It shocked me to find so little info online about what mezcal distilleries to visit on a Oaxaca mezcal tour. Sure there are lots of articles about the newly trendy spirit - but almost all focus on what mezcal is with a brief mention that Oaxaca is the place to find it.
Then there are many sites to book tours - but with little information as to what distilleries you might visit.
So I’ve made it my mission to gather up a list of the best Oaxaca mezcal distilleries to visit. For me, they need to have two different features:
- The distilleries need to be making mezcal with the authentic and traditional methods. And their finished product should be really special and unique.
- They should be open to tourists, allowing for a comfortable and educational visit.
So I got in touch with my favorite tour guide in Oaxaca - René from Las Bugambilias Tours. He took me on a tour last year to visit the most talented and impressive traditional weavers in the area - so I knew he would be the right person to ask to find the most special and interesting mezcal distilleries as well, on a Oaxaca mezcal tour.
So What Is Mezcal?
In case you stumbled on this post and aren’t familiar with the traditional Mexican spirit of mezcal, let me give you a quick primer.
There are a few things I’m passionate about in life - travel, preaching Latin America travel, and mezcal are probably my top three. Why is mezcal so interesting? Well it’s complex - there are seemingly infinite combinations of the many agave plants to use, various methods of distillation, and even the water used in the process changes the flavor.
It’s a cousin of tequila - made from the same type of plant, the agave. But there are a couple of important differences between the two spirits.
- Mezcal is made from almost any kind of agave plant (And that’s one of the most fun things about it, every varietal gives a different flavor). This video gives more info (in Spanish) about the 159 varieties of agaves in Mexico.
Tequila is only made from the blue agave plant variety.
- Mezcal is made by first roasting the agave plant hearts in a wood burning pit covered in hot stones and a layer of leftover agave fiber to prevent burning. This makes for a very smoky flavor, which is what mezcal is known for.
Tequila is made by baking the agave hearts in an oven which doesn’t give the same smoky flavor.
- Mezcal is the precursor of tequila. It’s been recently discovered that mezcal production dates back to pre-hispanic times. Mari Carmen Serra Puche and Jesús Carlos Lazcano Arce have found evidence that mezcal was made in Xochitécatl-Cacaxtla in the state of Tlaxcala 2500 years ago!
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century in the state of Jalisco.
- Mezcal is almost always made in small batch production on small palenques (farms) using traditional methods. This keeps the traditional culture alive and makes for more varied flavors in limited production bottles.
There are still some small tequila farms, but large companies have dominated the tequila market in Jalisco, causing tequila flavors and production to be more standardized.
If you’ve had tequila, don’t think that mezcal will taste the same! The flavors couldn’t be more different. Tequila always has a similar flavor, though quality can vary. Mezcal flavors run the gamut depending on the type of agave used, if different varieties are blended, and if traditional clay pots or copper, or steel pots are used for distillation.
So now let’s get to the fun part - a Oaxaca mezcal tour to visit the palenques and distilleries where this fascinating and traditional spirit is made!
Oaxaca Mezcal Tour - Visiting the Best Mezcal Distilleries
Lalocura - a Traditional Oaxaca Mezcal Distillery in Santa Catarina Minas
We started our Oaxaca mezcal tour by heading south out of the city to Santa Catarina Minas - a little village of 1500 people but with 14 mezcal distilleries. This town is known for their great mezcal.
We headed to Lalocura palenque and distillery - a Oaxaca mezcal palenque that has been in production for 4 generations. They grow and produce 20 different varieties (!!) of agave, use the traditional method of distilling in clay pots, rather than modern metal pots. They also smash all the roasted agave hearts by hand, rather than using a horse pulling a stone like most mezcal palenques. Lalo Angeles, the mezcal master, is known for his traditional high-quality mezcal and his unique blends.
We toured their small farm, and I was amazed by the quantity and variety of mezcal they can produce in a small space.
First, we toured the fields where they grow their agave plants.
The few large-scale mezcal factories that exist stick to monoculture farming - only growing one type of agave plant (espadin) in large quantity.
Palenques like Lalocura stick to traditional methods of growing many types of agaves. This makes for so many different varieties of mezcal, but also protects their plants in case of disease - not all plants would be harmed at once.
We also saw the workers harvesting the agave plants by hand and separating the leaves from the hearts with machetes.
Roasting Agave Hearts
We then saw the pit where the agave hearts are roasted. They are roasted with wood (mesquite, oak, and pine), covered with large stones that get very hot, and then a layer of fermented agave fibers to protect the hearts from burning.
Smashing the Agave
Maybe one of the most unique things about Lalocura is that they smash the roasted agave hearts by hand. Most traditional farms use egyptian stone mills - a horse that pulls a huge stone over a platform.
We watched the men at the farm use machetes to break the agave hearts apart, and then use an instrument similar to a mortar and pestle to smash the agave fibers apart.
Next the agave fiber is loaded into huge barrels. They add water - first hot water, and then cold water, and allow the fiber to ferment for a certain period of time.
