You’re in Oaxaca and as you walk around the streets and in the markets, people keep offering you samples of this wonderful elixir called mezcal. It seems as if you can’t go 50 feet without encountering one of those small booths where the pretty girls are begging you to come in a try a sip. Or two, or three!
And then, you’re hooked.
My good friend Paco tells me that to understand Mexico, you have to understand mezcal. If you are finding yourself hooked and really want to understand what Paco is saying, it’s time for a short field trip. To Santiago Matatlán, the birthplace of mezcal.
Matatlán is one of those roadside villages prevalent in Mexico. Encompassing little more than a couple of square miles, most of the town is within walking distance of the transcontinental highway. To get there from Oaxaca City, you can rent a car, get a taxi or collectivo, or take the bus.
After passing the exit for Mitla, about 25 miles east of Oaxaca, you’ll know you are getting close when the landscape starts to change from random plants to rows and rows of magueys, or cactus as the gringos wrongly call them. The entrance to the town is marked by a giant still, or alambique in Spanish, on the welcome sign.
This is where your journey begins to take shape. For many people trying to understand mezcal and how it is made, the choices can be daunting. It seems as if every house or building has a still and is cooking up something. While there is some truth to that, Matatlán after all survives on mezcal, some palenques, and mezcaleros, are better than others if you really want to learn about this great spirit.
One of my favorites in Matatlán is the Palenque Mal de Amor. Located at KM marker 46.2, this is where La Niña del Mezcal and Mezcal Mal de Amor both have their mezcal made under the watchful eye of Armando Hernandez, a fifth generation mezcalero.
I love this place for a variety of reasons. It’s easy to find and for the average person, that’s a plus. Ask for Armando and you’ll be all set for a great visit.
Armando speaks a lot of English from his years working in the US, so you will not need a translator. More importantly, he knows his mezcal and truly wants to share his love for this great spirit. Listen carefully as he speaks. Alongside his vast knowledge of mezcal and how it is made, there is an understanding gained only from years of walking the fields and hearing the stories of generations past through the maguey.
The last time I was there, words like tradition and noble kept coming up as he described both the drink, and the spirit of mezcal. It is that nobility and spirit that infuses the mezcal he makes for both his line of mezcal, Mal de Amor, and that of his partner for mezcal in the US, Cecilia Rios, better known as La Niña del Mezcal.
Both of these mezcals are top line artisanal spirits. When you get a bottle back to your home, open it up and experience the tastes and scents of your visit to the palenque all over again. Sip them, savor them and get to know them, because they are light years better than what you find at many of the small tasting booths in the city.
Finally, as you’ll find out, Armando is generous with his tastings, and he loves questions. If you want to understand mezcal, from the field to finished product, this is a great place to begin your journey. Couple all of this with an ability to get a fresh plate of food from his restaurant, and you’ve got a winner of a day.
This is My Mexico… talking to and spending a day with locals and taking the time to learn from them what an incredible country Mexico is. It’s where you find folks like Cecilia, Armando, Paco and so many others who show off the wonderful hospitality you find every where once you get off road and leave the typical tourist areas behind.
Mezcal Mal de Amor – Available only in Mexico
La Niña del Mezcal – Available across the Unites States and Mexico
This post has been updated. An earlier version had Paco Garcia wrongly identified as Paco Rodriquez in the first picture… mil disculpas Paco… te veo pronto en Oaxaca!
Muchas gracias a Wahaka Mezcal for the photo of their maguey fields that are shown above.
Always good to see someone happy with our work, our blog and our advice. Look who found Armando as a result of Dave Miller’s Mexico. Catch up on the Global Goulets and follow the adventure here!