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A spirited stay in Oaxaca

Helen Alexander

Senior Contributor

Move over tequila – mezcal is the spirit that’s turning heads around the world. To find out what all the fuss is about, head to Mexico’s agave epicentre to meet producers, feast on mole and sample some deliciously smoky spirits. Oaxaca City’s colonial centre is famous for many things – from colourful handicrafts and hand-woven textiles to its vibrant (and frequent) fiestas. But for gourmet globetrotters, the real pull has to be the region’s food and drinks traditions. Don’t leave without sampling its signature sauce mole negro, which is made by slow-cooking countless ingredients, including chocolate, and a few different mezcals. Like grapes, every agave has its own special characteristics. Espadin is one of the most common varieties, and no less interesting for it, but it’s also worth trying tepextate for its tropical, spicy notes as well as rare, wild species like tobalá.

A welcome drink

Having touched down, it’s time to toast your arrival with a few glasses of – you guessed it – mezcal. Remember, it might be served in shot glasses – or cups made of clay or from the dried peel of the fruit from the Calabash tree – but the smoky spirit is supposed to be slowly sipped and savoured, and enjoyed alongside orange wedges that are dipped in sal de chapulin, a salt made with grasshoppers that have been toasted and ground to a powder.

The appointment-only Mezcaloteca (Reforma 506) is a great place to start your education. Resembling a library of liquids, with more than 100 different distillates sitting on its shelves, the friendly owners will give you a crash course in what to look out for as your discover the difference between the methods of roasting agaves, the types of still used in the distillation process and the flavours of mezcals that have been distilled in copper and clay.

Ulises Torrentera, the owner of In Situ (Av. José María Morelos 511), is also worth getting to know – he has written a book about mezcal and stocks a staggering range of varieties as well as some great local craft beers. Next, Mezcalogia (Calle de Manuel García Vigil 509) is an intimate spot that’s run by Asis Cortés, a sixth-generation mezcalero. While here it’s also worth sampling pulque. This fermented beverage is made from the sap of the agave plant.

Eating inspiration

Aside from mezcal, corn is a key concern at Maguey y Maíz (5 de Mayo 412) where the al fresco courtyard and cosy dining spaces are the backdrop to dishes that combine local food traditions with an international twist, think marlin and shrimped-stuffed enchilado taquitos that are doused in a rich mole. Meanwhile, just a few doors away, towards Santo Domingo church, El Destilado (5 de Mayo 409) is taking Oaxacan dishes to new gastronomic heights. San Francisco-trained executive chef Julio Aguilera takes a creative approach to the constantly changing menu, and to really get a sense of the place, it’s best to opt for either a six-, nine- or 12-course degustation. Of course, Mexican wine and house-made mezcal matches are always on offer. For a more casual experience, the team serve tacos, tlayudas and tostadas on their rooftop El Techo taquería from Thursday to Sunday.

Hit the road

Leave the city’s cobblestone streets behind and make for two of the state’s mezcal-making epicentres – Matatlán and Mitla – both of which are just an hours’ drive away. Let the crew at Rambling Spirits do the driving and embark on a tailor-made tour that might just include the opportunity to see piñas (agave hearts) being baked the traditional way in underground pits before learning more about the distillation process and, of course, tasting plenty of mezcal along the way.

Where to recover

As the recently opened little sister to Chaya B&B, Mexico City’s delightful boutique hotel that overlooks Almeda Park, Grana B&B (Labastida 118) is a stunning place to rest your mezcal-weary head. Rooms are spacious with large walk-in showers, and many come with standalone hot tubs should you need to wallow for a while. The inner courtyard with its hammocks and comfy chairs is also a great place to recharge – there’s always a pot of coffee on the go, the homemade breakfasts are delicious and the staff have thoughtfully stocked the kitchen with headache tablets. Just in case!

Nic Crilly Hargrave

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