Finally, the agave is distilled. Lalocura adds the fermented agave to clay pots, adds spring water, and then the wood fires underneath do the work to distill the spirit.
Lalocura has two brands of mezcal - Lalocura is the brand you can only buy at their palenque in Santa Catarina Minas. Sacapalabras is the brand that is certified by the Mexican government. This can be purchased in Oaxaca city, Mexico City, and soon in the USA.
Side Note: Government mezcal certification is a pricey and a difficult process, so many producers don’t obtain this. If a mezcal isn’t certified it can still be good, or maybe not, so you need to educate yourself on what good mezcal is, or get good recommendations from experts like René at Las Bugambilias on a Oaxaca mezcal tour.
We then had the pleasure of getting to sample some of these small batch, traditional mezcals. Their tasting room is small and charming, filled with tons of clear glass garafones with many agave varieties and blends.
It was only 11am so we tried to pace ourselves. But ever variety we tasted was delicious, complex, and different from the last. They even had a variety that was infused with cacao (chocolate).
Oaxaca Mezcal Distillery: Lalocura
Location: Nicolás del Puerto, Santa Catarina Minas, Oax.
Gracias a Dios: A Stylish Oaxaca Mezcal Distillery in Santiago Matatlan
Santiago Matatlan is a bit of a larger town with around 8700 people, but an astounding 140 mezcal distilleries. This is the most famous mezcal producing town in the state of Oaxaca. It’s definitely an amazing place to take a Oaxaca mezcal tour, but how do you choose which distilleries to visit?
We had a really pleasant afternoon at the lovely Gracias a Dios. If you’re looking for a hip and stylish mezcal distillery - this is it!
The distillery is run by master mezcal maestro, Óscar Hernández Santiago whose family has been making mezcal for 4 generations. Together with Xaime Niembro, in charge of sales (who coincidentally we realized we met at his cool bar in Querétaro several years ago, how random is that??), they’ve created some amazing mezcal with beautiful labels, and a well-designed distillery and tasting room space.
Gracias a Dios makes mezcal from 4 different agave plants - Espadin, Tobalá, Tepextate, and Cuixe.
Probably the most interesting and exciting thing about Gracias a Dios Oaxaca mezcal, is a couple of their additional unique spirits they make.
Their most popular mezcal is their Mango infused mezcal. They get the mangos from a small producer on the Oaxacan coast so the mango quality is great and local.
I’m typically hesitant of fruity liquors, but this is not what you would expect. The mango flavor is really subtle and the overall flavor is very fresh. I really liked it!
Another super interesting spirit they make is a gin made from agave (rather than the usual grain). They then add in 32 other herbs and flavors. It was so unique and delicious. I could actually drink it straight (which is usually not the case with gin), but I imagine it would be amazing in some summery cocktails.
Speaking of cocktails, their well-designed intro booklet gives a couple of recipes for yummy sounding cocktails using their mezcals and gin. I’m excited to try them out!
Mezcal Production Process
The mezcal at Gracias a Dios is made with traditional methods, in a similar way as Lalocura. The main differences are that the agave is smashed on a grinding platform with a stone that is pulled by a horse. This is the most common way of grinding the agave hearts.
The other difference is that the mezcal is distilled in metal pots.
Sustainability and Ethics
They’re also committed to sustainability - for every agave plant they harvest, they plant 3 more agaves. This is so important because the increasing popularity of mezcal, and the traditional small batch/small farm aspect of mezcal, is causing some agave varieties to be in danger of extinction.
Another amazing initiative by Gracias a Dios, is that they’ve set up a collective for local women to bottle and pack up bottles of the mezcal. The local women are currently doing this process on the grounds of the distillery, but Gracias a Dios is looking to purchase a warehouse for the women to set up, bottle different local brands of mezcal, and then keep all the proceeds.
Oaxaca Mezcal Distillery: Gracias a Dios
Location: S/N 70440,, Independencia, Santiago Matatlán, Oax.
El Sabino/Mezcal Macurichos:
An Innovative Oaxaca Mezcal Distillery in Santiago Matatlan
Down the road in Matatlan, we found the final mezcal distillery we’d visit on our Oaxaca mezcal tour - El Sabino distillery that makes the fabulous Mezcal Macurichos.
We sat to have lunch prepared by the family of mezcal maestro, Gonzalo Martinez Sernas. We had a delicious chicken soup with fresh veggies and tortillas, followed by a tasty and well-prepared traditional tlayuda. As we ate, Gonzalo poured various tasting cups of his limited production mezcal varieties.
As we tasted one mezcal after the other, we could tell that these were special mezcals that were the result of expertise and years of testing, experimenting, and fine tuning.
This family business has had 50 years of experience making mezcal, and only uses organic wild and locally grown agaves. They’ve won multiple awards for their Oaxaca mezcal.
One of the most interesting and unique mezcals that Gonzalo makes is the Conejo.
