Mezcal is having a moment, both in Mexico and well beyond. While I’d tried tequila’s smoky cousin in Pacific beach resorts, I got a crash course last year, when I visited Mexico City. There were sips of artisanal spirits in the mezcal-geek bar El Bosfóro, in Centro, and of creative craft cocktails in trendy bars like Limantour and Baltra in Roma. It was a lot to take in. But the experience that really distilled, if you will, mezcal for me was off that beaten path. I attended a private tasting in the home of Andrea Villela, whose professional name is La Fiera Mezcal, in Coyaocán. Instead of highlighting the usual Oaxacan mezcals, she pours ultra-small-batch spirits from her hometown state of Guerrero, which lies on the Pacific coast. During a pairing with traditional food, guests learn the history behind Guerrero mezcal and the way it’s consumed there, and afterward, they can take home their favorite in a hand-painted bottle decorated by a local artisan.
Here’s Andrea’s take on Guerrero mezcal and why she’s spreading the word.
AA: How did you become a mezcal curator?
AV: I see it more like a mezcal explorer. All my life, in the culture I grew up in Guerrero, at any food time—in weddings, baptisms, birthdays, and the departure of someone beloved—there was always mezcal. I first learned what I know from my family and my own experiences drinking mezcal.
Six years ago, my family had a book presentation for a project that my father and worked on together. My mom brought mezcal for the event and everybody loved it. For me it was a common thing to have mezcal as a part of a celebration, but people had just started to be interested in mezcal. At the event, people kept coming and coming for more mezcal; they loved it.
What happened next?
We started very small, bringing mezcal for our friends to try. More and more people heard about us, and we’ve been growing slowly but steadily. It’s been almost five years since I named our small business as La Fiera Mezcal.
Tell me about some of the food you serve with the tastings.
The mezcals are paired with traditional snacks that are served in Guerrero before a meal or just to enjoy with mezcal: salty pumpkin seeds, tlalnipal (the stem of the Hoja Santa leaf), two local cheeses, pozole de frijol (bean pozole), chalupas, and my grandfather’s secret recipe for a very particular guacamole called aguacatada.
Mezcal has become very popular in the United States. Why do you think that is?
I see a growing culture interested in going back to the traditional ways in general, but particularly in the old ways of cooking and enjoying food. Mezcal is still a very traditional product, compared to its cousin, tequila. It’s also a very healthy spirit, and there’s a mythicism that surrounds it, in that it’s rooted to the land and to the community, which makes it very attractive. It is not only a drink. It is a drink for the soul.
What is the mezcal scene like in Mexico City?
Now it’s really big, with a lot of brands and a lot of bars. Almost everyone drinks mezcal. The days when it was seen as a beverage for the peasants are gone; now it’s a very popular and even exclusive thing. There are a lot of places to go, but only a few offer varieties of mezcals from not only Oaxaca and Guerrero, but also Zacatecas and Durango.
Mezcal from Oaxaca gets the glory, but what’s special about Guerrero mezcal?
It’s from a different type of agave: cupreata. Most of it is produced in community lands harvested and protected by the owners under a traditional way. The tradition of mezcal in Guerrero is the same and as old as in Oaxaca, but while Oaxaca has a bigger variety of agaves, Guerrero produces virtually one. That said, we’ve found that Guerrero produces a lot of mezcal types and flavors. The producers make the curados using healing plants like damiana, which is known for its aphrodisiac properties, or form seasonal fruits and plants, like the nance, the Jamaica flower, and so on.
How do you find the producers you work with?
We work with maestros mezcaleros who have been producing for many years and who learned from their own families. Most of the time what they produced was consumed only by the village or the nearby towns. Now, because of demand, they’re producing more. We work with small producers from the regions of La Montaña Baja and the center region. We work only with traditional producers; we don’t take industrially processed mezcal.
While we primarily work with three producers, we’re continuously hunting for new mezcals. We ask people in small tows where it’s known to have good mezcal, and just by asking, we’ve have found real treasures—even mezcal distilled 50 years ago. We shared that one with very close and special family and friends, but we’ve served our clients a four-year-old mezcal stored in glass, which was a delight to the heart.
Who are the artists who paint your bottles?
We work with a family of mask-painting artisans from the Montaña Baja. They started painting bottles with the leftover paint from making tigre masks. The jaguar is the strongest icon in traditional expressions in Guerrero, and it’s represented in archaeological sites and traditional dances, and even the state shield has a jaguar. We started to work with the artists on new designs, bottle shapes and colors.
Where do you see Guerrero mezcal going in the next few years?
I hope that with more recognition, it will be seen at the same level as the mezcal from Oaxaca. The people, the producers and the bottlers are more aware of the need to be organized and the opportunity to be in a better economic position. I believe there will be a pursuing of a better payment for the hard labor of producing mezcal.