Cinco de Mayo the Right Way: Tasting Tequila and Mezcal in Mexico

Important note. I might have sipped a tequila or two or blended a mezcal-based margarita while writing this. Some say, “You can’t sing the blues, till you live the blues,” and I believe this to be true.

Conversely, it’s wrong, unfair, and just outright inconsiderate to write about mezcal and tequila without something to tipple while wandering the keyboard. A cigar might have accompanied the prose.

To many, any day is a wonderful opportunity for a sip of tequila or mezcal, her smoky counterpart, in a cocktail or on the rocks. But celebrating Cinco de Mayo, which is often mistaken as Mexican Independence Day, makes it taste even better.

Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the Mexican army’s defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. So in pursuit of history, Yahoo Travel headed to Mexico, where both spirits originate with agave plants in fields that seem to go on forever.

Blessed with bright, sunny days and cool evenings, the blue agave plant used for tequila, is grown in mile after mile of fields of rich, red soil.

We watch a jimador wearing a cowboy hat and jeans, at work harvesting the giant, 12-year-old blue agave in the Buenos Aires agave fields in Jalisco.

The jimador uses a coa, which has a long pole and a sharp, circular blade, to remove the pointy leaves from the piña, the heart of the agave plant.

For tequila, the piñas, which can weigh over 200 pounds, are then crushed, distilled, and bottled. True aficionados of tequila can visit the distilleries of name brands like Patron, Sauza Herradura, and Jose Cuervo, learning about distilling and aging techniques and sampling bottles that aren’t exported.

At Patron, we sit with master distiller Francisco Alcaraz and sip his liquid gold. Speaking in Spanish, with the same passion that is shared with the master distillers of single-malt scotches, Alcaraz leads us through the Patron portfolio. On one side of the terrace, we’re able to gaze at the acres of maturing agave plants. On the other side of our tasting room, we watch bottle after bottle of the premium spirit being bottled, labeled, corked, and individually numbered before being boxed for shipment to thirsty tequila drinkers around the world.

Our next stop is Cuervo, the same brand that evokes memories of college-aged shots, salt on the back of your hand, a squeeze of a lime into your mouth. But with age, our palate has wisened, our tastes have changed. Maestro tequiliero Francisco Hanal Alfaro leads us to a cask of Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia.

He’s an evil man. Not really, but by dipping into that old oak cask, aged in the Cuervo family’s private cellar, and serving us this top-of-the-line sipping tequila, Alfaro has spoiled us for life.

Those who appreciate tequila must take their evolving palate down to Oaxaca, the home of mezcal. While mezcal is also made from the agave plant, mostly the maguey agave plant, the beautiful flavor of mezcal comes from being smoked for two days or more in an underground pit.

Mezcal resembles the flavors of a fine whisky, yet is relatively undiscovered by Americans. No worries. Wander the streets of Oaxaca and let the open-air mezcalerías lure you in. It might be the music, it might be the crowd. It might even be the paintings on the wall. But follow your gut, fight your way to the bar, and use the man or woman on the other side of the counter as your guide.

The best mezcals never leave the district. Hell, many never even wind up even in an actual bottle — and if they do, no two bottles of the same mezcal look the same. It’s recycling at its finest.

So for some reason our wandering ends at Los Amantes Mezcalería at Allende #107 in the historical district of Oaxaca. A loud, crowded, tiny place without a menu or a price list.

No.They’re not making a mojito or a skinny margarita here.

Bartender Leon Langle is a professor of mezcal and he delights in taking first-time drinkers and aficionados through his extensive collection. Bring a pad and pencil to take notes.

By the end of the night, you’re singing with strangers who are now your best friends. Head back to your hotel past the food carts in the plaza near the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán and try a taco or three.

Happy Cinco de Mayo.