What: Mezcal is made in several Mexican states, but Oaxaca arguably produces the world’s best—apparently the soil is just right. Like its cousin, tequila, mezcal is distilled from the juices of the agave (or maguey) plant; the main differences between them are that tequila uses only blue agave and a steam-cooking method in production, whereas mezcal involves underground roasting, which imparts a very smoky, earthy flavor (to complicate the distinction further, technically tequila is mezcal—because it comes from the maguey plant—but mezcal is not tequila). Aficionados claim that mezcal, typically produced in small batches by families who sell locally, is more artisanal and complex in flavor than tequila—but judge for yourself if you can.
Where: Ideally, you should rent a car and explore some mezcal distilleries outside of the city. But within Oaxaca, a great spot to get schooled on the liquor—and taste some fine samples—is the tiny Mezcaleria Los Amantes (Ignacio Allende 107, map), which acts as a hip, standing-only tasting room for a wide variety of artisanal Oaxacan mezcals, including the excellent Los Amantes brand (100p for a three-mezcal degustación, or tasting). Also check out its sister establishment Café Central (Hidalgo 302, map), an artsy bar and lounge. Less fancy-shmancy, the historic La Casa del Mezcal (Flores Magón 209, between Las Casas & Aldama, map) is a fun, classic cantina in which to sip (or shoot) some mezcal; our 20p shot (pictured) was accompanied by orange and lime wedges.
When: Mezcaleria Los Amantes: Wed-Sat, 5pm-10pm. La Casa del Mezcal (front bar): daily, 10am-1am
Good to know: The beautiful (and pricey) Los Danzantes (Alcalá 403-4, map), producer of some fine mezcals themselves (the distillery is off-site), is another good restaurant/bar to sample the liquor. You can also try the mezcal-based flavored cremas sold around town if you’re looking for something sweet and, well, creamy (think Bailey’s). Make no mistake: That is not really mezcal, and it's certainly tourist-friendly (or perhaps a misguided attempt to attract more female drinkers), but it’s still fun to sip. Cantina La Farola (Calle 20 de Noviembre 30, map) is a great old spot to sample different cremas (35p) plus regular mezcal; you can also pick up a bottle of crema (about 125p) at several of the markets.