One night last fall in the Mexican city of Oaxaca, I spent several hours in a shoe box-size bar called Mezcaleria Los Amantes. I'd arrived just before closing, and I told the owner, a painter named Guillermo Olguin, that I'd like to taste some very fine mezcal, the spirit distilled from the fermented hearts of the agave, a succulent native to Mexico. After the last of the other customers had left, he began pulling down the good stuff: handblown bottles containing obscure artisanal mezcals from all over Oaxaca State, the traditional center of mezcal making. These were serious spirits, wild and unrestrained, a far cry from the mellow top-shelf tequilas and cheap mezcals I'd known in the United States. Olguin had collected them on motorcycle trips throughout southern Mexico, and for him each one was a postcard of the landscape and of the palenquero, or mezcal maker, who had created the spirit. There was a bizarre mezcal from Yautepec with a perfumed nose; an elegant and scotch-like mezcal that delivered sweet smoke on the palate; and one made from tobala agave that was rich and slightly bitter, with flavors of chocolate and coffee. "The palenqueros are artists, and this is the gallery," Olguin said, gesturing to his bottle-laden shelves.