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.




December 2014 Update on Mezcal Norm Revisions

What Next for the Mezcal Norm?

by Clayton J. Szczech, December 8, 2014
This is an addendum to a three article series on proposed changes to the Mezcal Norm. Please read the third, second and first parts for background. 

The first Encuentro Nacional de Mezcal took place in Morelia, Michoacán on the last weekend of November. Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco, President of the newly renamed Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM – formerly COMERCAM) offered a presentation on the history of the mezcal’s Denomination of Origin (DO) and regulatory Norm, critiques of the current Norm, and the substance of the current “consensus” Proposal to revise the same. (CRM has also published the official English translation of the Proposal.)

 The Long, Winding Path through Bureacracy

Proposed revisions to any Official Mexican Norm (NOM) must pass through the Secretariat of the Economy’s Directorate General of Norms (DGN). Typically, these proposals are made to the DGN with standardized paperwork, in which the new text is proposed. However, in this case, the proposed changes are of such a radical nature (“a surgical makeover,” as Dr. Nolasco put it) that the generic forms aren’t adequate, and CRM has submitted  a 140-page document explaining and justifying the Proposal.

Once the DGN has thoroughly reviewed the document, they’ll create a consultative council, to include various federal agencies that would be affected, including PROFECO (the federal consumer protection agency) and Hacienda (the equivalent of the IRS). That council will review and may revise the Proposal, and the resulting document will be subject to a public comment period. Following any further revisions, the next version will be published in the Official Gazette (Diario Oficial – similar to the US’s Congressional Record), and subject to another public comment period.

Clearly, it will be crucial to be aware of these public comment periods. Ultimately, the new Norm will have to be approved by the Legislature. CRM is committed to bringing the Proposal to the Legislature without the backing of any particular political party, though Dr. Nolasco did say that if things get bogged down, they may have to re-think that. It’s also worth noting that CRM has provided their document to both the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) and the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry (CNIT).

Holograms and Lingering Concerns

Dr. Nolasco explained that in the new system, every bottle of certified mezcal will have a hologram affixed to it, which the consumer can use to access in-depth production details online. In fact, the CRM site already has a search engine that can be used to get a general idea of how much any particular brand is producing, based on the number of official seals issued by CRM.

Several comments from the audience illustrated that concerns remain over the scope of the Denomination of Origin, as well as the composition of the three classes of mezcal being proposed by CRM. Regarding expanding the DO beyond the current eight states, Dr. Nolasco made it clear that CRM is in favor of both expansion and, eventually, an AVA-style system of regional labeling at the municipality level. Either or both would require federal legislation distinct from the current proposal.

Erick “Almamezcalera” Rodriguez repeated his concerns that the “ancestral” class of mezcal in the Proposal would in fact exclude some undeniably traditional mezcal producers. Specifically, he explained that mezcaleros in San Luís Potosí and Zacatecas do not use bagazo (agave fiber) in either fermentation or distillation, which would exclude them from “ancestral” classification, despite meeting every other criterion. This is similar to the issue raised in June by traditional mezcal producers from Michoacán, who wouldn’t be considered “ancestral” due to their use of copper alembic stills (see my June update for details).

Please continue to check here, or on Experience Mezcal’s Facebook page for updates on this important process.




Mezcaleros Unify Around Improved Norm

Mezcaleros Unify Around Improved Norm

by Clayton J. Szczech, June 26, 2014
This is the third article in a series on COMERCAM’s proposed changes to the Mezcal Norm. Please read the first and second parts for background. 

An elderly indigenous man with sun-wizened skin and a big cowboy hat stands next to a dapper urban lawyer in an expensive tailored suit. The lawyer represents the largest industrial mezcal producer in the world, and is tapping away officiously on his Blackberry. The ranchero has sacrificed an entire day of work to be here, and is on his cell phone, gently but authoritatively instructing his son as to the urgent tasks in the family’s small cornfield. These two figures pretty well bookend the contemporary mezcal industry, and both are in Building Five of the “Administrative City” just outside of the Oaxacan capital to debate and decide the future of mezcal.

They were joined on June 23 by a historic, standing-room only gathering of over 200 mezcal producers, bottlers, brand owners and maguey growers from all eight states in the Mezcal Denomination of Origin (DO). The meeting was the final in a series, convened by COMERCAM (mezcal’s regulatory body) to solicit feedback on its proposal to radically alter the Official Mexican Norm currently governing mezcal. The proposal purported to recognize the hard manual labor, adherence to tradition and resultant lower yields and higher prices of small artisan producers by introducing a new category of mezcal. It was attacked by large industrial producers as too radical, and by the most rustic producers as too timid. COMERCAM had heard those, and other points of view for three weeks, and was about to present a modified proposal that they hoped would satisfy everyone.

COMERCAM Director Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco called the meeting order just as the arrival of a bus of producers and brand reps from the state of Guerrero brought the room to its maximum capacity. He asked for unity and mutual respect as the proposal was presented and debated. Unfortunately, he was immediately interrupted by two well-known proponents of the status quo, who attempted to derail the process entirely. They were effectively shut down by the multitude who had travelled quite far in some cases, and weren’t about to be bullied or have their time wasted. Four productive hours later, practically everyone in the room was pleasantly surprised by the document that had been produced and the relative lack of acrimony in the proceedings. A tasty lunch together while taking in Mexico’s surprising 3-1 drubbing of Croatia in the World Cup certainly didn’t hurt the shared feeling of accomplishment and progress.

The New Mezcal

Most significantly, the final proposal defines all mezcal as 100% agave, and breaks it down into three categories, defined by production methods. This goes quite a ways toward the type of recognition for the most traditional mezcals long demanded by traditionalists such as Mezcaloteca, La Logia de los Mezcólatras, Mezonte and Almamezcalera. There are of course remaining issues, which I’ll note below.

Three New Categories
  • “Mezcal” category: essentially unchanged, though now explicitly lists processes that may be used. Diffusors and column stills continue to be allowed. Stainless steel is allowed in both fermentation and distillation. There were a large number of attendees in favor of calling this category “industrial mezcal,” a proposal which is vehemently opposed by the largest producers and also by many others who believe such a label would tarnish mezcal’s reputation as a whole. (After all, industrial vodkas, gins, etc. are not labeled as such.)
  • “Artisanal Mezcal” category:  These mezcals may be produced with either earthen pits or stone ovens, but the maguey must be cooked by “direct fire” (this does not necessarily mean firewood). The maguey can be milled by hand, stone wheel or mechanical shredder (but not mill chains). Allowable fermentation vats can be stone, earth, clay, animal hides or wood (but not stainless steel). Distillation is in alembics with copper or clay pots, and monteras may be wood, copper, clay or stainless steel.
  • “Ancestral Mezcal” category: The most restrictive of the three, these mezcals must be produced with earthen pits and milled by hand or stone mill.  Fermentation vats must be stone, earth, clay or animal hides. Stills must be clay pots, with or without wood or clay monteras. Agave fiber must be present in both fermentation and distillation. Disallowing copper alembic stills in this category is perhaps the most controversial element of the entire revised proposal to many traditionalists.

Producers from Michoacán who were present at the meeting, in particular, were adamant that copper alembics have been used to produce mezcal in their state for centuries. They argued that if that isn’t “ancestral,” what is? This argument gets to the very historical roots of mezcal, as it remains a subject of intense debate whether the copper alembics brought by the Spanish Conquistadores were very quickly copied using local materials like clay and bamboo (as Ulíses Torrentera argues), or whether clay stills are in fact pre-Hispanic (a possibility suggested by the research of Drs. Daniel Zizumbo and Patricia Colunga). In one of the few truly disappointing moments of the meeting, a proposal to add copper alembics to this category was not allowed to be voted upon. This will likely remain a very sore point in the years to come.

The most closely contested vote of the day was to decide whether to call the third category of mezcal “traditional” or “ancestral.” Both terms are quite loaded, given that what is considered traditional changes over time, and what is truly ancestral is open to debate given that most pre-Conquest records were destroyed by the Spanish. After heated debate, the “ancestral” camp carried the day, by a vote of 95 to 93.

