La Ruta del Mezcal

Agave field at the palenque, Mal de Amor.

February 22 – July 4, 2023.

Five years ago when we were traveling around Mexico we discovered Mezcal. Since then we have been on a quest to learn more about this distilled liquor. When we found ourselves stuck in Oaxaca for 4 months, we had the perfect opportunity.

To be considered a true mezcal, it must be produced in particular areas. Nine Mexican states have certified mezcal growing areas. Oaxaca has 570 of the 625 mezcal production facilities in Mexico and produces 90% of the mezcal in Mexico. If you can find mezcal in your local liquor store, most likely it says Oaxaca somewhere on the label.

Mezcal is similar to tequila. Fun fact – all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. They are both made from the heart of an agave plant (called piña) but use different processes. To make tequila the piñas are steamed in above-ground ovens. For mezcal, the piñas are roasted in rock-lined pits, covered in dirt. Mezcal has a distinctive smokey flavor.

Harvested agave plants with their leaves removed (piñas) ready to be buried and smoked.

The Ruta de Mezcal

Oaxaca’s Ruta de Mezcal runs 30 miles along a stretch of the Pan American Highway that starts in Oaxaca City and terminates in the small town of Santiago Matatlan, known as the “World Capital Of Mezcal.” Along this route, there are many small bodegas where you can buy bottles of mezcal or stop for a sip.

A mezcal bodega in El Tule.

When mezcal-appreciating friends, Mel and Santino, showed up at the campground we were staying in El Tule, outside of Oaxaca City, we made plans to do the Ruta. Because the main activity of the day would be drinking and we didn’t want to drive, we hired a taxi.

The plan was to take the taxi to Matatlan, visit a few distilleries and bodegas there, and then to mezcal hop our way back to the campground taking buses and collectivos.

Santino being Costa Rican and fluent in Spanish hopped in to the front seat of the taxi to chat up the driver. But a mile or so from the campground Santino turned to the rest of us in the back seat and said that the taxi driver wanted to make a stop first at a palenque (mezcal distillery) on the way. He told Santino it was very authentic and totally off the beaten track. The taxi ride was a set price so we were a bit surprised that he wanted to stop – and since we weren’t going to be paying extra for this time we said yes.

The driver turned off the highway and drove about a mile through a town with narrow streets and dirt roads. He stopped in front of a large fence with a gate opening to a dirt driveway. Agave fields lined either side of the driveway. A brick building was just beginning to be constructed. The driveway terminated at a tall awning that shaded an outdoor distillery.

Cinco más Uno

Cinco más Uno in February of 2023.

We were greeted by Geraldo the owner of Cinco Más Uno (Five plus one). Geraldo spoke to us in Spanish. Even with our limited Spanish skills, we understood much of what he said and of course, we had Santino to translate. A family-owned business, Geraldo told us that the name is for 5 generations plus one (himself). He explained to us how the mezcal was produced and gave us a tour of his palenque. We watched the distillery process in action. We tasted the sweet cooked agave fiber and the fermenting agave (maguey) out of round cups. Then he showed us to a small table where we had a tasting. We sat on plastic crates and chairs as Geraldo brought out his sample box of 12 different types of mezcal.

Geraldo described each mezcal as he filled an ounce cup half full for us to taste. After the first few I had to keep saying “Solo un poquito,” (Only a little) and eventually, “No más.”

The mezcal was the best we had ever tried. We wanted to buy a bottle but we were just getting started on our tour and didn’t want to carry it around with all day. We told him we would be back (and we would be, many times, bringing more friends).

We left Cinco más Uno and continued on our way to Matatlan. We had the driver drop us off right outside of town at a palenque called Fábrica de Mezcal Mal de Amor. It is not expected to tip taxi drivers in Mexico, but we were so pleased with the detour, we gave him a gratuity of 50 or maybe 100%, I don’t remember anymore.

Mal de Amor

Mal de Amor as seen from the Pan American Highway.


Mal de Amor (Love Sick) was a long inviting red brick building right on the highway. Large colorful letters spelled out Mezcal right out front. The entrance was nicely landscaped and had a cute patio. Inside there was a bar lined with bottles of mezcal and a colorful dining room where we had lunch.

When we finished our lunch one of the palenque’s tour buses was about to leave, so we hurriedly bought tickets and jumped into the back of a truck shaped like a barrel.

We were hoping for a similar experience to the one we had at Cinco más Uno, a tour and a tasting afterward. But as soon as everyone was seated on the bus, our tour guide held up a bottle of mezcal and said, “We have three of these and we need to drink them all before the tour is over.” Besides us 4 there were only 3 other people on the bus, some young Mexicans, seemingly shy sitting in the back.

The guide told us in Spanish and English a little about how agave was grown and harvested as we traveled out to an agave field. We learned some more facts after the bus stopped and everyone disembarked and walked out among the rows of agave plants. Then with a bottle of mezcal in hand, our tour guide broke off an agave leaf and we all took turns having mezcal poured into our mouth using the leaf as a funnel. Back on the bus, it was karaoke time. Our guide sang songs, the young woman from the back of the bus sang, Santino sang, and even Greg came up with a song he could sing in Spanish.

The bus left the fields and drove into the town of Matatlan. There we stopped again and disembarked. After some dancing in the street we were led into someone’s backyard. We sat under a shaded patio where we learned about and had a tasting of some other fermented beverages. Afterward, our guide and driver waited patiently as we danced our way back into the barrel.

Back at the palenque the shy young people in the back were now our friends. One of them was given the last bottle with a few swigs of mezcal left and he downed it. Success!

It was getting late by then and we were planning our mezcal hopping trip back to the campground when the copious consumption of alcohol started catching up to a few of us. We flagged down a couple of collectives, each with room for two, and paid for a “special” back to the campground.

The next day Mel and Santino had an unexpected real estate opportunity elsewhere and decided to head out. Greg, keeping his word, returned to Cinco más Uno to buy some mezcal. We were vehicle-less at the time so he walked the 3.5-mile round trip.

As we made new friends in the campground we would share our mezcal with them and tell them about Cinco más Uno. We made more trips there with friends and Greg made many on his own once we discovered that there were bicycles at the campground that could be borrowed.

A couple of our friends who we had introduced to Cinco más Uno, Michael, and Layne, left the campground and then returned months later. They want to visit the palenque again to buy more mezcal for their trip north. I had always been disappointed that we never really made it into Matatlan on our mezcal crawl. I suggested that we make a big day of it, starting at Cinco más Uno to buy a few bottles and then driving to Matatlan to check out another distillery.

I had lots of palenques marked on my map in Matatlan from our previous trip with Mel and Santino. Unfortunately, as we drove around town we either couldn’t find them or they were closed. While we were stopped buying ice cream from a mobile food truck in the street, a guy pulled over and told me about his brother’s distillery. I almost thought about going there – who knows what we would find (another Cinco mas Uno experience?), but we pressed on looking for more established places. Finally, as the Ruta de Mezacal was exiting town, out of the main business district we turned down a dirt road and ended up at Palenque 5 Estrellas.

Palenque 5 Estrellas

Palenque 5 Estrellas.

Palenque 5 Estrellas was in the backyard of someone’s home. We exited Michael and Layne’s van hoping we were welcome without an appointment. An English-speaking young man appeared and gave us a tour. He showed us the agave pit where they bury the agave piñas and smoke them. We stuck our fingers in the mound to see how hot it was. Inside, we tasted the roasted agave fiber and Greg stirred one of the percolating barrels where the agave was fermenting.

After our tour, we had a tasting of there 5 different varieties of mezcal. Honestly, except for one, a wild mezcal, we didn’t like any of them better than Cinco más Uno. And they were all more expensive. But it was a great experience and we bought a bottle.

One more visit to Cinco más Uno

Cinco más Uno May of 2023, the bodega was nearly finished.

We would make one last trip to Cinco más Uno after the van was fixed and we left Oaxaca. Geraldo’s bodega which was just a foundation when we first visited him was now a two-story building. There was no distilling going on that day. Geraldo was in an agave field with one of his workers who was harvesting seeds. Agave plants harvested for mezcal cannot be allowed to bloom. They have their tall shoots lopped off. But a few are left to grow their shoots to be harvested for seeds.

Back to the US

We bought two bottles (the most we were legally allowed to take across the border) of mezcal at Cinco más Uno to take back to the US. We shared our mezcal and told our story of discovering Cinco más Uno with friends and family in New Orleans, Atlanta, St. Louis, Pennsylvania, and lastly, South Carolina, where we drained both bottles.

Finishing the bottles with Dan, Lisa, and the dog, Doc, in South Carolina.

This wraps up my posts from our travels in Mexico last year. Next up, our adventure in Mexico City or perhaps the Nomad Report from January and February.

6 thoughts on “La Ruta del Mezcal

  1. I’m glad Mezcal had a central position during your time in Oaxaca, so you had some fun during all the van trials and tribulations! And what a find Cinco Mas Uno is! Those are the experiences to cherish and – once you find a gem like that – nothing else compares. We are having similar experiences with some of the vineyards here in Argentina.

    1. Yes, the mezcal and Cinco más Uno made the while ordeal more tolerable. And being able ti share both with our friends. We took our Mexican friends to Cinco más Uno and then I found a totally out of the way restaurant to eat lunch at. They thanked us for showing them México!

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