Ask the Bartender: Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca, day two

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can often find him behind the bar at Euclid Hall and here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions. But right now, he's in Oaxaca. You can read the first installment of his travel diary here.

Day Two, Santo Domingo Albarradas and Tobalá

At 5 a.m., I awoke to a cacophony of barking dogs and roosters. Apparently you don't need an alarm clock in Teotitlan Del Valle. I was rooming with Danny Valdez, and around 7 a.m. we walked down the hill to have coffee with Ron at the bodega. Ron is a good friend, and it was nice to have a quiet moment before the trip began. After coffee we walked back up the hill to have breakfast with the group. Even though we were tired from travel and a few too many mezcals the night before, there was definitely a high level of energy and anticipation. We're all longtime fans of Del Maguey, and the prospect of seeing our first village and palenque -- the place where maguey is roasted, fermented and distilled -- had us eager to get going.

We loaded up the jeeps and started on the four-and-a-half hour journey south to the Mixe (Mee-Hay) region and the village of Santo Domingo Albarradas. The first three hours were on a winding mountain road; the last 75 minutes on single-lane dirt roads. The ride was scenic (and bumpy) and the roads were lined with all kinds of wild maguey (Tobalá, Tepestate, Espadin, etc). along with goats, burros, oxen, etc. Finally we came around the bend, and there was Santo Domingo Albarradas (SDA). Built into the mountainside, the picturesque, 300-person village was draped in colorful canopies and festive flags. We had arrived during the festival of Santo Domingo, the week-long fiesta for the town's patron saint, complete with carnival rides, games and a basketball tournament that included teams from other villages. After about twenty minutes of winding through the streets of SDA, we arrived at the home of Espiridion Morales Luis, where we were greeted with open arms, huge smiles and a three-liter jug of Espiridion's Santo Domingo Albarradas Mezcal (made from the Espadin variety of maguey) as well as an amazing lunch that started with homemade bread and Mexican chocolate soup and finished with an incredible cabrito caldo (a slightly spicy red soup with goat meat). Along the way, of course, there were many toasts with SDA Mezcal.

During the meal Espiridion told us about his family's history with spirits. They got started generations ago in the traditional way, making mezcal in a clay vessel that's still called a holla. As a young man, he learned that copper-pot stills were more efficient and yielded more spirit, and he longed to buy one for his family. So as a teenager, when his father gave him a calf as a gift, he raised it, fattened it and sold it to buy a copper-pot still. He uses that same still in his palenque today.

One of the fascinating things he told us was that his family members see the still as a living being, one that asks to be fed maguey -- and so they serve the still. When it is satisfied, it smokes and the resulting vapor is mezcal. And because of mezcal, his family has food and clothing, so the still pays them back for feeding it.

Even though to most of us it would seem that Epiridion and his family live very simply, he spoke of the prosperity that making mezcal and working with Del Maguey, specifically Ron Cooper, has brought to his family and the village. In a small place like SDA, everyone gives back through service, working in the mill, etc. It is woven into the fabric of the community (which is something our own society could learn from), and the village succeeds and struggles together. Espiridion has been producing his mezcal for Del Maguey since 1995, and the village has thrived as a result.

After lunch we walked through the maguey fields and down to the palenque. which was inactive because of the festival. We then returned to Espiridion's home, thanked the whole family and headed off, full and a bit drunk, but eager to see our next destination: the place where DM Tobalá is made.

DM Tobalá is legendary amongst bartenders. In fact, those of us who work for aka winegeek all have the same flask, and it is only allowed to have DM Tobalá inside of it. It is made from the wild mountain maguey that cannot be cultivated or farmed.The spirit is much sought-after, and many consider it the best in the world. The producer asked that both his name and town remain anonymous, so I'll just call him El Rey, the King of Mezcal.

When we arrived at his palenque, El Rey greeted us with two bottles. One contained the aforementioned Tobalá, and the other his espadin mezcal, Espadin Especial. (Only sixty cases were made available to the United States, and they all went to New York and San Francisco.) Over the course of two hours, the ten of us, including El Rey, finished them both. When we told him about our flasks and how his mezcal was revered worldwide, he seemed unaffected -- not in a cocky way, but in a quietly confident way. He knew he made great mezcal and he wanted to share it.

In Telluride this past June, well-known San Francisco barman Neyah White told me that every time he tasted Tobalá, he tasted flowers. When we arrived at the palenque, that suddenly made sense. Right behind the still and ten feet from the fermentation tanks, there were rose bushes. All DM mezcals are made using open-air fermentation, with no artificial starters or added yeasts. All the yeast is natural and airborne, so the roses definitely have an effect on the final product.

After two more liters of amazing mezcal, it was time to head back to Oaxaca for another family dinner and then bed.

Tomorrow: Day three.

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Sean Kenyon
Contact: Sean Kenyon