The mezcal industry – particularly the sector made up of small, artisanal producers – faces a lot of challenges. I’ve recently been reading Sarah Bowen’s book, Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production. Both fascinating and heartbreaking, it tells the story of how tequila went from proudly gaining it’s D.O. (denomination of origin), to becoming the whore of corporate greed.
Over the decades industrial producers have pushed for ever more lenient regulations on the standard and D.O. protection. For example, in 1949 tequila was required to be made of 100% Agave tequilana Weber. Since then changes to the standard have been made multiple times so that now tequila only needs to consist of 51% blue weber agave – the other 49% can be added generic sweeteners of unknown origin, coloring, flavoring, and aromas.
Perhaps most tragic of all, regarding both the tequila and mezcal D.O., is that there is almost no criteria for how the spirit is made. According to the Mexican government’s own definition, the D.O. “protects products that have characteristics typical of a region, such as natural and human factors that determine its quality or particular characteristics.” The human factor that gives mezcal its particular characteristic the way it is produced. An agave distillate cooked underground, fermentated naturally, and distilled in clay or copper pots is what makes a mezcal distinct from other spirits.
To make matters worse, the Mexican government is now reviewing a proposal, called NOM-199, that limit the use of the words “agave” and “maguey”, and would thereby destroy the livelihood of mezcalero communities, and diminish product diversity.
The Tequila Interchange Project, and Pedro Jimenez of Mezonte Mezcals are leading an opposition to this proposal. As they state:
“NOM 199 seeks to limit the use of the words “agave” and “maguey” to agave distillates produced within already-present DO’s (Denominations of Origen: similar to AOC’s and DOC’s in other parts of the world). If this legislation is accepted, agave distillers outside of a DO would lose the right to declare on their label either the primary ingredient or the means of production, thereby functionally undoing all of the strides that have been made in recent years towards a culture of agave dedicated to transparency, traceability, fair and ethical practices, and sustainability.”
Will you help us to stand up against this proposition and sign the petition?
Mezcal may be the last truly hand-crafted spirit available today. If we don’t let our voices be heard and put a stop to the industrialization of this national heritage, not only will we loose a unique and fascinating beverage, but thousands of native mezcalero communities will loose their livelihoods and their cultural identity.