Wednesday, November 06, 2013

A Night on the El Conjuro Terrace

By design, I'm a casual enthusiast of Mezcal, the distilled agave spirit at the center of Oaxacan culture. See, if I was a true devotee, I'd be in trouble. The best mezcal goes down too darn easy, smooth as silk with a bouquet of subtle flavors blossoming on the pallet. It's distilled in small batches in hundreds of country palenques (alembics?) by true artisans, each with their own ideas about how to pit-roast their agave and more. It's incredibly seductive stuff, created in an array of styles each with it's own signature taste, such as anejo, joven and tobalá.

The complete mezcal experience involves visits to country stills with knowledgeable guides such as Oaxaca resident Alvin Starkman. You can chat with the mezcalero as you sample their wares, and pick up a few bottles of delicious, top grade stuff for a low price.

Recent years have seen an alternative tasting experience cropping up--the Oaxaca centro (city center) has seen a spate of cozy mezcal tasting rooms and bars opening up, serving top quality mezcals. I recently attended a Dia De Muertos craft fare and chatted with the guy at the El Conjuro mezcal booth. He gave me a taste of a smooth, potent "Joven" style mezcal, along with a flyer for the El Conjuro mezcaleria on the terrace of Lokal, a new bar at Constitucion 207 in Oaxaca Centro.

My friend Carrie was visiting for Dia De Muertos, a fellow cartoonist who enjoys a tasty mezcal. Last friday evening, we headed to Lokal for a taste before checking out the Muertos holiday Comparsa in the Jalatlaco neighborhood (a sort of roving costume performance/parade/party with a Muertos theme.)

The entrance to Lokal is dramatically marked by a sculpture carved from a big dead tree stump on the sidewalk, executed in a cross between Oaxaca and Tiki style. You can't miss it! We tumble into the cozy interior and make our way up a steep stairway to the El Conjuro terrace. There is a little stage and seating on one side and a bar on the other. A great spot! Immediately I think, "My band should play here!"

El Conjuro Mezcaleria, Photo: Carrie McNinch

The barkeep Antonio greets us and he's the man, the El Conjuro expert. He explains the offerings to us, certainly too many artisan mezcals to sample in one visit! We taste a tobalá, a variety of mezcal made from wild agave. It's a generous pour for 35 pesos, not too shabby for something very unique and flavorful.

A trio of virtuoso musicians strike up a funky mix of Latin flavored R and B while we taste a couple more varieties, and they are even more delicious than the tobalá. Here is where I admit to being an amateur reporter, I did not write down the names of the other varieties. They were new to me; I'm not sure if they were obscure types of mezcal, or proprietary brand names created by the crafty El Conjuro marketing staff.

Carrie and Steve sample the El Conjuro

It's hard to describe their tastes. Carrie said it's like flowers. It is not perfumey however, it was more earthy than that. Suffice it to say, the art of the mezcalero was all there; the decisions in selecting and roasting the agave, the set up of the palenque (still) be it copper, clay or what-have-you, and the dozens of steps in their distilling process. It all adds up to a complicated, subtle mix of flavor and potent distilled spirits experience.

Reluctantly, we depart the El Conjuro terrace--after all, we don't want to miss the Jalatlaco Comparsa! And it's just as well, mezcal is delicious indeed, but it's a tricky buzz, floaty and mildly psychedelic. Fair to say a little bit goes a long way!

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