Mezcal’s meteoric rise continues, but not all industry insiders are ready to toast (The Guardian, October 2016)

“Mezcal, tequila’s stronger and smokier relative, has become a staple spirit in trendy bars across Mexico and the United States in recent years, and the agave-based drink has inevitably attracted the interest of global alcohol giants. In the process local growers are worried a unique spirit is under threat…

Mezcal has been made for centuries in 26 of Mexico’s 32 states, but the DO [denomination of origin] limits production to just nine states. Distillers from other areas have expressed outrage over NOM-199, a new regulation proposed by the government and industry giants including Diageo and Pernod Ricard, that would have forced them to label their products as “komil” — an obscure indigenous word meaning “intoxicating drink” understood by almost nobody in Mexico.

A revised proposal would have them use “aguardiente de agave” – meaning agave firewater – instead of “destilado de agave”, the more literal name currently in use. Agave spirits expert Clayton Szczech said that while preferable to “komil”, the word “aguardiente” still has “a pejorative connotation that makes people think of cheap rum and seems designed to taint these products in the marketplace.'”

Click here to read the original article in its entirety.

The Rise of Mezcal: Great for Cocktails, Better for Oaxaca (AFAR Magazine, April 2016)

“Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico and its most indigenous, two braided facts that owe much to geography. When the Spanish plowed through in the 16th century, they found a rugged terrain dividing Oaxaca into isolated village-states. In some ways that’s still the case: Many communities have maintained their own dialects, their own traditions—and yes, their own mezcals.

So how do you penetrate the state’s 36,000 square miles of god-knows-how-many tiny producers? I had been led here by two guys from the United States—my spirit guides, if you will. [Experience Mezcal founder] Clayton Szczech is a serious fellow with a minor pompadour and dark, skeptical eyes. When he was younger, a career test predicted he’d grow up to become a podiatrist or an undertaker. Instead Clayton moved to Mexico to lead tequila and mezcal tours for the similarly obsessed…

…I didn’t want a cursory tour of all god-knows-how-many distilleries. I wanted to see one—to zero in on a single family at the center of these massive changes. To Max and Clayton it was a no-brainer. The next morning we’d drive out to the village of Santa Catarina Minas.”

Continue reading

Blue Agave Endangered by Highlands Snow

Frozen Blue Agave at La Altena in Arandas Jalisco

Blue Agave Endangered by Highlands Snow

by Clayton J. Szczech, March 11, 2016

Residents of Jalisco’s Highlands region awoke Thursday to a substantial blanket of snow and ice covering the ground and local crops, including the emblematic Highland blue agaves. Online social media quickly filled with stunning and beautiful images, and alteños young and old took advantage of the novel opportunity to make snowmen and snow angels – activities they usually only see in foreign movies.

Those younger than about 25 years had never seen snow locally before. Their parents, however, easily recalled the winter of 1997, when a similar winter blizzard brought snow to the region for the first time in a century. That literal storm was an early element in the metaphorical perfect storm that created the severe shortage and crisis in the blue agave industry in the early 2000s. As the snow and ice continue to melt today, agaveros, tequileros and observers throughout the region are holding their breath, waiting to see how bad the damage will be.

Frozen Agave in Los Altos de Jalisco
Photo courtesy Federación Jalisco Internacional.

The blue agave has evolved for tens of thousands of years to survive extremes of heat and aridity. It is not native to the Jalisco Highlands, where it began to be planted only around the turn on the 20th century. The plants do not easily bear extended cold snaps, much less freezes like this. Extended low temperatures will “burn” the agaves’ tissues. Sugar content, necessary for Tequila production, can plummet. Agaves two years old and younger are particularly vulnerable, particularly if the cogollo (the top center portion of the plant, where new leaves emerge) is frozen.

 

Today I spoke with Dr. Adolfo Murillo, a Highlands native, organic agave farmer and owner of Tequila Alquimia, about what they’re seeing on their agave ranch in Agua Negra, on the outskirts of Arandas.

“Luckily for us, our fields are on the fringes of the state of Jalisco [near the Guanajuato border], where we get less rainfall in any given year. It turns out we also got less snow, “ said Murillo. “I’ve always said that the layout of the fields is very important. Agaves should be planted on a slope for good drainage, as ours are. Also, the slope should be toward the morning sun, so the agaves are warmed since early in the morning on cold mornings. Again by luck, in Agua Negra the sun began to shine early in the morning, so the snow that had fallen on our agave was melted off fairly quickly, and the agaves do not appear to have sustained any damage.”

Dr. Murillo explains that it doesn’t take long to assess the damage. Plants that have been sufficiently frozen will begin to wilt as they thaw, eventually drying out and rotting.

Industry veteran and Selección ArteNOM owner Jake Lustig remembers 1997 and the ensuing crisis period well. That freeze, and the ensuing vulnerability of the agaves to a variety of pests led to “widespread consolidation and surrendering of Mexico’s national spirit to multi-national conglomerates earning their capital in Tennessee whiskey, Puerto Rican rum or French vodka, who could sustain agave price fluctuations. Some folks without that ‘diversification’ went bankrupt and closed or sold out,” according to Lustig.

Jake Lustig and Enrique Fonseca
Jake Lustig and master distiller Enrique Fonseca. Photo courtesy Jake Lustig.

As the whole world begins to grapple with the reality of accelerated climate change, the Tequila industry will not be an exception. Dr. Murillo points out that this snowstorm is no fluke, but rather the latest incident in years of changing regional weather patterns including freezing temperatures as early as October, sporadic and unpredictable rain, and a general breakdown in the formerly predictable annual weather pattern of warm temperatures and near daily rain from July to September.

We should know a lot more about the severity of the damage to the agave crop in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, you can be sure that thousands throughout Jalisco will be praying that the damage is light. Jake Lustig will be among them, signing off a recent message with this: “Let’s light a candle and hope that global warming trends pardon Mexico on this cycle and we don’t experience such dramatic losses.”

For continued updates on this situation, and all aspects of Tequila, sign up for our newsletter in the upper right hand margin of this page. Cover photo courtesy of Jenny Camarena.

Opposition to NOM 199 – An Update

As reported here in December, the Mexican Secretariat of the Economy has proposed legislation – NOM 199 – that could extinguish traditional mezcal production in areas outside of the Denomination of Origin (DO) regions. While presented as an effort to increase consumer protection, these rule changes would in fact result in less clarity for consumers. Non-DO producers would be forced to call their products “Komil” – a nonsense term with no history or modern day context – and they would be prohibited from stating that their spirits are made from 100% agave.Opposition to NOM 199

As expected, mezcal producers and their allies in academia, the spirits industry and the consumer sector have rallied opposition to this absurd and unjust proposal.

There are at least three places to register your opposition to NOM 199. The Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) has created an English-language petition which will be presented to the Mexican government. Spanish speakers can register their protest directly with the Mexican government here. Mezonte’s Pedro Jiménez also created a petition that you can add your name to.

Pedro also created this video that clearly illustrates the absurdity and injustice of NOM 199.

[vimeo_video id=152913439 width=460 height=285]

The Latest Affront To Traditional Mezcal: NOM 199

The Latest Affront To Traditional Mezcal:  NOM 199

by Clayton J. Szczech, December 4, 2015

Half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty, and yet the country’s Secretary of the Economy is making it a priority to clarify the definitions of frozen shots and Slivovitz. No, really. Oh yeah, and at the same time, renew its attempts to further marginalize small and traditional producers of mezcals and other regional spirits to the benefit of huge industrial producers.

The proposed legislation in question (PROY-NOM-199-SCFI-2015– we’ll just call it NOM 199) was published on November 25, though most of us in the agave and spirits world became aware of it thanks to David Suro raising the alarm online on December 2. The omnibus proposal would define and regulate all alcoholic beverages – domestic and imported – sold commercially in Mexico. It was created with the participation of the Tequila Regulatory Council, the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, the Mezcal Regulatory Council, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Mexico’s two beer giants (note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that any one of them endorse the final document in its entirety).

The document’s preamble cites consumer protection as the goal of NOM 199. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same argument was claimed for 2012’s NOM 186 revision, which would have severely restricted and marginalized the production of many of Mexico’s traditional regional spirits. Ultimately, PROFECO (Mexico’s federal consumer protection agency) came out against that proposal. A coalition of small producers, academics, and advocates from the worldwide bar industry (spearheaded by the Tequila Interchange Project – TIP) ultimately defeated that proposal, and a related one that would have trademarked the word “agave.”

In the two short days since the proposal came to light online, forces are already mustering to defeat it. I’ve spent the better part of that time analyzing the document and gathering various perspectives in an attempt to summarize its contents in English. All English translations of the original text are my own.

While Mexican legal documents are typically Byzantine, this one is truly bizarre. Content aside, as a proposal it’s pretty incoherent, and in fact its many detractors suspect it was crafted to be deliberately confusing. Whether that’s the case, or whether it was simply the unfortunate result of writing by committee, it reads like a C-student regurgitating everything he thinks he knows about booze for an essay exam he crammed for the night before. But what it actually says is even worse.

‘¿Que?’ is for Komil

Tequila, mezcal, pulque, Bacanora, sotol, raicilla, charanda, and Comiteco are among the traditional Mexican beverages classified in the document, as is something called “Komil.” A Náhuatl (Aztec) word for “alcoholic beverage,” not a single person I spoke with this week – anthropologists, mezcal researchers, industry leaders – had ever heard the term. It was apparently plucked from a book by the backers of this proposal as an ahistorical dumping ground for agave distillates outside of any Denomination of Origin (DO) – spirits that traditionalists regards as mezcals that have been excluded from the DO.

“Komil” is defined as agave distillates (with as little as 51% agave!) from outside any DO region, having 32-55% ABV. Crucially, its producers would not be able to “make reference to plant varieties recognized in any Denomination of Origin” on their label or in any commercial material. In plain language, that means producers would be prohibited from using the words “agave” or “maguey.” This is that earlier attempt to trademark the word “agave,” which made its backers an international laughingstock, reborn. Or as one person remarked online – “zombie NOM 186.”

This would be disastrous for producers of, for example, mezcal in the state of Mexico, which is outside of any DO. Producers, currently forced to sell their mezcal as agave distillate, would instead have to sell “Komil” – something nobody has ever heard of – and would not be allowed to mention that it is made from agave. But there is also a permissive side to this that is at least as frightening. A global spirits giant could immediately set up a massive industrial facility, in any non-DO region, and produce a 51% mixto “Komil,” which would be exponentially cheaper, though commercially indistinguishable from the traditional juice. It’s easy to imagine the small producers driven entirely out of the marketplace, while the big guys introduce a “new traditional Mexican spirit” to the global marketplace.

Raicilla, Comiteco, and Cocktails

Although there are troublesome details throughout the classifications of beverage categories, the cases of raicilla, Comiteco and cocktails deserve special mention.

Raicilla is a traditional mezcal of Jalisco, made primarily in the northern mountains between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, and the coastal range from Vallarta southward. It does not currently have Denomination of Origin status. The proposal would allow raicilla to be produced anywhere in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, and allow the use of any agave varietal besides the tequilana. Pedro Jiménez, one of Mexico’s best known advocates for traditional mezcal, works closely with traditional raicilla producers in western Jalisco. He calls the proposal “the ultimate hypocrisy” in that it claims consumer protection as its goal, but will ultimately confuse and even deceive consumers with its hodge-podge of watered down, bastardized and made-up categories. “Not only that – it’s a total slap in the face, a denial of the human rights of traditional mezcal producers to work and practice their culture.”

In the classification of raicilla, other than stating the agave must be both mature and cooked, absolutely no production methods are mentioned or excluded. So, similar to the “Komil” example above, traditional producers could be forced into competition with “raicillas” made with autoclaves, chemical accelerants and column stills in, say, Tepic – far outside the actual raicilla region. Other traditional mezcaleros in Jalisco would also be forced to call their product “raicilla,” contrary to their unique history and traditions.

Comiteco is a traditional spirit made from pulque and sugar cane in the region around Comitán, Chiapas. The proposal, in defining Comiteco, makes no mention of any specific region, or of pulque. It says that Comiteco must be made from at least 70% “Maguey Comiteco” and some cane-based sugar source. No methods of production are mentioned or excluded. Here again, we can easily imagine a scenario in which this regional specialty has its tradition robbed with the introduction of “Comiteco” made with diffusers (chemical hydrolysis) in Mexico City or Cancún.

The proposal also defines cocktails, presumably for both ready-to-drink and on-premise consumption. The highlight? “Cocktails with mezcal” (for example) could have as little 25% of their alcohol content be mezcal! So your next mezcal margarita at the hotel bar might contain as little as 0.5 ounce mezcal and 1.5 ounces cane liquor (which itself is made from only 51% sugar cane, as defined elsewhere in the proposal), and the establishment would have no obligation to disclose that fact.

Although the proposal addresses pulque, Bacanora, sotol, raicilla, charanda, and Comiteco, not a single producer of these beverages was involved in the meetings where it was created.

Wake Up, It Gets Worse!

The majority of the proposal consists of a seemingly endless list of beverage types, from “anisette” to “vino.” If it weren’t for the unintentionally humorous errors, this litany could easily put you to sleep. Which may be intentional, since some of the most onerous stuff is buried toward the end, in Section 12, under the dry heading “National Products.”

This section requires producers of all alcoholic beverages to have their raw material and production inspected and certified, at their own expense. While at first blush this may seem reasonable, and is no different from the current practice for Tequila and certified mezcals, the reality here is quite different. There currently are no inspectors for products like sotol, raicilla, and other regional spirits, not to mention that few producers could afford such a luxury in the high-poverty regions where some of the best spirits are made.

Reflecting a further disconnect from the daily reality of average Mexicans, the proposal would require producers to produce complex and expensive financial records (facturas) for the purchase of their raw material. No mention is made of producers who grow or wild harvest their own agave, sotol or cane.

The CRM Perspective

The Mezcal Regulatory Council (CRM) participated in the creation of NOM 199, which seems to fly in the face of its recent proposed revisions to mezcal’s NOM 070. The CRM’s proposal was crafted over a year’s worth of meetings with mezcal producers from throughout the current DO, and seeks to officially recognize artisanal and traditional methods of production. NOM 199, on the other hand, seems oblivious at best (and utterly disdainful at worst) to tradition, and was created by a group whose vast majority was large Tequila producers (even an international Scotch whisky association was excluded – which is reflected in the many errors in the whisk(e)y section).

CRM President Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco calls the proposal “incomplete – something like an index.” He points out that producers weren’t able to make the trip to Mexico City, and insists that the CRM did its best to “defend mezcal, defend raicilla, defend Comiteco, defend pulque.” It is noteworthy that mezcal is the one beverage category defined simply by a reference to its own Norm – the result of Nolasco’s desire to keep this group from meddling in the current reform process. While acknowledging the many flaws and incoherencies of the document, he sees it as a necessary first step in regulating all alcoholic beverages in Mexico – reportedly 40% of which are counterfeit. “The project is well intentioned, but we have many criticisms,” he concluded.

What is Next?

The proposal has been submitted by the Mexican Secretary of the Economy for publication in the Diario Oficial (similar to the US Congressional Record). It may be published as soon as mid-December. Once published, there were will be a 60-day public comment period. Efforts are already underway in Mexico and the US to organize opposition to the proposal, and in defense of traditional Mexican spirits and the communities that produce them. Please sign up for my newsletter (in the upper right hand margin) and follow the Experience Mezcal Facebook page for updates on the various efforts.

Thanks to David Suro for bringing this to light, and to Pedro Jiménez, Erick Rodriguez, Dr. Ronda Brulotte and Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco for their time. Any errors or omissions are solely mine. By the way, the thing about frozen shots (sec. 7.5.3) and Slivovitz (sec. 7.2.21) is true – and my Slovakian friends will be sad to know that Mexico now says all Slivovitz is Serbian or Bosnian.

 

 

 

Review: “Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico,” by Marie Sarita Gaytan

Review: ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico. Marie Sarita Gaytán. Stanford University Press (2014).

As Tequila nerds, we love trivia. “How long does it take agave to mature? How long is añejo aged? Who first exported Tequila?” All too often, knowledge of these basic, rote facts is touted as expertise. The deeper questions of Tequila’s meaning(s), winners, losers and future trajectory are all too often sidestepped or not even considered. Marie Sarita Gaytán’s ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico is a fantastic book that addresses these issues in a way that’s likely new for the non-academic Tequila fan.

¡Tequila! presents and analyzes Mexico’s most famous beverage as “a complex cultural commodity…first and foremost…about the people of Mexico.” The book is a critical cultural analysis of how and why Tequila came to be constructed as a potent symbol of Mexican national identity and its changing meanings throughout history and into contemporary times. Gaytán is a sociologist and although I am sure this book will be used in undergraduate university courses, the book is lucid, accessibly written and of interest to all Tequila aficionados.

While not attempting to be a thoroughgoing history, the book deftly connects the dots between important historical events and eras from the Spanish Conquest to the present. The first chapter, on the history of Tequila, mezcal, and pulque, is possibly the best summary in English that I’ve seen. Even if the rest of the book’s cultural theory loses more casual readers, this chapter should be required reading for anyone interested in Mexican beverages. The relationship of pulque – an indigenous, pre-Hispanic brew of fermented agave sap- to Tequila is widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the Tequila industry. Gaytán demonstrates how pulque was seen by the ruling Spanish (and later creoles) as “too native.” Its association with the rowdy, race-mixing masses of Mexico City made it inappropriate as a national icon. Since there was no way to stabilize and bottle it at the time, its geographical range of consumption was also limited.

This artful weaving of cultural and material factors is characteristic of Gaytán’s analysis. She draws upon both types of evidence to explain the “why” of Tequila. Why is it that, amongst Mexico’s scores of distilled spirits, the one from Tequila, Jalisco became a national emblem? In the post-Tequila Boom 21st century, it can be easy to forget that this was far from a foregone conclusion. The Tequila-soaked world in which we live is a very new reality. The first “Norm” governing Tequila production wasn’t published until 1949, Tequila became Mexico’s first Denomination of Origin product in 1974, the Tequila Regulatory Council was created only in 1994

Gaytan BookIn explaining how Tequila came to be the globally recognized Mexican spirit, Gaytán analyses how Guadalajara and the Jalisco Highlands were deliberately juxtaposed to Mexico City as a “racially pure,” idyllic-yet-modern archetype for a new Mexican century and identity. The extermination of natives in Jalisco had been particularly effective, meaning there was a surplus of available land. Investment flowed into the region when precious metals were discovered, and the cultivation of agave was a cheap investment with a guaranteed payoff. Very often “why Tequila?” is treated as a mystery to which there is no real answer. It is gratifying to see material factors like the ascension of the Port of San Blas and the introduction of the railroad finally acknowledged in a serious way.

It isn’t news to anyone that Tequila is considered a symbol of Mexican national identity, an internationally recognized marker of “Mexicanness.” Gaytán’s analysis goes beyond the surface though, to explore the ways in which this symbol was constructed historically and how its meaning continues to be contested in ways that reflect upon social class, race and gender. If Tequila comes to represent a certain way of “being Mexican” or “doing Mexico,” that is necessarily at the exclusion of other potential ways of being and doing. In Gaytán’s analysis, “Mexicanness” itself is a contested category that would at times exclude the indigenous, urban poor and women.

A feminist gender analysis is present throughout the book – a long-overdue development given that popularly accessible books about Tequila have been overwhelmingly written by men. Gaytán addresses Tequila’s role in the construction of masculinity and femininity, using depictions of Pancho Villa, and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema as rich sources of data. The chapter on Tequila in the comedia ranchera film genre is particularly rich, and is an excellent introduction to that crucial piece of Mexican culture.

This book will tear some people’s blinders off when it comes to the contemporary reality of Tequila. If you are content buying into marketing myths and not questioning the ethics behind the industry, this book will make you a bit uncomfortable. Gaytán’s analysis of Tequila’s tourism industry is particularly damning. She argues strongly that projects like La Ruta del Tequila, and the village’s “Pueblo Mágico” designation have all served to further concentrate resources in the hands of the industry’s largest players, to the detriment of small producers, farmers and local families. Likewise, her critique of the use of jimadores and the agave goddess Mayahuel to sell Tequila and elicit loyalty to the Tequila category provides necessary “next-level” understanding of the myths and realities of Tequila culture.

My only substantive criticism of this book is that a couple of the chapters (on Pancho Villa, and discussions on Tequila with current-day Mexican and Mexican-American drinkers) don’t feel as integrated as the rest. In particular, the interviews with consumers on the meaning of Tequila drinking was the only place in the book where the theoretical aspects felt rather forced, and where it seemed like grand conclusions were drawn from limited data.

The book is so strong though, that it did leave me wanting more. I’d love to see the gender analysis of Tequila’s cultural history brought to bear upon contemporary branding and consumption practices, as well as further qualitative research into the meaning of Tequila consumption amongst the international and multi-ethnic aficionado scene. Hopefully this book will inspire further writing in the same vein.

I highly recommend this insightful book to anyone with any interest or involvement in the Tequila industry. Regardless of your level of knowledge or experience, you’ll certainly learn something, have your assumptions challenged in a constructive way, and deepen your understanding of the culture of Tequila.

-Clayton J. Szczech

Check out previous Tequila book reviews from Experience Tequila, including a selected bibliography of older Tequila books. 

Leopoldo Solis on Fifth Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Leopoldo Solís is a legendary master distillery and Tequila consultant. He was at Cazadores in its prime, and has worked on flavor profiles for several brands made at the Vivanco distillery (NOM 1414), and Tequila Don Pilar. His explanations of the chemistry of fermentation and distillation are some of the most lucid I have heard.

“Experience Tequila’s contribution has been the diffusion of the culture of Tequila. They have contributed to a better understanding and, therefore, appreciation of this world class alcoholic beverage.

Congratulations for having this idea, and we wish you many more years of growth and success. Onward!”

-Ing. Leopoldo Solis Tinoco,  Profesionales en Equipo y Filtración, S.A. de C.V.

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us

Jacob Lustig (ArteNOM) on 5th Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Jacob Lustig has been blazing his own trail in the spirits business for many years. When I first became aware of his Selección ArteNOM line of tequila, I thought “That’s a great idea!” When I saw that he had chosen three of my favorite distilleries to feature – NOMs 1146, 1414 and 1079 (now 1580)- I thought “I have to meet this guy!” What ensued was an hour long phone call while we were both traveling and the discovery of an agave brother from another mother. I can’t emphasize enough how much I respect Jake and what he does for tequila. Salud, amigo!

“Experience Tequila has drawn more people to the enjoyment of Mexico’s premier agave distillate by increasing product knowledge and popularity. Clayton’s pursuit of accurate, pertinent production details and dissemination to a growing body of enthusiasts fulfills a critical need in the continuously developing culture of tequila.

Congratulations Clayton, the first five years are the hardest!”

-Jacob Lustig, Las Joyas del Agave

 Jacob Lustig

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us