In almost every corner of Los Amantes mezcalería in Oaxaca, there seems to be someone or something watching over you. On one wall, it's a taxidermied goat's head. On another, it's a painting of a young, fully nude woman. Behind the bar, there's a papier-mâché person crashing through a glass cabinet.
Los Amantes opened in 2006, before mezcal's exponential rise in popularity. The owners—artist Guillermo Olguin, master distiller Eric Hernández, as well as Ignacio Carballido and Gerardo Rejón—wanted to create a place to showcase their mezcal and educate tourists, both Mexican and international, about the spirit in general. The bar is minuscule; it doesn't even have a bathroom.
While the surrealist-meets-Oaxacan decor is enough to warrant a visit, one of the bar's strong suits is its wild agave mezcal offerings. For the mezcal enthusiast, it doesn't get more interesting than talking to the bar's knowledgeable staff, like Xavier Amayo.
On a textbook perfect evening in Oaxaca's Centro Histórico, Amayo broke down the basics of wild agave mezcal, a.k.a. silvestre. Mezcaleros, like those at Los Amantes, will raise baby agave for a few years before sending it out into the wild to make it on their own. Wild agave is then foraged ten, 15, or even 25 years later—it's not cultivated like the plants used to make most of the mezcal out there.
"You see the agave; they need freedom, liberty," Amayo said.
The wild plants grow all over the place, their roots mingling with the surrounding herbs and plant life around them. Other factors like altitude and soil will change the eventual mezcal flavor profiles.
"This is one of my favorite agaves. I don't know why, but to me it's very very good," Amayo said as he poured me a glass of wild tobalá mezcal.
Tobalá is a short and stout agave that looks a hell of a lot like the Pokémon Bulbasaur. It's one of the smallest agave plants used for mezcal and requires ten to 12 years to fully mature. It's also called "drunkard agave."
Amayo explained how to properly taste the mezcal. You need to start by getting a good saliva going—don't go in with a dry mouth. Then it's time to take a small preliminary sip. "It's natural if [with] the first sip you get a punch, a kick, of alcohol," Amayo said. "This is 45 percent alcohol, so 90 proof. It's a strong beverage."
After that initial jolt to your senses, it's time to take in the mezcal for real with the second and third tastes. "The finest aromas come after the first sip," Amayo said.
As with wine, smelling the mezcal is an important part of the experience. "You're going to get different elements," Amayo said of sniffing from one glass to the next. He prefers drinking from snifters or Champagne flutes that send aromas directly to your nose. You won't see that often in Oaxaca bars, as the norm is to serve mezcal in church candle holders.
Next, Amayo poured some barril and arroqueño. "The arroqueño is one of the biggest agaves," he said. "That's more earthy, it has more roots at the bottom that store more nutrients, more flavors." Each expression was completely different, ranging from spicy to funky to vegetal. None were was sweet as what Amayo calls "the king" of mezcal agave, espadín.
Espadín is the industry standard agave for mezcal. The plant is long and lean—it's the supermodel of the agave family. Its name comes from the word for sword, because those leggy leaves, or pencas, are sharp as fuck.
"Espadín is one of the more friendly and generous agaves," Amayo said. "Some people, mezcaleros, they prefer working with espadín because sometimes they don't want to make a special wild one. It's a lot more work."
A mezcalero needs less espadín than wild agave to make the same amount of alcohol because of the king's sugar content. A wild agave like tepeztate growing way the hell up on a cliff uses a lot of its sugar to just hang in there.
"They use more sugar to survive than grow. That's why they take so much more time to grow," Amayo said. It takes 25 years for tepeztate to mature, about double the time of espadín.
No matter if you're drinking silvestre mezcal or your favorite espadín, you're drinking something precious. Since it took a short lifetime make, take a short lifetime to enjoy it. "Mezcal is a majestic spirit so it has to be [enjoyed] with respect, slowed down. You don't do shots," Amayo said.
He finished the tasting—a mere scratching of the surface of the intricate mezcal world—with a warning.
"Be careful because with mezcal, it's how you feel," Amayo said. "You can be very happy and if you're drinking mezcal maybe you can become magic, smiling. If you are angry, you can finish fighting with people. Mezcal takes out what you have inside. That's why mezcal is a very spiritual beverage. It's unique, spiritual."