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There are two big myths about mezcal, the distilled pride of Oaxaca. The first is that a bottle of it always contains a worm. This is true only of the low-grade, mass-produced mezcals, which use the worm as a marketing gimmick.
The second myth is that mezcal is a less-refined version of tequila. Quite the contrary: while tequila is only distilled from the blue agave plant, cooked in steam chambers, and generally made in industrial-sized batches, mezcal is made from dozens of varieties of agave, roasted over a wood fire in a traditional earth pit, distilled, and usually made in small quantities by small producers. The result is a soft, smoky, and complex liquor—one meant to be slowly sipped and savored.
A 2005 law imposed a set of standards on mezcal production, including the certification process. The law's intent was to weed out producers who mixed their mezcal with cane alcohol, but the side effect has been to impose considerable costs on producers, reducing quantities and raising prices. That said, you now know just what you're getting when you see a certified reposado (aged 2 months–1 year in oak barrels), añejo (aged 1–3 years), and extrañejo (aged more than 3 years). Some are aged even more than that, like the 10-year-old Joya.
You can sample mezcal in many bars, restaurants, and shops. One brand to look for is El Señorio, which makes a nice reposado. Tobalá and Del Maguey are small artisan producers. Benevá, a large producer, is pretty good, too, and certainly easy to procure—it has several outlets around town (there's one at Calle Macedonio Alcalá 402) and a tasting room and shop on the road to Mitla.
La Cava, affiliated with Los Danzantes restaurant, sells a variety of quality mezcals along with regional wines and hand-rolled cigars. Gomez Farias 212-B, 2 blocks east of Calle Alcala, Centro Historico, Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, 68000. 951/515-2335. www.losdanzantes.com. Closed Sun.
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