The topography of Oaxaca is also the most varied in all of Mexico. Oaxaca’s capital city is in the center of a confluence of three great valleys at an altitude of 6,500 feet. There are mountains, plains, fertile valleys, tropical jungles and the Pacific Ocean all creating many differing growing zones for countless varieties of maguey.
The magueys existing in the state of Oaxaca vary from the giant pulque maguey, maguey silvestre (wild) and maguey tobala (which makes one of the rarest mezcals). Tobala maguey grows only in the highest altitude, shadowed by canyons. The pines are only cut one month out of the year and the mezcal is usually entirely consumed during the village's patron saint's fiesta. This wild mountain maguey has a smoky fruity bouquet and traditionally it is served in partially glazed clay sipping cups. It is not for the faint of heart, yet once tasted, you'll look for excuses to taste the wonders of this ancient and rare tradition.
The Agave is not a cactus. It was once classified in the same family with Lilies and Aloes. Today it is classified in its own family, Agavaceae, which consists of more than 120 species.
One consistency across the state of Oaxaca is that almost every village, town and region has its producers of local mezcal. The plants are propagated by almost everyone in small village-garden plots until they are about two years old and roughly two feet tall. At this time, they are uprooted, their leaves are tightly bound and the roots are cut off. They are left in the sun for about fifteen days. Next, they are transported to the outlying hills where they are transplanted and left to grow as fence borders for mountain fields. After another five years, they are harvested and sold as a cash crop to local distillers.
The pines (or hearts) are placed in a rock-lined conical pit (Palenque) about 12 feet in diameter and about eight feet deep. They are covered with many hot rocks that have been heated in a wood fire. A layer of the leaves or fiber from the plant covers them, followed by woven palm-fiber mats (petate) and finally a layer of earth. They bake this way for two or three days, absorbing flavors from the earth and the wood smoke.
The pines are removed from the pit and placed on the ground inside a ring of stone about 12 feet in diameter. In the center is a vertical post connecting an axle to a huge vertical circular millstone. This stone wheel is pulled around and around the circle by burro or horse to crush the maguey hearts.
The crushed maguey is then placed in wooden vats that hold about three hundred gallons. Then about 5%-10% water is added. The mash (tepache) is left uncovered to ferment naturally with nothing other than its own yeasts from four to thirty days.
The mezcal solids and liquid (tepache) are then transferred to a copper or ceramic (de olla) still which holds about twenty-five gallons. A copper "sombrero" is placed on top and the mix is slowly heated by wood fire, vaporized and condensed. The fiber is cleared out of the still and the "punta" (the clear alcohol from the first distillation) is placed back in the still and the distillation process is repeated. The resulting liquid is mezcal.
There is a high reverence for this magical liquid and its ceremonial, social and medicinal uses among the villagers. There is obvious pride regarding mezcal's power. There is also great disdain for the "cheap," diluted, chemically altered liquid sold commercially.
The way mezcal affects one's palate and the way it warms the chest, throat and mouth are quite different than any other alcohol.