18 Utah Chefs and Bartenders Travel to Oaxaca in Search of ‘Green Gold’

We sent our writer, Avrey Evans, on a journey to Oaxaca, Mexico with 18 other Utah bartenders and chefs searching for ‘Green Gold’—the agave at the root of a 400-year-old agricultural tradition handed down from generation to generation.

Last April, a group of Utah chefs, bartenders, beverage enthusiasts and wanderlusters headed South to follow the roots of one of our favorite spirits—mezcal. Hosted by an artisanal liquor brand, Wahaka Mezcal, our troop was to take part in this year’s annual reforestation effort in which service workers from around the globe come to Oaxaca to plant agave. With that in mind, I had no idea what else this excursion would offer. All I knew was this would be an experience of a lifetime, and I was yearning to sip mezcal in the motherland. 

Writer Avrey Evans sipping mezcal from a copita, 

Day One

As the fastest-growing booze category in the U.S., agave-based liquors are quickly becoming favorites of leaders in Utah’s food and beverage industry. So, naturally, a trip to Oaxaca drew interest from many mezcal-mesmerized individuals. Once we all arrived in downtown Oaxaca, where Wahaka hosted us at a charming casita, it was time to get acquainted. Turns out, all you need to do is throw in a mix of career drinkers with a few bottles of mezcal, and you become friends pretty fast. Restaurants and bars represented in our boisterous crew were Post Office Place, Sundance Resort, Water Witch, ACME, Lake Effect, Deer Valley Resort, Libation SLC and a healthy smattering of private chefs and hospitality consultants. 

The Avengers assembled, it was time to set off on our first adventure, a tour of Wahaka’s distillery. The open-aired palenque resembled more of a family-owned farm than the industrialized facility one would expect of a large, global brand like Wahaka. Every step of distillation is done by hand, from harvesting the agave piñas, to roasting them in earth pits, to crushing them with a horse-drawn stone mill.

Even the final product is tested by hand, or mouth I should say. To check the ABV of each batch, we watched in awe as a mezcalero scooped nearly-finished mezcal into a bowl and blew bubbles into it using a large straw-like tool. His expert eye can identify the ABV by the speed at which bubbles pop. Mezcal flowed freely while we laughed and learned, all was right in this small corner of the world. 

A horse-drawn stone mill, called a Tahona, crushes agave during mezcal production. Photo by Ben Carpenter

Day Two

On our second day in Oaxaca, it was time to get our boots on the ground and hunt for wild agave in the mountainous outskirts of town. Much of the world’s agave is sustainably farmed, but some rarer variations are still foraged in the wild. In true rural fashion, we loaded into a flatbed truck like livestock and began our search for green gold. Our guides, Eduardo Belaunzaran and Alejandro Santa Cruz pointed out Tobalas clutching at cliff sides and Cuishe growing proudly in the sun, the Utahns gave “oohs and ahhs” and tried unsuccessfully to avoid the menacing barbs that grow on the tips of Espadin plants. 

Later that evening, with Oaxacan earth now firmly in our bodies and souls, it was time to explore the city’s vibrant nightlife scene. The Water Witch/ACME boys connected with a bar owner downtown to host a takeover at Mezcal Speakeasy. Utahns and locals mingled, sipping on delightful fusions of indigenous ingredients and Utah products, like Waterpocket Notom. Of course, there were plenty of cocktails set ablaze by the Beehive boys behind the stick, and our little group of Utahns felt nothing but welcomed by the people of Oaxaca.

ACME and Water Witch bartenders ignite tiki drinks at a local Oaxacan bar. Photo by Ben Carpenter

Day Three

At the crack of dawn on day three, it was time for the main event. Our ragtag crew of sleep-deprived tipplers loaded into a van and set our sights on Wahaka’s fields, where we would be spending the afternoon planting agave. Determined to repay the kindness of our hosts, we worked as one, digging holes and placing Tobala sprouts in neat rows (in which the field workers only had to correct a few times). Our work finished, we stood like proud parents surveying the 500 Tobala plants that would one day be harvested and distilled into Mezcal that those around the world might enjoy. 

Satisfied with our hard-day’s work, we returned to Wahaka’s palenque, where a full-blown fiesta was waiting. A ten-piece band accompanied by a school of dancers offered entertainment throughout the evening. We ate our fill of chicharronnes pulled right off the pork spit-roasted in the back and danced with Wahaka’s entire family that gifted us this extraordinary peek into their world.

When it finally came time for our goodbyes, I began to reflect on how this experience will bleed into our own culture back home. Each of us will undoubtedly bring our own piece of Oaxaca into our respective establishments, from menu creation to spirited conversations with curious customers. And in some small but meaningful way, we’ve left our mark in Oaxaca as well. Between the conversations had with locals, agave planted in fields and stories shared over copitas full of mezcal, there’s a remnant of Utah spirit that will live on down south. Not bad for a bunch of Mormons. 

