Mexico

Love Mezcal and Tequila? Then You Should Hate This Law

A misguided proposal from the Mexican government threatens the future of agave spirits.

|

Among the relics tucked into the Sauza Family Museum in Jalisco, Mexico is an old liquor bottle labeled "Mexican whiskey." The liquid inside it wasn't what we'd call whiskey today. It was a spirit distilled from agave, presented in the guise of something more familiar to appeal to American drinkers. That may have been a smart tactic initially, but popularizing the spirit eventually required consumers to understand it on its own terms: Not as some south of the border whiskey knock off, but as a distinct category of spirits with its own culture and traditions, which we all know now as tequila.

In recent years Americans have added another, much older word to their spirits vocabulary, "mezcal." If you've been into a fancy cocktail bar lately, chances are good that you've seen a mezcal cocktail on the menu or a row of mezcal bottles lining the back bar.

You may have also heard a bartender give the standard elevator speech for mezcal: that it's the name for the broader category of Mexican agave spirits of which tequila is merely the most familiar, much as cognac is the most famous style of brandy; that mezcal is more rustic than tequila, boasting wildly assertive flavors; that the spirit is becoming incredibly popular among the cocktail cognoscenti; and perhaps that the future of mezcal is threatened by a new law currently under consideration by the Mexican government.

That legislation is NOM 199, a proposal that would place additional restrictions on some of the least advantaged producers of agave spirits just as just as mezcal is finally beginning to receive the global acclaim it deserves. These distillers are already forced to compete without using the word "mezcal" on their labels; the term is governed by Denomination of Origin (DO) regulations that limit its use to just seven states in Mexico. Producers outside of those regions make spirits historically and informally known as mezcal, but they're not permitted to call it that on their labels or when exporting. Instead, they must market their products as "destilado de agave," or agave distillate.

This is a truthful description of their product, though many producers resent being excluded from the mezcal DO and make the case that use of the word has precedent in a much larger area than current law recognizes. But all definitions of spirits by geographic borders involve some arbitrary demarcation, and if this were only a debate about where to draw the line for where the word "mezcal" can be put on a bottle, it would be a less interesting story. NOM 199 goes even further, banning producers not only from calling their product mezcal, but requiring them to abandon use of the word "agave" as well. A new word, "komil," would be forced upon them. Critics assert that this would further marginalize the producers of these spirits, many of whom are poor and live far from the central Mexican government.

Their first objection is to that problematic label "komil," a Nahuatl word presumably chosen for its lack of cultural context or relevance to traditional Mexican spirits. The Tequila Interchange Project, a non-profit organization that works to preserve traditional Mexican spirits through advocacy and education, objects that there "is no connection anthropologically, biologically, historically, and above all socially, between the word 'komil' and agave distillates. This Nahuatl word meaning 'intoxicating drink' or 'alcoholic drink' could etymologically refer to eggnog or tequila." It's a vague and meaningless term, no more descriptive than "liquor" or "booze."

Forcing the word "komil" on distillers outside the mezcal DO would surely disadvantage them, but the liquor industry is no stranger to educating consumers about the ins and outs of spirits classification. It's possible to imagine komil following the same path as tequila and mezcal toward recognition by consumers, if that's what regulators dictate. Or at least it would be, if the proposed law didn't also forbid distillers from accurately informing consumers about what's in their bottles.

By reserving use of the word "agave" to producers of mezcal and tequila, NOM 199 goes beyond protecting a specific term to censoring producers who would like to accurately describe their products; a rough analogy would be forcing whiskey distillers to label their product "hooch" and forbidding them from revealing the grains they use to make it.

Under the proposed regulations, spirits in the new category "komil" would only need to be made from 51 percent agave. Producers would be banned from including information about the types of agave they use or even whether they make a pure agave product. TThere would be no way to differentiate on the label between a small-scale producer distilling from 100 percent agave and an industrial factory cutting their agave with cheaper sugar cane or corn. Although the DO regulations are supposedly justified by the need to protect the quality of agave spirits, the fact is that NOM 199 would advantage producers of low quality mixto tequilas over distillers making 100 percent agave spirits outside the DO region.

"This proposal would further impoverish and marginalize traditional and indigenous people in some of Mexico's poorest regions," says Clayton Szczech, founder of Experience Tequila and Experience Mezcal, a company that leads visitors on tours of Mexican distilleries. "Globally, there are now more people interested in Mexican spirits than at any other point in history, and many consumers are willing to pay just prices for the most traditionally and laboriously produced mezcals. This proposal is a crass attempt to channel that interest and revenue into areas that currently enjoy DO status, and lock out less privileged producers from potential sources of income."

The recent success of mezcal has been built at least in part on radical transparency. Labels on some bottles of mezcal feature some of the most detailed disclosures of any spirits in the world, often listing the varietals of agave, the type of still, the town of origin, the name of the mezcalero who makes it, the number of distillations, the methods of grinding and cooking the agave, the volume produced, and more. Communicating this information has helped fuel passion among consumers, who dive deep into the intricacies of the spirit at a growing number of mezcalerias around the world.

