The southern Mexico state of Oaxaca is where about 85% of the country’s mezcal is produced. Over the past decade the traditionally smoky and relatively high alcohol content agave based spirit has spawned a sales boom in and for Oaxaca. Concomitant with that, mezcal tourism has arrived in the region, particularly in the state capital. Travelers flock to the city of Oaxaca and nearby towns and villages to visit artisanal distilleries, or palenques as they’re locally known. They come primarily to learn about the diversity of mezcal production methods, flavor and aroma nuances and industry/agave sustainability. But they also come to get entrepreneurial export projects under way; to buy at a fraction of the price paid in their homelands; to photograph and film the spirit’s rural producers for commercial purposes; and to embark upon due diligence prior to inaugurating their own mezcalerias or bars with a significant complement of different mezcals. So how do you decide what tour company, guide, driver or “expert” to contract for a day or longer, based on your reason for visiting Oaxaca?
The question has resulted in a conundrum for many visitors to the state, because here in Oaxaca now everyone and his brother wants to get in on the action and capitalize by “taking people around” to visit quaint, rural palenques. Regretfully this sometimes results in not what the visitor is actually seeking. The day may consist of simply visits to touristy distilleries on the side of a highway led by a facilitator with only a cursory knowledge of mezcal. Often this “guide” is a generalist at best, with an interest in making money and little more, rather than concentrating upon best servicing his customers, improving the economic lot of modest producers or more generally promoting the state of Oaxaca. And some are not even licensed. Thankfully most guides and the like do not fit into such categories. But the issue remains, as to how the visitor to Oaxaca gets what he/she wants without being misled, either by design or unintentionally.
The easy answer addresses one category of traveler; the visitor who wants to obtain a most basic knowledge of what artisanal mezcal is and how it is made, and to buy a bottle to take home; just like tourists used to do in the 1960s, 70s and 80s when returning from Acapulco with onyx chess sets and garish sombreros. All they have to do is hop on a bus or into van with the rest of the group of camera wielding tourists, and it gets done rather simply, and indeed effectively.
Typically a tour company driver takes passengers along a single fixed route where they can visit, for example, El Tule (the big tree), Teotitlán del Valle (rugs), Mitla (the archaeological site), and perhaps Hierve el Agua (the bubbling springs) and if on Sunday then also Tlacolula (the market town). The tour will of course include one of the umpteen touristy mezcal factories which have been constructed along the side of the highway over the past decade or two. Such a full day does serve its purpose, admirably for many, and for a fairly modest day rate. It meets expectations. The chauffeur might not know very much about mezcal, and rely upon the employee of the mezcal factory to speak and illustrate processes to the busload, which can be fine.
However for most others, that is those who want to truly learn; investigate; sample; buy a higher quality product distilled in clay and/or copper; photograph and/or film, something very different is presumably in order. And this includes perhaps even more so the ever increasing number of visitors to Oaxaca who almost treat agave spirits as a religion, making a pilgrimage to the state for something rather in depth.
Regardless of motive for the visit to Oaxaca, you want to ensure that your needs and desires are met by someone highly qualified to legally address them. You, the customer, or client as I prefer to put it (at least from my personal perspective), have the right to satisfy yourself before committing. You want to ensure that the dollars or pesos you will be paying are commensurate with the service you will be receiving.
The prospective customer/client has right, and an obligation to himself/herself, to ask the hard questions:
• Are you registered with the appropriate government authority to lead a mezcal tour, and if so what are the particulars?
• What are all of your other qualifications, aside from perhaps having spent your entire life in Oaxaca, knowing producers and being an aficionado of the spirit)?
• Is your car or van insured (optional for passenger vehicles in the state of Oaxaca)?
• How long have you been leading mezcal tours, and what were you doing before then to make a living?
• Have your written any books or articles about mezcal, agave and/or sustainability?
• How else do you currently spend your time? Do you also do general tours?
• How do you select which palenques to visit?
• Do you consider yourself a mezcal expert, and if so why, and if no then why not?
• Can you send me references of people who have previously taken a mezcal tour with you, and provide me with their full names and cities of residence?
• Do you receive a commission from the palenques you visit?
• What if anything do you give back to the community, and/or the palenqueros and their families aside from helping them to sell a bit of mezcal (i.e. supporting the families in other ways, donating to charities)?
• Do you have any arrangement with the palenqueros for after people have sampled and decided not to buy anything (i.e. do you give them anything or am I supposed to leave a gratuity)?
For more specialized guidance, you might want to inquire as to what experience if any he/she has had working with photographers and documentary film companies, and/or assisting entrepreneurs to successfully start export brands for other countries or open mezcalerias in Mexico or further abroad.
Now, to be clear, the foregoing is not meant to suggest that you should be asking all of these questions, but rather to provide a range of inquiries from which you can select which are most important to you and which you would not feel overly uneasy asking. Everyone has a different level of comfort.
The most important points of this article are that you want to have your expectations met, feel comfortable with how it is all being done, and be confident that you will receive value added service, all regardless of which aspects of mezcal interest you.