Two soft raps on the door and eyes and a voice appeared on the small screen by the door handle. “Su nombre?”. Apparently I provided the right answer because a second later a loud click indicated the door lock had been released. I pushed open the heavy wooden door and was blasted by a wave of smoky-sweet warm air. The door closed and locked behind us shutting out the noise from the busy city street that now felt a world away. We were standing in a small bar lined with floor to ceiling bookcases filled with bottles of clear mezcal. The labels on the bottles looked like the old library cards that were used to check books in and out back in the eighties. It gave the bottles an appearance of having been shelved as though they were books in a library – each one an ode to a life’s work. A small bar counter snaked its way through the center of the room, staffed by three beautiful women who beckoned us to sit down. There were only seven seats in the whole bar and two had been saved for us. We were in a hidden mezcal tasting room somewhere in Oaxaca City. We had found ourselves here quite by happenstance but they had been expecting us.
A map of Mexico was unfurled in front of us dotted with photos of various agave plants and names of Mescaleros. Our first Mezcal was unveiled and the women began to explain the lengthy process of how to make Mezcal, from the inheritance of the mescalero trade by father to son, to the cultivating of the agave piña. My initial reaction to the bottles on the walls was correct – the bottles signify a life’s work for a Mescalero. The smoky flavor of the mezcals differed with each new taster that was put in front of us. Mezcal is made from many different types of agave plants, different than tequila which is made from just blue agave. Each region boasts its own distinguished smoky flavor.
Oaxaca is a captivating state, distinguished from the rest of Mexico by its unique culinary diversions, incredible weaving and artistry, and of course, mezcal and molés. Four weeks in Oaxaca and no two móles had tasted the same yet. The people of Oaxaca are warm, hardworking individuals with a great appreciation for life and all it has to offer. We began our journey in a discreet bar in the city, but since then had found ourselves with the surfers enjoying beach life to the South, welcomed into a town-wide Mexican fiesta complete with micheladas and a needle fish fishing competition, hiking the mountains to the North and enjoying a quiet village life, dodging alligators and fighting Iguanas in the tropics, relaxing a little too much for my taste beachside in Zipolite, wandering the ruins of Monte Alban, and many móles later we were back in Oaxaca City.
Back in the streets of Oaxaca City, the air was pungent with the smell of a history of molés. We wandered into a late-night street market where women were frying memolitas and men strummed cords on instruments that I did not recognize. The smoky stench of Mezcal filled my nostrils and the spicy sweetness of chocolate warmed my belly. The city was alive and glowing with a warmth that came from within, in a way that only a city that takes the five human senses so seriously could. I could feel, see and smell hundreds of years of tradition resonating through me as I walked the city streets. Flavors pleaded to be tasted, music needed to be heard, the rough wool of Oaxacan rugs begged to be touched. I knew we would be back.