The speed with which mezcal has changed its perception as bottom shelf hooch with a worm in it to specialty spirit commanding prices rivaling single malt Scotch is remarkable. But this growth also causes tension. More than any other spirit, mezcal walks a tightrope between being too esoteric to be commercially viable and becoming so trendy that its most desirable aspects get lost to industrial scale production.

To their credit, many owners and representatives of reputable mezcal brands within the DO have been vocally opposed to NOM 199, even though they would ostensibly stand to benefit from restricting competition. "You're dealing with a lot of indigenous cultures that have a history of being oppressed by an elite class," says Francisco Terrazas, who formerly managed the agave-focused bar The Pastry War in Houston, Texas, and now works for Mezcal Vago. "My hope is that this recent controversy will bring attention to the significant barriers to entry that are already excluding more than half of the states that have a cultural history of mezcal production."

The contentious disputes over mezcal highlight the various ways that laws intended to protect consumers and uphold quality standards for food and drink products can have the unintended opposite effect. I recently noted the case of Scotch whisky producers forbidden from revealing the composition of their blends and of a Florida dairy fighting for the right to accurately label its additive-free skim milk. Libertarians are often skeptical of protected geographic names, but these kinds of proposals are even more restrictive, censoring truthful communication from producers to buyers. A better, though more costly alternative to NOM 199, would be to bring additional regions into the DO, which would at least address concerns about inspections and quality.

 Fortunately, there is broad opposition to NOM 199, thanks to advocates within Mexico and among agave lovers around the world. A similar proposal was defeated in 2012, and the Tequila Interchange Project has been promoting a petition to reject NOM 199. "If we care about the future of agave, agave distillates, and the people whose lives are built around its propagation, harvesting and distillation, we can not allow this proposition to become law," concludes the petition. "Without our action they will have no future."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

55 responses to “Love Mezcal and Tequila? Then You Should Hate This Law

  1. And don’t call it “mayo”, neither!

    1. Calling it ‘Mexican whiskey’ probably wouldn’t bossy sales.

  2. I wonder if I can sneak across the border and vote against those pushing the law.

  3. I love tequila, but it doesn’t love me.

    1. It makes your clothes come off?

    2. Real mezcal is to tequila what single malt Scotch is to Old Panther Piss.

      1. It varies.

        Look for Del Maguey. Most of their line-up is pricey, but its all the real village artisanal stuff. It really is the mezcal equivalent of top-shelf single-malt Scotch. Unfortunately, its priced accordingly.

        1. Del Maguey Chichicapa is pricy, but very different. Stays on the tongue for what seems like forever.

      2. Isn’t tequila a subset of mezcal?

        1. Yeah, I thought it was more like tequila:mezcal::cognac:brandy.

          And in my experience there are both terrible and excellent examples of things called tequila and mezcal.

    3. Don’t fuck with the Holy Cactus Juice. pindejo.

    4. I love you

      1. (It might be the gin talking.)

  4. laws intended to protect consumers and uphold quality standards for food and drink products

    That’s not the intent at all is it?

    1. I think it is more to protect producers who don’t want competition.

  5. Best company that provides the best services at the lowest prices in Mecca and all the cities of the Kingdom of our leading companies of all services in Mecca, where he achieved a???? ????? ????? ????
    difficult equation, excellent service and low price

    1. These masturbation euphemisms…

    2. Stick it up your ass, sand nigger.

      1. Are you calling him a dune coon?

        1. And did you know…

          Eskimos AKA the Inuit are fondly known as “Ice Niggers”?

          1. Speaking of the Far North… I was thinking about “Vini, Vidi, Vichy” the other day, and I could not recall? OK, so it is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veni,_vidi,_vici then? Julius Caesar circa 47 BC then, and I didn’t even spell it right, either!

            Well anyway, that’s fairly well known? Lesser known, did you know this? When the first white-European-type Dude-Fella “Dead White Guy” way back when, exact date and place not known? Got to the Great White North, not from Russian Siberia, but from the American/Canadian southerly route? Got to somewhere in Alaska or the Yukon, also not known precisely? Even the name is not for sure, but some say it was a little-known but brave explorer by the name of Alfred Edward Newman?

            So this is what happened: Alfred encountered some slightly bizarre-looking clump of ice-covered boulders. He stopped to catch his breath and admire? Then he proclaimed, “I see icy items”.

            True tales of the wild Northern Frontier!

  6. Best company that provides the best services at the lowest prices in Mecca and all the cities of the Kingdom of our leading companies of all services in Mecca, where he achieved a???? ????? ?????? ?????? ????
    difficult equation, excellent service and low price

  7. Best company that provides the best services at the lowest prices in Mecca and all the cities of the Kingdom of our leading companies of all services in Mecca, where he achieved a???? ????? ????? ????
    difficult equation, excellent service and low price

  8. I’m having a difficult time caring about this. It’s really stupid though, they must have learned this this type of idiotic behavior from politicians in that country just north of them.

    1. I don’t really care what’s on the label, as long as its still the same stuff in the bottle.

      It does make you wonder why Mexico City is fucking over a profitable export industry, though. Cui bono?

