We set out in search of xtabentun—an anisette-flavored, honey-based tipple from the Yucatán Peninsula with Zapotec and Mayan roots. Unsatisfied in our search, my traveling companion and I decided to take a trip south to visit Oaxaca in order to explore the mezcal regions. We hopped a collectivo out to the Istmo region, and there lucked onto a cabbie who could speak Spanish as well as Zapotec—a necessity in the rural areas. My companion and I explained what we were looking for—small batch mezcals. The cabbie’s eyes lit up —I know where to go.
Some hour or two later, deep into the Colinas Blancas, bouncing around in the back of an early-90s Nissan Tsuru (not really made to cross creeks), we came across the place he was looking for. I think it was obvious to everyone by then that the cabbie had lost his way. We got out to stretch our legs and take a pee by the side of the road and when we turned back to the car, found that we were suddenly surrounded by autodefensas.
Our driver had gotten us in over our heads. It didn’t take us long to figure out that we needed a story and we needed one fast. Sometimes the best story is just the truth. So we leveled with the group of 12 or so armed locals —we just want mezcal.
—Clearly, they said, we did not need to be here to find mezcal —you can find that in the city.
—Yes, but we want rare, small batch, and hard-to-find mezcal.
After a what felt like an hour, with us surrounded and them talking Zapotec, the autodefensas decided we were being honest—and they showed us to the local campesino who also serves as the area’s mezcalero. The mezcalero showed us his tiny palenque tucked in behind the small livery in which he keeps his flock of goats. He makes about 50 liters per year—all that this tiny community needs. Too small of a production schedule for our needs, but, hey, beats sitting in a jail cell somewhere in Mexico. Did we want to try his tobalá? Of course!
A few passes of the jicara later, tensions eased and the locals started asking more questions. The mezcalero had not heard of Colorado, but he was proud to say, had once visited California. We were soon trading stories. We still have the filthy Coke-bottle mezcal, complete with dirt floaters, that we bought from our new friends that day.
Why did this work out when it could have gone so badly? We contemplated this as we found our way back to the city that night. And all we can figure is that they liked our story. We are all, in the end, the narrators of our own lives—storytellers. Cuentacuentos.
Mezcal brings people together, stories make us friends. Drink in health.