On the road to Oaxaca
We just got an email from friends in Oaxaca, they want to come down to Huatulco for a visit in early June. Rene and Adriana run a B&B: Casa de los Milagros, and we have had the pleasure of staying there countless times, and they have become very good friends of ours. We will be going up to Oaxaca at the end of June, with our nephew Will and his friend Danny. And I'm thinking they are going to enjoy that ride. The road to Oaxaca is mezcal tasting country, a Mexican version of the Silverado Trail in Napa.
Let's just say it is a significantly different drive, and a potentially more dangerous one, for many reason, least of all mezcal. But the mezcal places on the way beg for us to stop and taste, and we do. You have to. When we pull in, the owners exude pride and enthusiasm. We are always treated like honored guests. We marvel at how they get that "delicious" mezcal out of that maguey plant. Everyone's mezcal tastes different. Que sopresa. Yet, there is still that lingering flavor that distinguishes it from tequilla.
From Huatulco it is about a 5 1/2 hours to Oaxaca. We go the "long" way, down to Salina Cruz and up to the mountains from that direction. The other way is about 4 1/2 hours and unless you have ever driven to Shelter Cove, California, you have no idea how curvy a road going up or down from 10,000 ft can be. There is a super highway coming down from Oaxaca that they have been working on for at least 10 years (its coming along), and ends in Puerto Escondido, almost an hour west of us. That will cut the trip to 3-4 hours, depende. I think though, we will always take the Mezcal Road route.
Enough of that story. The road up is a beautiful drive. Even my favorite check-point for the inevitable search of our car, bags and belongings, has its charm. As the check-point is below a mountain checkered with caves, and from the road we see these stalagtites and stlagmites in the mouth's of these caves, we always hope to get pulled over. They are truly a vision. Beckoning you in to explore, but nearly impossible to get up there. From there we start moving into the mountains, and we begin to see the maguey cactus (a form of agave - think tequilla) in the hillsides and valleys. The first time we drove up, it was hard to spot a maquey cactus farm (3 years ago), and now it's like every 100 yards or so there is another "boutique" mezcal tasting room and maguey farm. Everybody is making mezcal. It is the state drink of Oaxaca. They scorn tequilla, that's for wimps.
I can't stand the stuff myself, but I am acquiring an appreciation of fine mezcal. It has a smoky peaty taste, with a strong white-lightening back, that can knock you on your ass after one shot. Everybody wants you to taste their mezcal these days. Tasting rooms are now even in Huatulco! Early on the mezcal road, mexcal stands tend to be traditional, that is a lean to, with tree stumps for sitting, everything done out in the open, and the oven is always going. The donkey is outside a circular pit, walking around turning a large stone wheel that is crushing the maguey and getting the juice out. Much like the crushing of grapes. Except that the bulb (pina) has been roasted in an oven (brick, underground); the wood they use for charcoal contributes to the flavor.
They usually serve the mezcal from a used tequilla bottle (?), or soda liter bottle. They tell you what they do to get that flavor, we nod, of course it's all in your dedication and secret something that makes this one better, I always think. It is nasty. Nasty. I choke and sputter, Larry laughs and makes a face. We thank them very much and never buy a bottle. But the interesting thing about the Mezcal Road, is that the mexcal improves the closer we get to Oaxaca. And thats when we might buy a bottle, might.
The high-end mezcal tasting rooms are cozy, beautifully built, designed, decorated places. Chairs, tables, a bar, some live music. There's usually a demonstration area out back for those who haven't seen how mezcal is made yet (hard to believe if you have driven this road even once). They have clear mezcal, golden mezcal, mezcal cream with flavors (think Baily's Irish Creme), aged, fresh, they have it all. Now the creamy mexcal flavored with coconut or pineapple is pretty good. Over ice, on a hot day, you get a nice buzz. It doesn't have that pure mezcal kick, from drinking it straight. And that is how you drink it. By the shot. They don't use it in any mixed drinks down here. What's the point, you'll only get the mezcal flavor, and it is not a good flavor mixed with anything else, trust me. Straight shot.
Mezcal is embedded in the culture. People even go house to house selling mezcal; there is always a mezcal person in the communidades. On of our favorite places, La Finca in Huatulco, after a great BBQ dinner, starts pouring the mezcal, and then the party begins, or continues, depending on when you jumped into the mezcal course. Crazy. So, I'm sure the nephew and friend, will enjoy that drive. We'll let them sample.