Oaxaca has so many things to offer — incredible food, beautiful landscapes, charming architecture — but one underappreciated gem is the state’s small, family-run distilleries sprinkled throughout the countryside. Here you find the masters of mezcal, the “elixir of the gods.” It’s a rapidly growing superstar among distilled spirits worldwide.
A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to visit some of these tiny oases in the Oaxacan desert and came back with the memories of five palenques (mezcal distilleries) that are captivatingly beautiful. Such visits are a good way to experience this distinctly Mexican liquor.
While the settings invite flights of fancy, each palenque is serious about the business of mezcal. Come to these distilleries prepared to engage your senses and your mind about this important Mexican tradition.
Run by the Ángeles family, the Real Minero distillery and tasting room got a luxurious revamp in 2018, converting the 20+-year-old family distillery into the bright and modern setting you find today. The company’s offices are set among a vast array of wild agaves that they are planting and propagating to protect against biodiversity loss in the area.
A cozy collection of tables and chairs is set among the gardens for private tastings, and a large outdoor greenhouse demonstrates the results of their cultivation project. A five-minute drive from the offices is where guests can take a tour of the production center. Two massive pit ovens sit under a wooden framed roof, ready to cook up to 10 tonnes of agave hearts at a time.
Five stations set up in the back part of the property demonstrate the ancient clay-pot distillation process traditional to this area, and among rows and rows of aging mezcal in shimmering glass bottles is a small underground tasting room that can be booked for private events.
In the same town as Real Minero, Santa Catarina de Minas, a new distillery, sits in the middle of a vast section of desert: Rambha Mezcal is less than a year old.
With only the cactus between it and the majestic hills beyond, Mezcal Rambha is still in its nascent stage, simply decorated and laid out. A long family-style wooden table takes center stage. Hammocks hang from the posts that support the covered outdoor tasting room, and a string of brightly-colored baubles tinkle in the wind.
The distillery has plans for a full kitchen that will soon provide lunch between sips of mezcal for its guests. A much smaller operation than some on this list, owner and mezcalera (mezcal maker) Rosario Ángeles will take you through the distillation process and even let you try your hand at macerating the agave hearts with a giant wooden pole (that calls to mind The Flintstones cartoon) in a low, narrow “canoe” that is carved into the floor of the distillery. This crushing process for making the agave mash before it goes into the fermentation tanks is typical of the area.
Already hosting visitors on local mezcal tours, Mezcal Rambha is open by appointment with Ángeles. The idyllic setting is sure to tempt you into a post-mezcal siesta in one of those hammocks.
The entrance to Los Amantes distillery and hotel is both inauspicious and tricky to find, but once you are through the gates, the landscaping — which uses endemic plants, cacti and the surrounding views of the countryside — will both soothe your soul and impress you with the property’s expansiveness.
This distillery combines urban industrial chic with the homegrown beauty of rural Mexico. Started by Oaxaca artist Guillermo Olguín, it offers a wide variety of mezcals that will please even the daintiest of palates, including a triple-distilled joven, a double-distilled reposado, añejo and some wild-agave varieties.
The distillery (and mezcal bar in Oaxaca city) works with a local family for most of their mezcal production, using cowhide fermentation and clay-pot distillation, both fascinating techniques to get to know.
Visits are by appointment only right now, but they are open on a regular schedule, and programming a tour is a pretty simple process. Guests can see the distillation area, taste a few varieties in the glassed-in tasting room or even have a picnic in the nearby fields.
The trip out to see the FaneKantsini distillery is half the experience. Located the furthest from Oaxaca city on this list, the three-hour ride south loops through small towns accustomed to welcoming tourists on their way to Puerto Escondido — meaning plenty of tiny eateries and public bathrooms along the way.
Once you hit the town of Sola de Vega, you have to follow a circuitous route out to the FaneKantsini property, passing breathtaking rows of giant agaves, donkeys laboring under their cargo and local folks ambling in and out of town.
This distillery is run by a cooperative formed from a large family of mezcaleros who work together to produce several times a month. Their production area is rustic, with simple cement-floor buildings covered just enough to keep out the sun and the rain.
The surrounding property, however, is a grand expanse of agave fields where the cooperative is growing various types of the plants for production, as well as an undomesticated section of land where wild agaves are being test-planted among the natural vegetation.
The cooperative is working with Mexico’s National Autonomous University to create a seed bank for their plants as well as to ensure the most ecologically sustainable cultivation.
Gracias a Dios
A few years back, three friends who owned a nearby mezcal bar teamed up with local mezcalero Oscar Hernández to create the Gracias a Dios mezcal brand.
Their distillery is at one end of Santiago Matatlán, but its grounds are double or triple the size of the small palenques you are accustomed to seeing along that highway. The mural that greets you on the outside wall is homage to Oscar’s mother, who taught him how to make mezcal after his father died when he was just 12.
With a grassy front patio and the production area set in the back of the property, the grounds feel more like a mini-hacienda than a distillery.
The folks at Gracias a Dios are committed to sustainability: beyond replanting agaves and managing their land in an ecological way (as most of the distilleries listed here do), they also run their distillery on solar power and use rainwater for 60% of the water in their production. Buildings are constructed with adobe bricks, using leftover maguey from the mezcal process.
Visitors can take a tour, do a tasting and even reserve ahead for a home-cooked meal. It’s closed at the moment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Gracias a Dios plans to reopen its doors in April, so get planning!
Lydia Carey is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily.