Culture

Mezcal Production is in Danger — Here's How to Help

A field of agave plants.
New draft regulations intended to define alcoholic beverages in Mexico threaten the livelihood of families who are among Mexico’s poorest and jeopardize the presence of agave spirits across the border.​ Photo via Flickr/Josh Larios.

Agave advocates on both sides of the border are up in arms about new draft regulations that they say will threaten the livelihood of thousands of families who are not only among Mexico’s poorest, but who also produce some of its most authentic ancestral spirits.

Last November, Mexico's Secretariat of the Economy proposed a new set of rules — called a Norma Oficial Mexicana, or NOM — with the stated aim of protecting consumers by clarifying the definitions of all alcoholic beverages consumed in Mexico. Critics say the NOM is problematic for a number of reasons, but most at issue is that it limits the use of the words “agave” and “maguey” (an indigenous term for the agave plant) to spirits producers within one of the already established denominations of origin (D.O.). Producers who distill agave spirits outside of a D.O. — an area that includes about half the states in the country — would be forced to use an obscure word called “komil” to describe their product.

“There is no connection anthropologically, biologically, historically, and above all socially, between the word ‘komil’ and agave distillates,” states an open letter from opponents of the NOM. “This Nahuatl word meaning ‘intoxicating drink’ or ‘alcoholic drink’ could etymologically refer to eggnog or tequila.”

A video that accompanies a different petition opposing the NOM features rural mezcaleros being asked if they’ve ever heard the word “komil,” and their reactions are uniformly befuddled. These are the very people, advocates say, who stand to lose big if the new rules are enacted.

“It is a direct attack on the livelihood and culture of thousands of Mexican families,” says Clayton Szczech, an agave expert and owner of the tour company Experience Mezcal. “It will directly increase poverty and rural displacement.”

“These producers are located in areas where we desperately need economic and social development,” adds David Suro, president of Siembra Spirits and a board member at the Tequila Interchange Project. “By taking away the possibility to develop plans for the commercialization of the products, [the NOM creates] a deeper crisis for these communities.”

These observers note that there is a real need to protect consumers from unscrupulous companies that abuse the word “agave” in order to capitalize on the growing global appetite for such spirits. But 199, they say, is not the right fix for that problem.

“There are producers that make alcoholic beverages that have not even 1% of agave sugars in their spirits but use the name agave,” Suro says. “As NOM-199 is presented now, it doesn’t block the possibilities for these big companies to produce these horrible spirits … and the collateral damage created in the small producers outside the D.O. is catastrophic.”

Critics say a quick glance at the companies involved in drafting the rules — including large, industrial brewers and transnational spirits corporations — reveals whose interests the NOM actually seeks to protect. That didn’t surprise Dr. Sarah Bowen, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University and author of “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal and the Politics of Production” (who, just this week, covered NOM-199 for PUNCH).

“The history of regulation has almost always gone in one direction: in favor of the big industrial producers,” she says. Elsewhere (France, for example), denominations of origin help protect small, artisanal producers and the traditional methods they employ, but the mezcal D.O. in Mexico is too broad to offer such protection, and it fails to recognize regional differences.

“Mezcal is a generic term for distilled agave spirits,” Bowen explains. “To try to standardize them into one D.O. is pretty absurd. They don’t have one D.O. for all French wine.”

Opponents argue that the NOM’s detrimental effects will reverberate far beyond poor communities in rural Mexico. Agave-loving bartenders north of the border — and their customers — will feel its impact as well.

“If producers of traditional agave spirits are driven out of business and displaced from their communities, there is zero chance of their products ever making it to the U.S.,” says Szczech, who notes that the U.S. market has only seen “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the sheer amount of good artisanal mezcal being made in remote Mexican villages today. He points out that the state of Michoacán was excluded from the mezcal D.O. until just three years ago.

“Legislation like this would have destroyed Michoacán’s artisanal mezcal industry, the fruits of which you are just now starting to enjoy in the U.S.,” he explains. “That’s what will happen to Jalisco and a dozen other states if this legislation passes … I’m surprised that there isn’t more of an outcry in the U.S., outside of agave advocate circles.”

To read more about the NOM and the petitions to stop it, visit the Tequila Interchange Project (there’s another petition, in Spanish, on change.org that has racked up more than 30,000 signatures to date). The public comment period ends on April 29, and then it will be up to the authorities to decide how much of a voice they’re willing to give to Mexico’s humblest mezcaleros.

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