According to the government of Mexico, authentic mezcal—the wildly popular category of agave-based spirits that includes but is by no means limited to tequila—can only come from the country’s official Denomination of Origin, a region covering parts of nine Mexican states.
Kinda sounds like Champagne in France, we suggested to Jay Schroeder, a Chicago-based mixologist and the author of Understanding Mezcal.
“It’s exactly like Champagne,” he says, “if Champagne were like a hundred times larger geographically.”
From up near the U.S. border to southern Oaxaca and beyond, “agave spirits have spread out basically as far north as you can go in Mexico to pretty much as far south,” Schroeder explains. “Mezcal is made in more places in Mexico than it’s not.”
That’s owing to the prevalence of the endemic agave plant, the slow-growing, spiky-leaved, arid-climate-loving progenitor of tequila (which comes from blue agave only) as well as espadín, raicilla, sotol, and more than two dozen other types of spirits developed over centuries in Mexico’s traditional rural communities.
When it comes to agave, according to Schroeder, “‘It’s all about diversity’ is big bullet point number two.” What’s big bullet point number one? “It’s not about smoke,” he answers, referring to the most common—and most limiting—descriptor for a class of booze that can be, depending on the bottle, rich and earthy, light and fruity, and everything in between. In its range of flavors, mezcal has been said to rival wine. Told ya the Champagne comparison was apt.
And like wine, agave attracts tourism—though not yet on the scale of Napa Valley’s grape-industrial complex. In fact, Schroeder himself has teamed up with warm-weather vacation packager CheapCaribbean.com to lead a Te Amo Tequila Tour in December.
(Jay Schroeder; photo by Jeff Marini)
From Puerto Vallarta, the trip explores tequila in its home state of Jalisco, making stops at distilleries, tasting rooms, agave fields, and Tequila the town, which is to some pilgrims what Zurich is to chocolate lovers and Kohler, Wisconsin, is to aficionados of plumbing.
Tour attendees will get to spend a night in rooms designed to look like giant tequila barrels at La Cofradía’s Matices Hotel de Barricas, the world’s only hotel located on the grounds of a tequila factory. “You’re right around the plants,” says Schroeder, “and it really gives you a sense of both the beauty and the industry of tequila.”
(Matices Hotel de Barricas in Tequila, Mexico; image courtesy of CheapCaribbean.com)
Schroeder’s tour is far from the only game in town. Tequila experiences in Jalisco range from well-oiled operations like the Jose Cuervo Express train, which leaves from Guadalajara, to tastings at Orendain, a locally beloved brand that’s rich in history.
"In Jalisco, there’s infrastructure for people to go and see these things in comfort,” Schroeder says. “You can see the plants as they grow and are cultivated. You can see the process by which they’re harvested. You can see from front to back what it takes to make every drop of tequila you’ve ever had."
(La Cata bar in Tequila, Mexico; image courtesy of CheapCaribbean.com)
For a more rustic experience, base yourself in Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced. There are fewer bells and whistles for tourists, but that can mean you’ll get a closer look at how agave spirits have traditionally been made. It also means you’ll probably find affordable hotels in a UNESCO World Heritage site full of colonial architecture and blooming jacarandas.
Of the palenque (distillery) tours available in Oaxaca, Schroeder recommends Mezcal Educational Tours because the operators are “really good at connecting you with small, independent producers. You get to talk to the people who do this stuff in the extremely rural setting in which they do it.” If you want to buy mezcal to take home, you purchase directly from those who made it.
(Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca, Mexico; photo by Elijah Lovkoff / Shutterstock)
Supporting small, independent producers matters because they’re being squeezed on one side by the government and its steep licensing fees for that official mezcal designation, and, on the other, by international entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the spirit’s trendiness.
“If you’re a palenquero making booze in your backyard,” as Schroeder puts it, “it’s really hard for you to come up with the money needed to certify your place in order to call what you make mezcal. Then some slick outsider can roll in and take over.”
And wouldn’t it be a shame if, after surviving 400 years, traditional mezcal was put in peril by its own popularity?
For more information on the Te Amo Tequila Tour led by Jay Schroeder, visit CheapCaribbean.com.