Mezcal Educational Excursions Fill a Void

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-10-17-51-amBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The popularity of mezcal has been skyrocketing exponentially, with no ceiling in sight. And Oaxaca is the state where most of the iconic agave-based Mexican spirit is produced.

With increasing frequency over the past few years, both domestic and international travelers have been making a pilgrimage to Oaxaca to learn more about their new favorite alcoholic beverage, and to explore export options to the US and further abroad. But until recently there was no readily available avenue in the central valleys of the state to provide visitors with an in-depth mezcal education about the various artisanal production methods, the cultivation and harvesting of the species of agave (or maguey) used in distillation, the hows and whys regarding the plethora of flavor and aroma nuances, the culture of rural small batch distillers, and what distinguishes mezcal from tequila.

Sure, traditional tour companies were offering (and continue to offer) day excursions to visit the big tree, the rug village, a ruin, the bubbling springs and a mezcal factory, all in a few hours. But many travelers to the region began wanting more; that is to get off the beaten track and truly learn about all aspects of mezcal production by visiting small, un-touristy factories (or palenques as they’re commonly known in Oaxaca).

My knowledge about and passion for mezcal had been growing for more than 20 years, initially as a visitor and then resident of Oaxaca. I began by seeking out artisanal distilleries, socializing with the makers of the spirit (palenqueros) and gaining their confidence. I realized that there was a niche that was not being filled; visitors to Oaxaca wanted more than to simply scratch the surface. But I didn’t want a full-time job, having retired in 2004 from being a Toronto litigation lawyer and previously a social anthropology instructor. I decided I would only work part-time, teaching novices, spirits aficionados, people in the bar and restaurant industry, and those contemplating an entrepreneurial export endeavor. I obtained permission from three branches of the federal government (immigration, the tax department and the economy), not an easy task since foreigners are not permitted to take business away from Mexicans. But Mexicans apparently were not filling the void. Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca was born.

“We had such an amazing time with you on the mezcal tour Saturday. It was the highlight of our trip. The experience you provide is truly amazing — a wonderful, balanced combination of exploration, education, and revelry!”

Jennifer Jordan Fox, Denver, CO (November, 2016)

I have several routes in Oaxaca’s central valleys, some of which extend deep into the mountain regions. A typical day for first- timers out with me begins in downtown Oaxaca in the morning and lasts roughly seven hours. This is not an excursion with anything pre-arranged with palenqueros (unless I’m working with a photographer or documentary film company, or providing an in depth “City Slickers” experience entailing participating in every phase of production). I never know with certainty what stages of production we’ll see where and when. However the object is to show my clients as many stages of production as possible, sourcing palenques as the day progresses. The experience is intended to illustrate:   agave reproduction, growth and harvesting; its baking in an airtight oven over firewood and rocks; crushing both in a rudimentary manner with a wooden mallet as well as traditionally by a horse, mule or team of oxen pulling a heavy round stone (tahona) over the baked sweet maguey; open air fermentation; and distilling using ancestral clay pots and typical copper stills or alembics.

“Thanks for an amazing experience! Our Oaxaca trip wouldn’t have been complete without this educational exposure to the rural families behind mezcal.”

Jae De Veyra Pickrell, Manila, The Philippines (October, 2016)

One cannot fully appreciate mezcal without having an opportunity to interact with the palenqueros and their families. I ensure that we have an opportunity to visit the makers of this fine alcoholic beverage in their homes, usually rather humble abodes. There we speak to these welcoming men and women, and often their children who are being groomed from as young as five years old to become experts at all aspects of their family’s production. While I am acquainted with more than 50 palenqueros, the ones I visit must have congenial personalities, and provide mezcal that is both high quality and of an accessible price, that is a fraction of what similar products would cost in retail outlets internationally or even in Mexico.

“Kathleen and I want to thank you for the most enjoyable tour the other day. We left with knowledge and appreciation that we did not possess beforehand about Mezcal. Your passion and honesty made the experience so much more than we have had on other tours. Keep up the fantastic work and we look forward to being able to share both our new found knowledge and Mezcal with our family and friends back in Australia.” Sean Douglas, Ararat (Melbourne), AU (November, 2016)

One of my objectives is to expose clients to a vast array of different mezcals through sampling, so as to enable them to gain an appreciation of the different nuances and how they are created. It is indeed true that no two batches of artisanal mezcal are the same. Though the day provides several buying opportunities, no one is ever under an obligation to purchase anything and I ensure that there is never any pressure to do so.

As long as at the end of the journey my clients feel that they have substantially increased their knowledge about this exquisite agave-based spirit and its makers, that they have had an enjoyable experience, and that I’ve instilled in them some of my passion towards mezcal, I’ve done my job.

“I wanted to again say thank you very much for an amazing day yesterday! It was truly a tour of a lifetime! We learned so much and enjoyed our day very much!”

Jamie Sullivan, Cleveland, OH (August, 2016)

The foregoing quotations were all unsolicited. The clients have only been asked to provide Alvin Starkman with express written permission to reproduce them. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (