Shopping for Mezcal

Tobalá maguey
Tobalá maguey

I’m all out of mezcal, and I’m drinking Cîroc French grape vodka, good in a pinch but very expensive. So I ask the receptionist at a hotel where I distribute the magazine where to buy the best mezcal. “Tourist mezcal?” he asks, “or is it for you?” “For me,” I reply. And he sends me to a small shop in the center of town where he says they have tobalá from Sola de Vega, adding that I must bring my own bottle.

Tobalá is distilled from wild agave [maguey] and is thus rarer and more expensive than other mezcals. I think it’s safe to assume that most “tobalá” sold in Puerto isn’t the real McCoy, but I honor the pretense. People are less likely to sell you adulterated rot gut if they think the liquor is good enough to pass for the real thing. At least that’s my thinking. Tobalás cost over $100 U.S. for a 750 ml bottle up North.

The shop sells second hand clothes, cosmetics, and a host of other unrelated items. I tell the woman behind the counter that I heard they had tobalá. She allowed that her husband had bought some for his own use. Then I mentioned the hotel receptionist, and her face lit up. “Did you bring a bottle?” she asks; I bring her one from the car. I always carry an empty bottle in the trunk just in case the opportunity arises. She tells me to return the next day.

Many mezcal aficionados will tell you the best stuff comes from Sola de Vega. A friend in Oaxaca who wants to cash in on the highend export trade to the U.S. scouts that region’s small producers. I was treated to his latest find; it was smooth enough and it had an unusual bouquet which I later identified as licorice. Of course, it wasn’t. There is no licorice in Oaxaca. It was just some mystery of the soil.

When I went back for my mezcal I found out it cost 113 pesos. The price was 115 a liter, but since my bottle was smaller I got a discount. The shop owner was apologetic about the high price — around $6 U.S. The cheap mezcal in Puerto goes for 40 pesos a liter, a little over $2 U.S. I don’t recommend it except for cleaning wounds.

Whether it really was tobalá or not I’ll never know. But it was very smooth, a little on the sweet side and somewhat spicy. The perfect night cap and to share with friends.

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