There are elements of Oaxacan life that are wonderfully intrinsic: tlayudas (large flatbreads with blue corn); calendars (joyful and impromptu street parades); and the region’s iconic black pottery. And then there is the mezcal. The tangy and slightly sweet spirit is a mainstay of Oaxacan culture. Walk into any family home and you’ll find a bottle (or three) on the dinner table. It is even served at religious events, such as funerals and baptisms. In Oaxaca, drinking mezcal is not just about getting drunk. It’s quite a state of mind.
“You get a great mole plate with grated chicken and rice; maybe quesillos, tortillas, tlayudas. And you sip mezcal, ”says Fausto Zapata, co-owner of Casa Silencio, a new six-room boutique hotel on the outskirts of Oaxaca city. “It’s just heaven.” Zapata and I sit at his hotel’s outdoor dining table, nestled in a lush valley prone to frequent rainstorms. For now though, the sun is breaking over the valley floor and I can see dark silhouettes of distant mountains illuminated under bright, fluffy clouds. We just finished lunch: a simple spread of pan amarillo tlacolula sandwiches, green salad and tostadas with creamy guacamole. On the table, a few bottles of his own “rare agave” spirits, which surprise me with aromas of chocolate, spices and fresh papaya. I’m generally a whiskey drinker, if I drink at all, but this alcohol is more subtle and more floral than its corn-based cousin. It also helps that I’m sitting a few feet from the room where they make the stuff.
Zapata is a fan of the Mexican concept of sobremesa. There is no direct English translation, but it does refer to the act of lingering at the table long after a meal, talking, sharing stories, laughing, and (yes) sipping mezcal. It’s a perfect ritual for a hotel that also serves as a production site for Zapata’s international mezcal line, El Silencio. Right next to the dining room is the palenque (distillery), where a tahona, or half-ton stone grindstone, crushes the agave hearts into a vinegar pulp; the fibers are then placed in giant wooden barrels to allow the sugars to turn into alcohol. The process, like anything worth doing, takes patience. And eating next to these slow-fermenting plants reminds me of how good it feels to linger in one place. After all, I am in Mexico. What is the rush?