To explain Conejo, I have to back up for a minute and describe the popular mezcal variety - Pechuga. Pechuga is made by inserting a raw chicken breast inside the distilling pot, often with fruits and herbs. As the mezcal distills, the vapors pass through the chicken breast. The result is a more smooth mezcal which takes on the subtle flavors of the fruits and herbs (but not the chicken). This may sound strange, but the mezcal doesn’t actually touch the chicken, and the resulting mezcal is really delicious!
So Conejo is the same concept, but instead of a chicken breast, they use a rabbit instead. This was a really unique and rare variety, and we enjoyed tasting it.
Gonzalo also specializes in blends. He is passionate about experimenting and testing until he finds the perfect combinations of different agaves.
Blends aren’t very common in Oaxaca. It’s more typical to find a mezcal that is only made from one agave plant. It was interesting to try some of his blends that combined different agaves. I haven’t loved many blends I’ve tried in the past, but Gonzalo’s were interesting, complex, and offered completely new flavors. It was obvious he put a lot of time and work into finding the perfect combinations.
In the same way, he experiments to find the perfect methods for each variety. He argues that using a traditional clay pot is not always the right method for each variety - some agaves taste better using metal pots for distillation. It was really fascinating to hear his take on his years of testing and what he’s found to work best.
Visiting the Agave Fields
Visiting El Sabino’s agave fields, it was obvious that they take great pride in their Oaxaca mezcal. They grow several varieties in different stages of age next to each other so they can keep the production sustainable and varied.
Gonzalo and René explained what the different agave varieties were, and how they were harvested and used in production.
The fields were picturesque with blue mountains in the background and pretty afternoon light.
Oaxaca Mezcal Distillery: El Sabino/Mezcal Macurichos
Location: Carretera Int. Nº 5 Santiago Matatlan. Oaxaca. 70440
Visiting Traditional Pulquerías
At the end of our Oaxaca mezcal tour, we visited two local pulquerías in Santiago Matatlan to sample the traditional beverage.
What is Pulque?
Pulque is a pre-hispanic traditional beverage made from fermented juice from the agave pulquero together with root from the "timbre" tree. It is fermented (rather than distilled, like mezcal), so it is much lower in alcohol content and has a completely different flavor.
Pulque was the main alcoholic beverage in Mexico until the 20th century when beer began to gain popularity. Pulque is now seeing a resurgence as Mexicans and tourists are becoming more interested in learning about and drinking this traditional drink.
I’ve tried pulque in Mexico City and haven’t loved it there. I found the consistency to be more syrupy (or dare I say, slimy?), and the flavor more earthy.
When I’ve tried pulque in Oaxaca, it’s been much more fresh and effervescent tasting. It reminds me a tad bit of kombucha.
Pulquerías in Santiago Matatlan
On our Oaxaca mezcal tour, we stopped at two traditional pulquerías in Santiago Matatlan. Both were unmarked buildings, luckily Gonzalo and René knew where to take us. Inside we’d find a family who was brewing the traditional beverage and they’d pour us a cup to try.
They were both delicious. We even bought a liter to take home with us!
Final Thoughts - Oaxaca Mezcal Tour
I truly had one of my favorite days while traveling on this Oaxaca mezcal tour with Las Bugambilias. Before the tour, I thought I already knew quite a bit about my beloved mezcal, but I learned soooo much more after visiting these distilleries.
Seeing the whole farm to production process demonstrated by authentic and traditional mezcal producers was fascinating and connected a lot of the mezcal facts into a complete story. I now understand the process from start to finish.
And learning different traditional methods and their variations was fascinating. Each Oaxaca mezcal distillery we visited had a different take on how they make mezcal - and they were each interesting and produced a totally different result.
I would highly recommend this Oaxaca mezcal tour to anyone interested in mezcal - whether you’re just hearing about the spirit, or you’re a big fan like me.
You can visit these distilleries on your own (but I would definitely email or call ahead), or you can get the full experience by hiring an expert guide like René to guide you on this Oaxaca mezcal tour. René knows the process inside and out. Even the order of the distilleries we visited was so helpful to understand the story of mezcal in a logical way.
René is bilingual, and his tours are completely customizable. As I mentioned, this was my second time taking a tour with him, and it’s clear to me that he’s an expert about Oaxaca. If I’m going to take a tour, I want to see the absolute best masters and experts in whatever I’m interested in. René of Las Bugambilias tours definitely knows the Oaxaca masters of mezcal, weaving, and more.
Tour Company: Las Bugambilias Tours
Location: Reforma 402, Centro, 68000, Oaxaca, Oax. Mexico,
Mezcal Tour Prices: 1-2 persons: $100 USD per person, 3-5 persons: $75 USD per person, 6-9 persons: $50 USD per person
Contact: [email protected]
Disclosure: This post was written in partnership with Las Bugambilias Tours. All opinions are my own, I wouldn’t recommend anything I didn’t love! I love taking tours with Las Bugambilias so much that this is my second one. 🙂