The Lifespan of Agave

There are over 200 varieties of agave, and Mezcal can be made out of 40 to 50. As Wahaka’s managing partner Eduardo Belaunzaran says, “It’s not a matter of if, but when we will discover how to make delicious mezcal from every type of agave.” For now, some of the most popular agaves include Espadin, Tobalà, Tepextate and Cuishe. Each agave varies in size, shape, flavor and maturity rate; some agaves grow for 40 years until they are ready to be harvested. On our reforestation trip, we planted 500 baby Tobalà plants in Wahaka’s mountainous fields. In 12-15 years, those same plants will be harvested and fermented into an aromatic mezcal with light tropical
and spiced notes. 

Wahaka’s Espadin Mezcal. Photo by Ben Carpenter

About ‘WAHAKA’

Wahaka is a fifth-generation artisanal mezcal producer located in the rural village of San Dionisio Ocotepec, about an hour and a half from downtown Oaxaca. The global brand’s present maestro mezcalero is Alberto Morales, whose knowledge of mezcal distillation was passed down from his father, who learned from his father, so on and so forth.

At the core of Wahaka’s ethos is tradition. Their palenque isn’t crowded with industrial machinery or factory lines, rather simple tools like wood-fired ovens and a horse-drawn stone mill (called a tahona). Listening to Morales’ family interactions offers another glimpse into the past, as they speak their fading indigenous language Zapotec. The native Zapotec people founded one of Mexico’s earliest civilizations in Oaxaca, thousands of years before the Aztecs, today Morales’ family is one of the 12% of Zapotec speakers in Oaxaca.

Downtown Oaxacan street at dusk. Photo by Ben Carpenter

Must-See Things in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a vibrant, mountainous state in Southern Mexico. Its namesake capital city offers no shortage of wonders for tourists to explore. Here are some of my favorite ways to make the best of your time in the city.

Get Lost in the Markets

Oaxacan mercados are lively, to say the least. Each market is housed in a different building, specializing in specific goods and foods. Get your Oaxacan souvenirs at Benito Juarez Market, then head to Mercado 20 de Noviembre for life-giving Aguas Frescas. With a beverage in hand, let your nose lead you to the Pasillo De Humo aka Smoke Hall aka Meat Hall.

Eat Mole, Lots of It

Oaxaca is a gastronomic sanctuary, known for its chocolate, mezcal, and of course, mole. There are seven kinds of mole originating in Oaxaca: Negro, Rojo, Coloradito, Amarillo, Verde, Chichilo, and Manchamantel. You can find mole in most restaurants in downtown Oaxaca, my personal go-to is Rojo over browned chicken with queso Oaxaca on the side.

Cleanse Your Soul at Oaxacan Cathedrals

Santo Domingo cathedral. Photo by Ben Carpenter

Some of the earliest churches in Oaxaca date back to the 16th century, and two of the most popular are right in the middle of Oaxaca City. The Santo Domingo de Guzmán cathedral is Oaxaca’s most famous church, featuring gold-leafed baroque architecture and historical objects on display. Just a few blocks away in Zocalo Square is The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, another remarkable neoclassical church built out of indigenous green volcanic stone. 

Get Swept Away in Oaxacan Weddings

During my stay in Oaxaca, we witnessed two huge wedding parades that practically take over downtown. Live bands, dancers, ten-foot-tall marionettes of the bride and groom, and a horde of weddinggoers march through the streets. It’s common for passersby to stop and enjoy the show, you might even be given a bamboo shot glass that hangs around your neck in which weddinggoers will occasionally offer a pour of rare mezcal. 

Monte Albàn. Photo by Ben Carpenter

Set Off On an Excursion

Two of the most noteworthy and most visited landmarks in Oaxaca are Monte Albán and Hierve el Agua. A large archaeological site of an ancient Zapotec metropolis, Monte Albán includes excavated structures that functioned as a capital city between 500 BCE and 800 CE. Hierve el Agua is a stunning collection of three natural spring pools and calcified waterfalls. The busy tourist spot can see upwards of 7,000 visitors each day, so come prepared with your swimsuit and some patience.

Interested in learning even more about Mezcal? Click here to learn why it’s quickly becoming the most sought-after spirit by Utah drinkers, and the bar with the biggest Mezcal selection in the state.

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Avrey Evans
Avrey Evanshttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Avrey Evans is the Digital and the Nightlife Editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has been writing for city publications for six years and enjoys covering the faces and places of our salty city, especially when a boozy libation is concerned.

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