One of the super strange things that a mezcal obsessive notices while tramping around Oaxaca is that if you’re stuck in your North American head space you keep wandering into retail stores and not finding any mezcal to buy. If this was, say, Napa or Sonoma, stores would be everywhere to put their native alcoholic beverage front in center so that you couldn’t leave town without buying at least a few bottles.
But Oaxaca, and Mexico in general, are different places with their own rules about how things are done. I know, it seems quaint but these are fundamentally different rules of the road and they even have something to tell places like California. What you do notice while strolling Oaxaca is that everyone seems to be opening a mezcaleria and offering their own white labeled selection of mezcals at restaurants. But given the city’s reputation as the center of mezcal (yes, we know great mezcal is produced everywhere else in Mexico, take a chill pill, we’re talking about reputation here) you’d expect little stores next to all the craft emporia selling all the great small bottlings produced by the most remote corners of the state.
But as you stroll the streets you’d be hard pressed to find one, nary a Bi Rite or Healthy Spirits of mezcal to be found. This last trip I poked my head around corners expecting something, anything, and finally found a few places. Mis Mezcales is next door to Mezcaloteca on Reforma, it’s unclear but feels like they’re drafting off Marco Ochoa’s success. No matter, they offer a limited if nice selection of artisanal mezcals; kind of proves my point. There’s also a little shop tucked into a revamped mini-mall off Alcalá called Plaza Santo Domingo. Many of the puestos in the Benito Juarez market (main market just off the Zócolo) now carry a decent selection of artisanal mezcals, though at a premium price. And one of the funniest, if most well stocked, is a supermarket off the west side of the Zócolo – funny because they stock El Jolgorio rip offs and a bunch of strange mass market brands among all the artisanal bottles.
But what this absence of speciality mezcal retail really reveals is a different way of doing things because, unlike the horribly restrictive laws about alcohol in the United States, you can buy bottles of mezcal from tasting rooms. So, if you want a fantastic artisanal bottle head to Mezcaloteca and go through their introduction to mezcal then buy bottles of your favorites. Ditto In Situ, Cuishe, and many others. And that’s not even mentioning the palenques where you can buy right from the garafone. You may not get the sommelier or specialty retail chatter but you will find earnestness, fantastic selections, and a real direct connection with the makers which puts the lie to the branding idea. Who needs one when you’re talking to the guy who distilled your mezcal?
Of course it would be nice to have a few more mezcal boutiques for all the palenques that you couldn’t visit, maybe we could just get a store in the airport staffed by someone that Ulises trains?