Four Classes

The categories break down into the following four classes:

  • Blanco: the mezcal formerly known as “joven.” That change was not without controversy. The argument that “young” in translation doesn’t do justice to the long maturation period of the agave and the laborious production process ultimately carried the day.
  • Madurado (“matured”): mezcal aged in glass for a minimum of twelve months. The label can state the amount of time it has been aged.
  • Reposado: mezcal aged in barrels between two and twelve months. The wood does not have to be oak, interestingly. The argument is that regional Mexican woods should be given a chance. After considerable debate, a limit on barrel size was voted down. The label can state the amount of time it has been aged.
  • Añejo: mezcal aged over twelve months, in any type of wood vessel of any size. The label can state the amount of time it has been aged.

Th use of additives (abocantes – flavors, aromas and stabilizers, including worms, damiana, caramel, etc.) and production of traditional pechugas are defined as “additional operations.” The ingredients used in either must be listed on the label. The term “destilado con” is required for pechugas, followed by the ingredients present in the still. Pechugas are only allowed for artisanal and ancestral mescals. So for example, an artisanal pechuga distilled with chicken breast could read (in English) something like “Artesanal Blanco Mezcal, Distilled with Chicken.”

Maguey Or Agave?

One of the day’s most extended and passionate debates concerned the terms “maguey” versus “agave,” particularly in terms of which should be required in labeling. Maguey, of course, is the older of the two terms, having arrived from the Caribean with the Spanish in 1519. It is the preferred term in Oaxaca and many other mezcal regions. However, there is a strong argument for using the scientific name of the genus, agave, in that there is broader understanding of its meaning throughout the world.

Convincing arguments were made on both sides, with those having more contact with commercialization and international sales tending to prefer “agave,” and most of the older, rural producers strongly preferring “maguey.” The latter see “agave” as an imposition of the Tequila industry, which is a bigger part of their reality than a concept like “scientific name.” Tradition is reality, and one gentleman from San Luís Potosí asserted that “the Tequila makers brought us the name ‘agave.’”

Ultimately, a compromise was approved in which labels must state that the mezcal is “100% Maguey” as well as name the scientific name(s) of the raw material. Common or local names are allowed but not required.

Important Odds and Ends

  • “Mature” maguey is defined as about to or having produced a quiote (flower stalk).
  • The parameters around acidity have been removed entirely.
  • All mezcal must now be filtered for solids (essentially with paper), and aggressive activated carbon filtration will continue to be allowed.
  • Labels will be required to list the scientific name(s) of the agave(s) used, and in the case of ensembles, the species must be listed in descending order by mass. (This is to avoid labeling a mezcal simply “tobalá,” for example, when it contains only a small fraction of that agave. This practice is believed to be widespread.)
  • Labels must name the state where the mezcal as produced. This is intended as a small first step towards eventually introducing more specific appellation zones, similar to wine.

What is Next?

The draft that resulted from this final meeting now goes to COMERCAM’s legal team, who will ensure the verbiage meets the standards of the General Directorate of Norms (DGN). It will then be reviewed by various other federal entities, including the DGN and Mexico’s trademark institute. These reviews will be followed by a 30 day public comment period. I’ll continue to monitor the process and post updates here.

Battle Lines Drawn Over Mezcal Rule Changes

Battle Lines Drawn Over Mezcal Rule Changes

by Clayton J. Szczech, June 18, 2014
This is the second article in a series on COMERCAM’s proposed changes to the Mezcal Norm. Read the first part here. 

While the leadership of COMERCAM seeks to build consensus around a modified version of their proposed changes to the Mezcal Norm, there is opposition from both the industrial sector, which has dug in to resist all change, as well as advocates of traditional mezcal, who would like to see the changes go further in recognizing and protecting the oldest surviving production methods.

This article is based on my attendance at the June 2 meeting of producers in Mexico City, reports from the May 26 meeting in Oaxaca and off the record comments from many of the involved parties. While there was extensive debate (the DF meeting lasted 8 hours) on myriad proposed changes, rather than report on points they may ultimately be made moot, I will focus on the basic arguments made at the two ends of the spectrum, and some areas where there appears to be consensus in the middle.

Under the leadership of biochemist Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco, COMERCAM has undertaken a study of various Denominations of Origin (DOs), and proposed that Cognac is the example for mezcal to follow. Nolasco proposes “divorcing ourselves from Tequila,” and opting for a French-style alternative that would prioritize preserving and adding value to the category, even at the expense of limiting growth in volume. While there are many disagreements over details, this vision is largely supported by mezcal producers, though there are powerful exceptions. Fundamentally, the question boils down to this: will the Norm follow the model of Tequila, and allow for potentially unlimited growth in production, or the model of Cognac and limit production methods (and therefore growth) to preserve quality and increase prices? This will be the central conflict of mezcal in the coming months and years.

