Oaxaca’s Potent Secret, Mezcal Is Born of Time, Tradition and a Slow-Growing Plant

By Brett Gundlock

This cousin of tequila is handcrafted by farmers in small batches from the maguey plant, which takes 7 to 30 years to reach maturity.

Thomas Jamie Gonzales, a mezcal producer in Villa Sola de Vega, walking through his field of maguey espadín, the most common species of agave used for mezcal. It's easily cultivated, full of sugar and grows relatively fast, in eight to 10 years. Mr. Gonzales contributes to the Tres Colibri collective, which allows small farmers to sell their mezcal under a larger brand name.

Photographs and Text by Brett Gundlock

Mezcal is a drink like no other. “El elíxir de los dioses” (the elixir of the gods) is a potent and largely handcrafted libation that has been consumed at quinceañeras, weddings and funerals for generations in Oaxaca.

Unlike its cousin tequila, mezcal is not easy to produce commercially, limiting its export. And even with a boom in international interest, local mezcal maestros have focused on quality production in small batches. Witnessing the traditional process at a palenque, or artisanal distillery, is one of the few ways to understand mezcal’s cultural significance.

Maguey, or the agave plant used to make mezcal, can take seven to 30 years to mature. There are roughly 30 different species used to make mezcal in Oaxaca, each with a distinct flavor: tobalá, which takes an average 15 years to grow, has a smooth, fruity taste, while tepeztate, which matures in about 25 years, is strong and earthy; you can really taste the plant.

When a maguey plant is harvested, its sugar-rich base, the piña, is dug out of the ground; this “pineapple” is the key to mezcal. The piñas will be covered with rocks in an embers-lined pit and roasted for hours, giving mezcal its famously smoky taste. They are crushed and fermented; the mixture is then distilled several times over wood-burning ovens, yielding a spirit that is rated between 35 and 90 percent alcohol. I find that between 45 and 50 percent is the sweet spot.

Much of my work in Mexico has focused on campesinos in the mountains, who struggle against poverty and drug violence. But the story of mezcal is a positive one, about the opportunity for farmers to be autonomous. While shooting for this article, I slept on cement floors in a storage room, rode in the back of pickup trucks through blistering sun, hiked through rugged sierras near unmarked ancient Zapotec ruins and drank magical, handcrafted mezcal under the stars.

Mr. Gonzales, left, and his nephew Juan Jezus Frutoso loading a harvested piña, its leaves removed by machete, onto the back of a truck. A piña can weigh 100 pounds, depending on the species.
A field of espadín maguey, which will be harvested before it pollinates. There are roughly 30 different species of maguey used to make mezcal, each with a distinct flavor; some take up to 30 years to mature.
From left: Mr. Gonzales, his son Mario Gonzales and nephew Juan Jezus Frutoso preparing the pit to roast the piñas. They burn wood to create embers, add the piñas and cover them with rocks. The hours-long process gives mezcal its distinctive smoky taste.
After the piñas are roasted, they will be fermented and distilled several times to make mezcal. From left, Mr. Gonzales, his nephew Mr. Frutoso and son Mario Gonzales clearing out the fire pit used to cook the piñas.
Juan Jezus Frutoso, 16, harvesting espadín maguey at his family’s farm. A piña of cultivated espadín yields roughly 10 bottles of mezcal, while wild maguey produces less.
Mr. Gonzales in his family’s kitchen on his farm. Most ranches in the small communities that produce mezcal are very modest. The majority of producers sell their mezcal locally; many don’t have a brand name.
A man riding his horse, followed by two dogs, on the dirt road in Villa Sola de Vega. Many who live in rural areas of Oaxaca continue to survive off farming and traditional artisanal practices. Horse-drawn carts and adobe houses are not uncommon.
Eduardo Angeles, the owner of Lalocura Mezcal, stirring maguey as it ferments at his palenque in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca. Mr. Angeles uses an ancestral process to make mezcal: He crushes the maguey by hand and distills it in clay pots.
Ulises Torrentera serving mezcal at his bar Mezcalería In Situ, renowned in Oaxaca for its focus on education, fair trade with producers and high-quality mezcals.
International interest in mezcal is booming, but because it's difficult to produce commercially, exports are limited. From left, Deanna Nairns and Jose Hernandez, visitors from Brooklyn, tasting mezcal at Mezcalería In Situ.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page TR6 of the New York edition with the headline: This Spirit Takes Years to Conjure. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe