The state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, is where around 85% of the country’s mezcal is produced. Over the past decade, the agave-based aguardiente, traditionally smoked and relatively high in alcohol, has generated a sales boom in and for Oaxaca. Concomitantly with that, mezcal tourism has arrived in the region, particularly in the state capital. Travelers flock to Oaxaca City and nearby towns and villages to visit the artisan distilleries, or palenques, as they are known locally. They come primarily to learn about the diversity of mezcal production methods, nuances of flavor and aroma, and industry/agave sustainability. But they also come to launch export business projects; buy at a fraction of the price paid in their home countries; photographing and filming rural aguardiente producers for commercial purposes; and begin due diligence prior to opening your own mezcalerías or bars with a significant complement of different mezcals. So how do you decide which tour company, guide, driver or “expert” to hire for a day or more, depending on the reason for your visit to Oaxaca?
The question has turned out to be a conundrum for many visitors to the state, because here in Oaxaca now everyone and their brother want to get in on the action and profit from “taking the people” to visit quaint rural palenques. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in it not being what the visitor is actually looking for. The day may simply consist of visits to touristy roadside distilleries led by a facilitator with only a cursory knowledge of mezcal. Often this “guide” is a generalist at best, interested in making money and little else, rather than concentrating on better serving his customers, improving the economic situation of small producers, or, in In more general terms, promote the state of Oaxaca. And some are not even licensed. Fortunately, most guides and the like don’t fit into such categories. But the problem remains, as to how the visitor to Oaxaca gets what he wants without being misled, either by design or unintentional.
The easy answer is for one category of traveler; the visitor who wants to gain a more basic understanding of what artisan mezcal is and how it is made, and buy a bottle to take home; as tourists used to do in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when they returned from Acapulco with onyx chess sets and garish hats. All they have to do is hop on a bus or van with the rest of the camera-wearing tour group, and it’s done quite simply and effectively.
Usually, the driver of a tour company takes passengers along a single fixed route where they can visit, for example, El Tule (the big tree), Teotitlán del Valle (carpets), Mitla (the archeological site ) and maybe Hierve el Agua (the bubbling springs) and if it’s Sunday then also Tlacolula (the market town). The tour will, of course, include one of the countless touristy mezcal factories that have been built along the highway over the past decade or two. Such a full day serves its purpose, admirably for many, and for a fairly modest daily fee. Meets expectations. The driver may not know much about mezcal and will rely on the employee at the mezcal factory to talk and illustrate the processes for the entire bus, which may be fine.
However, for most of the rest, they are the ones who really want to learn; investigate; sample; buy a higher quality product distilled from clay and/or copper; photography and/or film, presumably something quite different is needed. And this includes perhaps even more the increasing number of visitors to Oaxaca who almost treat the agave spirits like a religion, making a pilgrimage to the state for something quite profound.
Regardless of the reason for visiting Oaxaca, you want to ensure that your needs and desires are met by someone highly qualified to legally serve you. You, the client, or customer as I prefer to say it (at least from my personal perspective), have the right to be satisfied before you commit. You want to make sure that the dollars or pesos you will pay are proportional to the service you will receive.
The client/potential client has the right and obligation to himself to ask the difficult questions:
• Are you registered with the appropriate government authority to run a mezcal tour, and if so, what are the details?
• What are all your other qualifications, besides maybe having spent your whole life in Oaxaca, knowing the producers and being a fan of the spirit?
• Is your car or truck insured (optional for passenger vehicles in the state of Oaxaca)?
• How long have you been leading mezcal tours and what were you doing before that for a living?
• Have you written any books or articles on mezcal, agave and/or sustainability?
• How else do you currently spend your time? Do you also do tours in general?
• How do you select which palenques to visit?
• Do you consider yourself an expert in mezcal, and if so why, and if not why not?
• Can you send me references of people who have previously done a mezcal tour with you and provide me with their full names and cities of residence?
• Do you receive commission from the palenques you visit?
• What do you give back to the community, and/or to the palenqueros and their families, other than helping them sell some mezcal (ie supporting families in other ways, donating to charity)?
• Do you have any arrangements with the palenqueros for after people have tried and decided not to buy anything (ie do you give them something or am I supposed to leave a tip)?
For more specialized guidance, you may want to ask what experience, if any, you have had working with photographers and documentary companies, and/or helping entrepreneurs start successfully exporting brands to other countries or opening mezcalerías in Mexico or beyond. .
Now, to be clear, the above is not meant to suggest that you should ask all of these questions, but rather to provide a variety of queries from which you can select which ones are most important to you and which ones you wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable about. asking. Everyone has a different level of comfort.
The most important points in this article are that you want your expectations to be met, to feel comfortable with the way everything is being done, and to be sure that you will receive value-added service, regardless of what aspects of mezcal you are interested in.