I will never again refer to mezcal as “the alternative to tequila”. While tequila is distilled solely from the blue agave plant, mezcal can be made from more than 100 different agave species. So you see, this lesser-known Mexican spirit deserves more than 100 times the respect.
The cocktail I tried was mixed using a smokier variety of mezcal and was handed to me by Juan Carlos Riviera Castellanos, the minister of tourism for Oaxaca, the Mexican state where more than 90% of the spirit is produced.
I recently dined with tourism ministers and directors at Santo Remedio in London to learn about the culinary scene in Oaxaca (pronounced “wahaca”, like the British restaurant chain), and mezcal is top of the agenda with Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, governor of Oaxaca, referring to the spirit as “liquid culture”.
“Mezcal was born with the indigenous groups of the region, of which we have 16, and is made by artisans who pass recipes down through generations,” Hinojosa said. “This is what makes Oaxaca so special.”
Castellanos also explained the state’s gastronomy is the top reason for UK travellers to visit.
“We have some of the top chefs in Mexico, and they’re the best because they’re traditional. They go to local markets to source ingredients and their cooking takes time; this is why we have a slow food movement in Oaxaca,” he said.
Some of the Oaxacan dishes I sampled included grilled octopus tentacle with plantain and chintextle (smoked chilli paste) and short rib taco with mole negro, a savoury-sweet paste made from onion, garlic, spices and dark chocolate.
Castellanos was quick to add that Oaxaca also has pre-Hispanic sites to visit and some of the most beautiful – and uncrowded – beaches in Mexico. He added Puerto Escondido has the third largest wave in the world and as a result is a huge hit with surfers.
Between the richness of the food, Spanish conversation and waves of Latino music, I could have been forgiven for thinking I was in Oaxaca.
As one of the only guests who didn’t speak Spanish I was in the minority, but Castellanos didn’t think it was an issue: “Once we drink a couple of mezcales – or maybe three or four – we always speak the same language,” he laughed.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from the UK to Oaxaca. Connecting destinations for UK travellers include Mexico City and Dallas/Forth Worth.
Currency: The Mexican peso.
Visa: No visa is required to enter Mexico as a tourist, but visitors must complete an immigration form on entry and present it again upon leaving the country.