When I visited central Oaxaca this summer, I was most excited to learn more about the region's prized spirit, mezcal, and so once in Oaxaca, I was delighted to land a crash course in a tiny, warmly lit mezcaleria just a few blocks from my hotel.
Mezcal is the umbrella name for any spirit distilled from maguey (agave), of which there are many: tequila, bacanora, sotol, raicilla, san carlos, espadin, and papalote, just to name a few. (According to Mexican law, however, a bottle can only be labeled "mezcal" if its contents are produced from specific regions and types of maguey.) Each region, elevation, and variety of maguey produce distinct flavors, not to mention the influence of the hand of each small producer as they smoke and ferment the hearts of agave. The distilled spirit is then aged in barrels to mellow and refine the taste—joven is young mezcal, reposado aged 2-12 months, añejo over 12 months—and flavored with additions like the famous gusano, or worm. (In recent years Oaxaca has seen a rise in the industrial production of mezcal, its producers aiming for the international success of its cousin, tequila. The industrial process will often use steamed agave hearts instead of smoked, which produces a cleaner flavor, though some mezcal aficionados miss the traditional smoky depth.)
The day after my immersion course in Oaxaca City, I found myself sipping a range of bold and smoky roadside brews at a variety of traditional palenques, the small artisanal mezcal distilleries that dot the region. The spirit warmed my mouth and throat, tasting of campfire and salty earth, but also complexly sweet from the richly roasted agave hearts. Later that evening, after a quick tour of Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto, a relatively new industrial distillery that produces a traditional-style smoked agave mezcal as well as Zignum, an unsmoked, premium line distilled from Oaxacan espadin, I was ready for a different kind of refreshment (it had been a long few days of sipping neat). The bartender at the distillery must have read my mind as he lined up a slew of local ingredients, from passionfruit to a peanut orgeat to poleo (Mexican mint), and started muddling before I could order. He handed me a finished drink that was just what I would have asked for: a chile-salt rimmed pepino y limón cocktail. When trying to recreate the cooler at home, I found that the drink only works with Zignum's joven or reposado mezcal: the smokiness of traditional mezcal makes it difficult to mix with, but the bright, saline flavor of green agave, without the smoke, finds a perfect match in cucumber, lemon, agave nectar, and a pinch of salt.