Alvin Starkman, M.A. J.D.
Mezcalerías or mezcal bars in Oaxaca specializing in artisanal mezcal have been opening at a furious pace over the past decade. The meteoric rise in the popularity of the iconic Mexican agave based spirit has spelled more mezcal tourism to the city, both in terms of visitors to Oaxaca arriving from foreign countries, as well as from cities throughout Mexico – to learn, to sample, to buy and to export.
I’m frequently asked “where in the city should I go to drink a range of mezcals.” This, then, is a compendium of mezcalerías in the city of Oaxaca, which includes a couple of local haunts which also serve beer but are nevertheless primarily known for their sale of the agave intoxicant.
It’s important to note the date of this publication, October, 2014, since retail outlets in Oaxaca come and go, especially restaurants, art galleries and craft shops. But in the case of mezcalarías and bars, notwithstanding the vagaries of tourism in Mexico, it is suggested that their numbers will keep growing, and nary a one will close; locales for leasing can be very small with corresponding low monthly rent, people will travel outside of the downtown core into the farthest fringes of the céntro histórico and indeed beyond in search of a “really cool bar,” and mezcal’s star will continue to rise. So today’s list will by definition, and based on the foregoing, be different from tomorrow’s.
The days and hours of operation noted must be taken with a grain of salt. They seem to change at the whim of management, based on level of tourism in the city, and if employees and owners are otherwise elsewhere engaged. But in most cases you can find them open evenings Tuesday or Wednesday through Saturday. Some make a diligent effort to be operational during their published times, even those with morning hours.
In Situ: Morelos #511 [(951)514-1811]. In Situ is one of the most respected mezcalerías in the city. One of the co-owners is author / journalist Ulises Torrentera. The bar boasts over 180 different mezcals, and often hosts evenings featuring a representative of a particular brand, with healthy samples of the product served, and featuring a botana made by Ulises’ partner Sandra Ortiz Brena. Ownership appears to be somewhat tempering its earlier views on cocktails made with mezcal and acceptable percentage alcohol content. Don’t let the main floor bar deceive, since there is an upstairs with tables and chairs for more relaxed drinking.
There are also numerous restaurants throughout the city which carry a wide range of mezcals, both commercial labels and house mezcals, the latter usually noted by type of agave and town of distillation either on the drink menu or a chalk board. The only downside of drinking mezcal in a restaurant as opposed to a mezcalería is that wait staff employed in the former generally do not have the knowledge to be able to appropriately guide patrons to particular products, whereas at least in theory the latter has trained staff on hand with a reasonable level of knowledge.
Regardless of where you imbibe in Oaxaca, it is important to drink a diversity of mezcals and form your own opinion with a view to honing the palate. Many of the mezcals you’ll appreciate in Oaxacan bars, mezcalerías and even restaurants, are not exported from Mexico, and most, especially the ensambles, you cannot even find outside of Oaxaca; so enjoy now.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He is the author of “Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.” Alvin has been enjoying Mexican spirits for over 20 years, and has a personal collection of more than 150 uniquely different mezcals, with over 400 liters stashed in his home.