      1. It could end up being a good thing for savvy consumers if the good stuff that can’t be called tequila anymore ends up costing less. But still an unwarranted government intrusion.

    2. Nah. Europe is way ahead of us with this kind of stuff.

    3. that country just north of them.

      Canada.

  9. OT: anyone else get a weird “Error 877” code when trying to post a comment with a link?

    The fucking spambots can post links in fucking arabic, but I can’t post a link fucking English? What the fuck!?

  10. The Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) is a non-profit organization and consumer advocacy group for agave distilled spirits comprised of bartenders, consultants, educators, researchers, consumers and tequila enthusiasts. Our organization advocates the preservation of sustainable, traditional and quality practices in the industries of agave distilled spirits. In light of concerning trends that are currently becoming mainstays in the production of agave distillates, TIP seeks to place a renewed emphasis on the importance of preserving the great heritage of agave distillation in Mexico.

    Two guesses as to how many TIP members are hard-working Mexican cactus cutters and how many are leftist hipster douchebags.

  11. It’s a vague and meaningless term, no more descriptive than “liquor” or “booze.”

    Be honest, how many of you would buy something labeled “liquor” or “booze”?

    1. Slap that label on an intentionally dingy mason jar or some sort of jug and sell it hipsters.

      1. Add cyanide and it’s a win/win scenario.

    2. I’d buy that for a dollar!

    3. I would. Love that Mexican whiskey.

  12. One question not addressed by the article is: Who are those that are pushing for this law? And how do they benefit? (besides enjoying the non-competition, of course)

  13. Commence your Home Business right now. Hang out with your Family and Earn. Start bringing $75/hr just over a computer. Very easy way to choose your Life Happy and Earning continuously. Begin here…HU2…

    ====== Online.E-Cash10.COM

  14. Tequila and I had one too many bad experiences in college. We parted ways years ago. I don’t regret it.

    1. We broke up for a few years after the incident of the 8×32-ounce margarita Happy Hour. Just the smell made me feel like spewing. We’ve reconciled, though, and it’s going well.

    2. Cheap tequila has those associations for me. But I do enjoy sipping on a nice A~nejo still.

  15. As someone who greatly enjoys REAL mezcal, this actually seems like a good idea. It’s not really much different than saying that any wine marked Chablis has to come from the north of Burgundy and be made from chardonnay. Grow some generic white grape in Roussillon and call the wine Chablis ‘cuz it’s white and made from grapes?

  16. Find out who is pulling the strings behind the statist puppets yet again using statist violence to redirect or eliminate competion and they will most likely be big players in the industry thereof…

  17. til I looked at the check 4 $4775 , I did not believe …that…my mother in law actualy taking home money in there spare time on their apple labtop. . there uncle has been doing this for only about 16 months and just cleared the mortgage on there apartment and purchased opel .
    Check This Out??????? http://www.ny-reports.com

  18. “mezcal is more rustic than tequila, boasting wildly assertive flavors”

    Like the flavor of smoke. Mostly smoke.

  19. RE: Love Mezcal and Tequila? Then You Should Hate This Law
    A misguided proposal from the Mexican government threatens the future of agave spirits.

    No one should question Mexico’s laws.
    They have been a socialist state for about 70 – 80 years.
    Everything is well down there.
    You do not see Mexicans leaving that magnificent socialist state to prosper in more business friendly countries.
    They have gun control which has resulted in no Mexicans being shot to death.
    They do not allow drugs to be legal. That is why there has no drug violence for our neighbor to the south.
    The State of Mexico owns petroleum production which would explain why they are the oil exporting giant they are today.
    Now, doesn’t it make sense the Mexican socialist turds running (and ruining) their country should control liquor also?
    Only good will come from this.
    Just watch.

  20. OK…just don’t screw around with my Sotol.

  21. I’m making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do…. Go to tech tab for work detail..

    CLICK THIS LINK===== http://www.cashapp24.com/

  22. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail.
    +_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+ http://www.social36.com

  23. I’ve made $76,000 so far this year working online and I’m a full time student.I’m using an online business opportunity I heard about and I’ve made such great money.It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it.

    Open This LinkFor More InFormation..

    ??????? http://www.selfcash10.com

  24. I’m making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do…. Go to tech tab for work detail..

    CLICK THIS LINK===== http://www.cashapp24.com/

  25. I’m making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do…. Go to tech tab for work detail..

    CLICK THIS LINK===== http://www.cashapp24.com/

  26. Most of us want to have good income but don’t know how to do thaat on Internet there are a lot of methods to earn money at home, so I thought to share with you a genuine and guaranteed method for free to earn huge sum of money at home anyone of you interested should visit the site. More than sure that you will get best result.OI3..

    ====== http://www.CashPost7.com

  27. til I saw the draft which was of $6881 , I didnt believe that my mother in law had been realy taking home money part-time on their laptop. . there best friend has done this 4 only twelve months and at present took care of the mortgage on there condo and got a top of the range Subaru Impreza . Learn More ….

    Click This Link inYour Browser….

    ?????? http://www.Reportmax20.com

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.