Oaxaca has an abundance of great things to drink. There are icey aguas de sabor which, like lemonade, are made of almost any fruit, water and sugar. (Cucumber and lime is an especially wonderful combination.) There is organic Oaxacan coffee. There is pulque (POOL kay) which is fermented cactus juice and there are sweet atoles made hot with corn or rice and sometimes flavored with cinnamon.
But perhaps the most famous and distinctive Oaxacan beverage is mezcal.
Mezcal is a strong liquor made from the heart of the maguey cactus. It is similar to tequila in many ways except the varieties of cactus used to make mezcal are different. And mezcal makers – palenqueros – cook their cactus chunks in underground fires which give mezcal an often smokey flavor that tequila doesn’t have.
Mezcal is always poised in the wings waiting to win global recognition but, like the finest Oaxacan coffees, it continues to wait. It has historically been a local drink and was even sold in recycled tequila bottles which only added confusion to its obscurity.
One small but mighty force working to bring mezcal into its own is Cuish. Cuish is both a brand name of mezcal and a species of maguey cactus. Their 9 varieties of mezcal – made from 9 different species of maguey – are being sold in more and more restaurants and bars in Oaxaca. They started by selling 10 peso shots of mezcal out of their tiny store front/bar and are now working to distribute Cuish mezcal throughout Mexico and into the United States.
But they maintain their presence at the edge of Oaxaca’s red-light zone. And after experimenting with an art gallery on their second floor they seem to have settled on using that space for a trendy – but unpretentious – nightclub. You can still visit the store front, however, for a shot or two. Settle into one of their five bar stools and taste the notable differences between a mezcal made of espadín maguey and one made of mexicano maguey. Both fiery but with easily distinguishable flavors and aromas.
Cuish has 39 palenqueros growing maguey and making mezcal around the state of Oaxaca. Though still the punk kid on the block they have deservedly earned the respect of mezcal aficionados. (The edgy exhibits during their art-gallery phase were all centered on maguey cactus and mezcal. One show was called Under the Effects.)
Mezcal drinking is developing an intentionality and seriousness along with a sometimes snobby vocabulary and competitiveness. Fortunately, after a couple of shots, the seriousness disappears and it’s easy to see why this distinctive drink has held its place in Oaxacan culture.
Cuish is located at Diaz Ordaz 712
Photos thanks to:
http://girlunstoppable.com/2011/12/places-to-try-mezcal-in-oaxaca-mexico/; http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7161/6433986487_efe3fc8373_m.jpg; http://www.arteycallejero.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/IMG_4149.jpg
text thanks to Gordon, a great friend of Hotel Azucenas and 5 year resident of Oaxaca.