The roasted maguey plant (pronounced mah-gay), or agave, has been a staple of the Oaxacan diet for thousands of years. Whether or not native Mexicans learned to distill before the Spanish conquest is debated, but the Spaniards do get credit for bringing Filipinos to Central America via the Manila/Acapulco shipping route, who brought the technology for crude, homemade stills (in tree trunks!). By 1621 when it was first written about, the practice of distilling roasted agave was well established.
Tequilas and mezcals are both vinos de mezcal, but tequila must be made only with the Blue Weber agave plant, and must come from the region surrounding the city of Tequila in Jalisco. Mezcal can be made with any of the hundreds of varieties of agave anywhere in Mexico, though it is usually made with the Espadin variety of agave in Oaxaca. What truly distinguishes mezcal is the process used to roast it, where the harvested piñas are buried in earthen pits lined with stones and smoked until the starches fully convert to sugars.
Aside from the occasional bottle smuggled back from vacation, it was almost impossible to get good mezcal in the U.S. until recently. Its availability these days is mostly thanks to Ron Cooper, an artist who twenty-five years ago committed to making mezcal available outside of the tiny villages where it was produced. He developed relationships with traditional Zapotec producers and Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal was born. Mezcal is at the heart of spiritual life in Oaxaca. Palenqueros ask for permission and give blessings, harvesting just enough to supply their village fiesta and a few hundred bottles for Del Maguey. These are spirits produced with reverence and love, and we’re lucky to drink them!
Del Maguey Mezcal Vida – $39.99
Vida is an entry-level, cocktail-friendly mezcal made in the traditional method. Agave are wild-harvested then buried to smoke in stone-lined pits. The roasted agave are then crushed with a giant stone wheel, or tahona, usually pulled by a donkey, then fermented in open barrels with native yeast for two weeks to a month. The resulting vino de mezcal is run twice through a traditional copper still to be light and clean while preserving the unique qualities that make it a true Oaxacan mezcal: smoke, honey, tropical fruit, and ginger-y spice. Vida is a wonderful introduction to the world of mezcal and makes a beautiful Margarita (we prefer Tommy’s style, with 2oz mezcal, 1oz fresh lime juice, and .5oz agave nectar). (Available at both Markets.)
Del Maguey Mezcal Chichicapa – $72.99
Chichicapa is made by Faustino Garcia Vazquez in his highland village four hours south and west of Oaxaca over a mountain range accessible only via dirt road. Elevation here is 7,000 feet, giving the agave concentration of fruit, elegance, and finesse similar to those of a Highland Scotch. Its smokiness develops across the palate, accompanied by minty herbal notes and hints of bitter chocolate and the tropical fruits (guava, mango, and banana) that grow alongside it. (Available only at Bi-Rite 18th Street.)
Del Maguey Mezcal Minero – $74.99
An hour beyond the village of Chichicapa lies Santa Catarina Minas, where the award-winning Minero is made by Florencio Carlos Sarmiento and his sons. The water of the village is outstanding, yielding a mezcal with floral and citrus notes and a creamy sweetness that lingers on the palate. The still used is traditional clay and bamboo, which preserves a fresh fruity quality in the finished spirit. (Available only at Bi-Rite Divisadero.)
- 18th Hour Cafe – Thursdays, 6-9PM – Drop-In – At 18 Reasons
- Wine Tasting with Cristin from Return to Terroir – Friday, July 11th, 4-6PM – At Bi-Rite Divisadero
- Wine Tasting with Tess from Edward T. Edwards – Saturday, July 12th, 4-6PM – At Bi-Rite Divisadero
- Wine Tasting with Christian Adams from Rudi Wiest Selections – Sunday, July 13th, 2-4PM – At Bi-Rite Divisadero
- Loving Old Vines: A Tasting of California Heritage Wines – Tuesday, July 22nd, 7-9PM – At 18 Reasons