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More than half of all the tequila is produced in or around the town of Tequila. There are producers in nearby communities such as Amatitan and Arenal. The second-largest producing area is Lost Altos, or the highlands, centred around the town of Arandas, about 135 kms. east of Guadalajara.
Updated May, 2011
Mezcal's Homeland: Oaxaca
Many tourists know Oaxaca only for its Pacific beaches at Huatlulco, or its surfing towns like Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel. But it also the home of one of the oldest civilizations in Central America.
Oaxaca is different from most of Jalisco where tequila is made. It is very mountainous - some of the mezcals (or more properly, mezcales) come from farms at 8,000 feet (San Luis Del Rio) and 8,500 feet (Santo Domingo Albarradas) altitude (2,438-2,590 m).
There are 24 different species of agave in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is the name of both the state and its largest city. The state is the home
to the Mixtec and Zapotec indians. The Zapotec, the Cloud People, were the
second major civilization to emerge in Meso-America, after the Olmec. The
Zapotec used complex Mayan mathematics and are believed to be the first Meso-Americans
to develop writing. Their cities show evidence of trading with and taking
cultural influences from other cultures. Goods from the Olmecs, Teotihuacan and
the Toltecs have been found across the region.
Oaxaca was conquered by the Aztecs in the mid-15th century, but when the Aztec empire fell to the Conquistadors, in August of 1521, so did the rest of the Aztec empire. On November 25, 1521, Francisco de Oruzco arrived in the central valley of today's state and claimed it in the name of the conquistador Hernan Cortes, who had been granted Oaxaca as his prize for the conquering of New Spain by the Spanish crown. Cortes was thereby named Marques del Valle de Oaxaca. The settlement founded by the Spanish in 1521 as Segura de la Frontera, later known as Nueva Antequera, was officially raised to the category of a "royal" city in 1532 by decree of Emperor Charles V (Carlos I) with the name of Antequera de Guaxaca.
The Spanish rapidly transformed the central valley with the introduction of new foods and methods of cultivation. Cortes himself ordered the cultivation of wheat in the Valley of Etla and the construction of mills. The Spanish cultivated sugar cane and imported silkworms. Disease introduced by the arriving Spanish greatly diminished the native population of Oaxaca as did the insatiable appetite for gold which lead more and more Oaxacans into the dangerous mines.
The Aztecs near the mountain top settlement of Monte Alban in Oaxaca had
cultivated a certain species of agave plant for juice which they would ferment
into the beer-like drink they called pulque. The Spaniards, wanting something much more potent,
began to experiment with the agave and may have even attempted to distill pulque
into something stronger. Sometime in the mid-16th century, mezcal wines were
first produced in Mexico, probably in Jalisco, using a combination of Spanish,
native and Filipino knowledge and technology. It didn't take long for the method
to arrive in Oaxaca.
Mezcal production today is still mostly done in tiny, family-run operations, managed along with other business or agriculture.
These small producers may keep their best product for family and friends, and sell their mid- and low-quality mezcal to larger companies for bottling and bulk sales. Some have been convinced to sell their best output to companies that bottle and market their products.
A few companies now sell these better mezcals under premium labels, but the export market remains small and the product is expensive.
Agave plantations in Oaxaca are usually less dense than those in tequila regions. Many of the agave plantations are terraced into the hills. Agaves are planted 1m apart, in rows 3.5 m. apart. Intense production is at 2,000-2,500 agaves per hectare, sometimes as high as 3,000, but because of the rugged terrain and poor soils, some areas are less than 1,500 per hectare. Specialty plantations which feature exotic or rare agaves may be as low as 400 per hectare.
While larger producers use modern production methods and produce blends, they may also make mixto mezcals, generally equivalent to bulk mixto tequilas, but with higher agave content. But even the largest producers are very small when compared with the large, industrialized tequila manufacturers.
Many of the small village producers like Del Maguey's Minero use traditional methods such as clay stills and bamboo pipes instead of copper - a 400-year-old process that was introduced within decades of the arrival of Cortes in the New World.
In part because much of it is still made in small lots by small village producers, mezcal retains more mystical-religious and cultural links with the people than tequila. About 25,000 families in Oaxaca depend on mezcal production for their livelihood.
Oaxaca is also Mexico's poorest state, and in Oaxaca mezcal is a working man's drink, not a premium hip sip.
The people who harvest the maguey and make mezcal are magueyeros and makers of mezcal known as palenqueros. The vendors or producers are called mezcaleros.
Oaxaca's principal industry in the last century has been tourism. With more than 500 kilometers of Pacific Coast beaches, a treasure house of archeological zones, colonial architecture, mountains, valleys, a perfect climate, Oaxaca attracts many visitors. Its infrastructure supports tourism with impressive hotels, restaurants with exquisite regional and international cuisine, folkloric entertainment, an abundance of popular art and handicrafts. Modern airports and the new superhighway to Mexico combine to make the tourist service industry an important source of employment for Oaxacans and an attraction for visitors from around the world.