcal can be produced from any agave, while tequila can be produced only from blue agave, making tequila type of mezcal.

Production Areas: Mezcal is mainly produced in Oaxaca State, while tequila in Jalisco

Flavor: Mezcal has a typical smokey flavor, which is the main difference in the taste compared to tequila. With its smokiness, mezcal adds a great flavor to any cocktail.

To draw the line, mezcal convinced me with its specific flavor, the smoothness, and the whole tradition in production. So if you ask me, I choose mezcal over tequila.

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