Bartenders love it, bottle shops clamor for it, and American drinkers can’t get enough of its wild smoky flavors. We’re talking about mezcal, and this is its moment. Over the past decade, premium mezcal has become one of the fastest-growing spirits on the market, with sales more than doubling in the last five years, which is kind of shocking when you consider that it’s pretty much flown under the radar of the big-brand marketing machines.
Yet for all its cult cred and bar world buzz, mezcal is, first and foremost, a deeply traditional spirit. While it can technically be produced in eight Mexican states, its soul lives in Oaxaca, where up to 90 percent of mezcal is distilled. Mezcalerías are chockablock in the gorgeous colonial capital of Oaxaca City, ranging from the raucous to the restrained. Any serious education in Mexico’s magical elixir should begin here. Whether you’re seeking an herbaceous espadín or a funky papalometl, these five bars have you covered.
This sleek new spot in the city’s historic center is already a favorite hangout among Oaxaca’s young and thirsty. Owner Jesús “Chucho” Ortiz Cruz treats his bar as an archive of the many expressions of agave from which mezcal is produced. Focusing on the spirits from Mixteca, Oaxaca’s westernmost region—and one with a long history of turning out excellent juice—Archivo sets up immersive tastings of some of its rarest bottlings. If that sounds too cerebral, order a shot and head to the breezy second-floor patio for live music.
The owner of this beloved bi-level bar literally wrote the book on mezcal. Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcalería, the Cult of Mezcal (2000) turned a generation of bartenders and spirit geeks onto Mexico’s native hooch. You’ll find more than 180 varieties, many of which Torrentera discovered during his endless explorations to remote Oaxacan villages. And the massive display of gleaming bottles, meticulously catalogued according to type of agave, method of production and place of origin, tastes as good as it looks.
This lovely blond-wood-paneled bar in the heart of the city center is also an expendio (or drink retailer) that markets a wide array of certified organic mezcal. The selection is constantly rotating as it sources its small-batch spirits from a vast network of local producers. While away an afternoon sampling a variety of styles, from the wild-grown tobaziche to tepextate, whose deep, intense flavors derive from the plant’s 30-year lifespan prior to harvest. Stick around and you might catch one of its events, from live rockabilly to Wes Anderson screenings.
Located in the center of town, El Cortijo has a diminutive size and colorful murals that belie the mezcalería’s deep-rooted history. While the space itself feels chic and modern, the origins of the spirits it slings reach all the way back to 1795, when the Mendez family began distilling its mezcal for local consumption. The brand’s popularity grew, and in 1951, the Mendez family became the first to bottle mezcal in Mexico. Stop by for a taste of its proprietary mezcals, including a nice selection of wild-grown agaves, from spicy pulquero to citrusy cerrudo.
The obligatory first stop for any mezcal pilgrim, this moody wood-paneled bar opened its doors in 2010 with the mission of representing the cultural side of mezcal production. Working with about 50 mezcaleros around the country, the bar bottles its own ultra-premium expressions like madrecuixe, mexicano, tobalá and more, with special emphasis on small-batch production of less than 500 liters. To get the full experience, make an appointment, and the owners will walk you through a personal tasting.
Mixing your cocktail