The village of Santiago Matatlan bills itself at the mezcal capital of the world. The arch holding the banner welcoming you into town has a copper still on top of it. I’m from North Carolina and in that part of the world the same type of still is used for moonshine. There is no comparison. Especially when going for a tasting with El Cortijo mezcales.
After our Felted Fashion Workshop ended, Debbie, Leslie, Christine and I went off on an all-day excursion through the Tlacolula Valley. After stopping at Yagul and Mitla, we headed to Matatlan where I had made an appointment in advance with Raul Mendez Zamora, fifth generation mezcal maker, to visit the family home. No one lives there now. It is used for labeling and packaging. It is like visiting a 1950’s museum. This is where Raul’s grandmother came up with the idea of a private label, the first in town.
Raul showed us the original labels, including one with a photo of Brigitte Bardot. Next to this was an antique garafon, or blown glass jar, used to store the mezcal after it went through the aging process.
After a brief introduction into the family mezcal making history, we sat down at the dining room table. Raul asked us if we had the wherewithal to taste five mezcals. We said, aye, yayayaya, that’s a lot. Three ought to do it, we replied! Ultimately, we ended up tasting six, including several of the new limited edition mezcals distilled from wild agave that tastes like herbs from the field.
Raul instructed us. First smell the aroma. Take a bit of the liquor on your tongue for a second then toss it back until your mouth gets used to it. Since we had our trusty taxi driver Abraham, as we moved up the flights from joven to añejo to reposado to the wild agave and finally to the king, pechuga de pollo. The tastes were becoming muy suave. The flights started at 38% alcohol and went up to 54% alcohol. We were sipping slowly.
I can’t say we were borrachitas by the end of it all, but we sure did feel good when we got home to Teotitlan del Valle, only 10 miles away.
During the tasting, we heard the sound of little girl voices from the street. In came a family of basket sellers. We had a great time playing with the children as we prepared to leave, new baskets in hand.
It takes nine years to grow the maguey fruit before it can be harvested. The aging process can be as much as three years in oak barrels — or longer.
The bad news is that El Cortijo is not exported to the United States. Nor do they sell at the Matatlan casa. The good news is that the brothers Raul and Juan Carlos who now operate the business have opened Mezcaleria El Cortijo in the historic center of downtown Oaxaca city. There you can taste and buy! (Two bottles per person allowed into the U.S.)
Mezcaleria El Cortijo, Avenida Cinco de Mayo, between Abasolo and Murguia, across the street from the Quinta Real Hotel (formerly El Camino Real). Tel: 951-514-3939. They are open 6-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.