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Mezcal 101: The Modernization of Mexico’s Smoky Sip

“Mezcal has been produced here in Oaxaca for at least four hundred years,” Silvia Philion tells me from behind the bar at Mezcaloteca, one of the city’s most prominent mezcalerias. After several years marketing traditional mezcal in Mexico City, her and her partner founded the business five years ago as a way to connect mezcal lovers to traditional maestro mezcaleros - master mezcal makers - from various towns in the southern state.

While mezcal is developing a reputation for its complexity and richness, both in culture and flavor, it hasn’t always been this way. For hundreds of years after the Spanish arrived, bringing the distillation process with them, mezcal was made in several states in Mexico using traditional methods: mature magueye plants, some of them decades old, are crushed by hand or by stone, fermented in barrels or pits, then distilled in copper or clay to a potent liquor.

“Traditional mezcal,” Silvia says after teaching me the proper way to sip from the jicarita, a small half-gourd, “is always at least 45% alcohol.” More importantly, traditional mezcal is made by maestro mezcaleros who produce spirits, using local cultivated or wild plants, and specific methods, in order to produce a liquor to the preference of the local townspeople. “Every village has its own prefered flavor, and traditional mezcal is always made for the people in the town where it is produced.”

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