This is my fourth week in Oaxaca, Mexico and I’m still not bored of the food, the city, or the
people and I don’t expect I ever will. It seems there are endless things to discover here and I will
never stop learning or enjoying this place! For example, this week we traveled to a small town
called Ocotlan that was about a 50 minute drive from the city. Here, we learned about the process
of making mezcal, a popular alcoholic drink in Mexico that has recently enjoyed a lot of
worldwide popularity. In the city, there are multiple vendors for mezcal that can be found in the
streets or in legitimate stores but it’s hard to comprehend how much time and effort it takes to
make such a small amount of the drink.
Firstly, a liquid is harvested from the maguey plant, a type of agave plant which is native
to Mexico, and later distilled into the popular drink. The plants from which this liquid is
harvested take many years to grow and mature, some as long as 40 years. When they are finally
mature the “piña,” or the plant after the leaves have been removed, is taken and roasted in an
open air pit in the earth during a process that takes a total of 5 days to complete (which gives it a
unique smokey flavor). After this, the piña is ground and put in large vats to ferment. After a
period lasting from months to years, the fermented piña is then placed in a distillery. In the
“fábrica” or factory we visited, the mixture is distilled between 1 and 3 times to give a smoother
taste. The most expensive sold by this fábrica was distilled 3 times and had a chicken breast
introduced at this stage to give it a unique flavor.
The culture behind mezcal has put Oaxaca on the map and the rate of exportation has
grown accordingly. This, however, has begun to take a toll on the smaller-scale producers who
often use family recipes passed down from generation to generation and old-school distillery
practices. The guide we talked to said that the recipe used at another local fábrica had been lost
after the owner died because none of his five sons had learned the craft. Also, because of such
high demand, a local artesian who produced an important part of the fábrica’s distillery process
was unable to keep up with his orders. Therefore, the production of the fábrica’s mezcal has been
hindered. These factors are just a few affecting the small-scale and mostly family-run distilleries
now that demands are growing and traditional production processes are struggling to keep up.
In learning about the local economy of Oaxaca and the industries that dominate it, like
that of mezcal production, we are continuing to discover the difficulties and problems that befall
many of the local artesians as they try to make a living here.
In addition to visiting this local distillery, we also traveled to the city center of Ocotlán
and visited a museum dedicated to the famous painter, Rodolfo Morales. The museum was
located in an old monastery whose restoration was a gift to the community by Morales and is
home to many of his original paintings. A mural painted by Morales himself was featured in a
small section of the ex-convent that features many aspects of Mexican life including people
working in the fields, weaving rugs, and selling things at the market.
Luckily, we decided to travel to Ocotlán on Friday, the same day a weekly market was
held in the town square just outside the convent. It was incredibly extensive, selling everything
from bowls of tejate, an ancient Zapotec drink, to leather shoes and backpacks. This market has
been going on for centuries and photos of the market during the restoration of the ex-convent can
be seen in the museum.
Can’t wait to see what the coming months have to offer!