Story by Alex ‘Happy’ Gilmour
In the last few years the quality and range of agave distillates available in Australia has grown substantially. Where not long ago we had access to only a handful of tequilas, and even less mezcal, Australia has become a more supportive place for quality Mexican products to be showcased in bars and bottle shops. Not many people may realise that there is a system of origin and production methods defined by legislation. The production of alcohol from the agave is covered by law in 12 Mexican states (mezcal in nine states, tequila in five states and bacanora in one state), however there is a history of agave distillation in 22 of Mexico’s 31 states. This history of distillation also includes sotol, a traditionally northern-Mexican distillate, made from the dasylirion plant, which is also protected by law in three Mexican states.
Over the last 12 months there have been two important laws proposed in México surrounding alcohol production from the agave plant. NOM 199 provides for the classification of all potable alcohol in México and raises issues specifically in regards to the reclassification of agave distillates not covered by the Denominacion de Origenes (DO´s). The second law, NOM 70, will redefine the categorisation of mezcals to be more reflective of the mezcal industry than the tequila industry.
Nom 199 may be disastrous for many smaller, unregistered mezcal producers, by labelling them criminals under federal law and restricting their ability to provide for their families. Many communities affected have been distilling and producing mezcal for over five generations, which is exactly what DO´s seek to protect. NOM 199 would brand all agave distillates produced outside the DO´s of tequila, mezcal, bacanaora and raicilla to be labelled as komil, a non descript nahuatl word for “alcoholic beverage”, a word that holds no meaning to the modern or past mezcalero.
NOM 199 appears to ban these producers using the word agave or maguey or the type of agave on their products’ labels. This means they would not be able to advertise or communicate to the consumer the source of their product. You can compare this to outlawing a regional wine producer from labelling their product as being made from grapes, let a lone specifying the varietal used. The eradication of the word agave and identification of agave varietal used not only will remove the identity from a product so engrained in culture and family, but it will also make the identification of quality products more difficult. There has been speculation that some of the large companies have lent support to the introduction of NOM 199 as a way of marginalising out the smaller competition with higher quality products.
This is not the first time there has been an attempt to change the playing field; in 2012 there was another proposal, NOM 186, which under similar guise of consumer protection tried to enforce a copyright on the word agave to ensure all those using it were required to pay for the privilege. Again this would have made outlaws of many of the smaller producers who trade or sell most of their production for daily wares and food for their families. These mezcaleros are people that simply don’t have a desire let alone the money to produce and certify a commercial product for export.
What is interesting, similar to the 2012 debacle, is that both NOM 199 and NOM 70 were released to the public on the same day. Many thought this to have been a way of having the NOM 199 overlooked in the elation of a newly developed NOM 70. The new NOM 70 proposes changes to the current NOM and is the work of some 200 mezcal producers (corporations and family-run alike), the Mexican government and the Mezcal Regulatory Council (CRM).
The newly proposed changes approach the redefining of the classifications of certified mezcals. The original NOM 70 established in 1994 was very closely based on the NOM 006 of the time, the NOM that defines tequila production and classification. As many producers from both camps would agree there are substantial differences between certified mezcals and certified tequila and because of this there is a recognized need to have a developed set of laws that take care of each as a separate product.
The newly proposed mezcal classifications are as follows:
Mezcal – Essentially unchanged from the current mezcal classification.
- Cooking: All modern and traditional methods allowed from pit ovens and above ground ovens to autoclaves.
- Crushing: All modern and traditional methods accepted from hand crushed to mechanical.
- Fermentation: Stainless steel and wooden vats allowed with the inclusion of stone lined pits.
- Distillation: All copper, stainless and clay stills accepted including column stills used by commercial producers.
Artisanal Mezcal – More refined with slightly stricter limits
- Cooking: Pit ovens and above ground ovens accepted but must be cooked by direct fire (not necessarily wood).
- Crushing: Limited modern methods allowed with shredders but the focus is on hand, stone or wood crushed agave.
- Fermentation: Animal hide, stone, earth and wooden vats allowed with the accepted inclusion of fibers from the agave.
- Distillation: All direct fire copper alembic and clay stills accepted including ones with wooden, clay or copper still heads and condensers. The use of agave fibers is accepted in this process.
Ancestral Mezcal – The most stringent of classifications
- Cooking: Direct fire pit ovens only.
- Crushing: Only hand crushed agave by stone or wood.
- Fermentation: Animal hide, stone, earth and wooden vats allowed with the compulsory inclusion of fibers from the agave.
- Distillation: Only direct fire clay stills accepted including ones with wooden or clay still heads and condensers. The use of agave fibers is compulsory in this process.
The new arrangements included in NOM 70 for labelling the bottled and certified mezcal includes the scientific name(s) of the agave used in the production of the mezcal, the production method and where it is produced, to give more meaning to the DO. Further movements in the new NOM proposal will prevent any mezcal being certified unless it is produced using 100% agave sugars and there is no bulk export allowed for bottling outside of México.
Our bartending community should be involved in the continual education of consumers and we should be lending our support to the fair certification and development of the agave distillates category. Every time we showcase a sustainable and well-made product we are supporting the maturity and growth of the category. Five years ago in Australia there were only a handful of brands available; now we boast not only a much wider selection but also a much better platform with which to support producers and suppliers. The acceptance of tequila and mezcal as an acceptable household member of the liquor cabinet still has a way to go but copita-by-copita we are ensuring it is here to stay.