The Emerging Consensus

At the time of this article, all but one of the regional meetings of producers have taken place. It must be emphasized that these meetings are strictly advisory. It’s clear that COMERCAM is taking the perspective of all present seriously, and incorporating amendments and changes that are agreed upon by a majority of those present. The following points seem to me to comprise the emerging numerical consensus regarding changes to the COMERCAM proposal. To be clear, there is strong opposition to many or all of these points from either the industrial or traditional camps, which will be addressed below.

Emerging points of agreement
  • accepting COMERCAM’s proposed class / category scheme, including  allowing only 100% agave mezcals.
  • accepting two classes – one being “artisanal,” defined by process and possibly by maximum volume produced
  • making the artisanal category and the “mezcal” category mutually exclusive. Under the original COMERCAM proposal, all artisanal mezcal was also “mezcal”
  • not requiring “double distillation,” to allow for single distillation (traditional in some regions), triple distillation (include some pechugas) and “mini-columns” or plates that are contained in alembic stills
  • limiting either batch size or the size of ovens, fermentation vats and/or stills in the case of artisanal mezcal
  • maintaing “abocado” as a label term, and not its own class (to continue to allow for “reposados con gusano,” for example)
  • more specifically defining “mature agave”
  • requiring labels to list scientific name(s) of agave(s) used, and allowing the use of the common / local name(s)
  • requiring some type of minimum percentage of agave used in blends / ensembles
  • limiting maximum saleable bottle size to 5 liters

The Cornered Industrial Giant

Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto (CAGP) produced over 20% of all certified mezcal by volume in 2013, including the brands Zignum, Recuerdo de Oaxaca, Senorio and other industrial mezcals and mezcal-based products. They sent a team of 5 or more representatives to the regional meetings of producers in Oaxaca, Mexico City and Guerrero and planned to send them to the remaining meetings in Michoacán, Zacatecas, San Luís Potosí and Tamualipas as well.

It is clear that CAGP has a vision for mezcal that is not shared by the majority of producers. CAGP insists that no restrictions whatsoever on production methods are valid, and that their industrial production processes must be allowed because of the money they have already invested in them. The abyss between CAGP and most other producers in terms of what mezcal is or should be was encapsulated by debate over the diffuser at the Mexico City meeting.

The diffuser is a machine that extracts nearly 100% of all fermentable carbohydrates from the agave, using acids or enzymes, even from the raw plant. This process is the pinnacle of achievement for maximizing efficiency and lowering costs, but leaves much to be desired in terms aroma and flavor. After all, if the agave isn’t cooked, there is no cooked agave flavor.

This was one of many points raised by producers in favor of the current proposal’s prohibition on diffuser hydrolysis. The very word mezcal is derived from the Nahuátl words for “cooked agave,” and almost all producers see the diffuser process as so foreign to mezcal that allowing it strips the term “mezcal” of any meaning. CAGP, on the other hand, feel that they are being unfairly singled out (there is another produced in San Luís Potosí with a diffuser, but they are producing hardly any mezcal). They argue that since firing up five years ago, they have operated within the confines of the existing Norm, have invested significant funds into this process, and that it wouldn’t be fair to change it on them now. The response of the majority is that the current Norm is deeply flawed and that a process so antithetical to historical mezcal processes should never have  been permitted.

Since the diffuser can also be used to extract sugar from cooked agave (as CAGP does in fact, with the Recuerdo de Oaxaca line), many at the Mexico City meeting suggested a compromise position: do not explicitly ban the diffuser, but require that all agave for mezcal be cooked. This would allow for the modified oven-diffuser process currently used for Recuerdo de Oaxaca to be used for all of CAGP’s products. (One attendee even, quite seriously, suggested to CAGP that although they are fighting this compromise, it would ultimately result in them being forced to produce a slightly superior product!)

Goliath on the Offensive

As mentioned, CAGP is participating aggressively in each of the regional producers’ meetings. They haven’t limited their activity to the meetings, however. Many assume that CAGP is behind the Mexican press assault on the proposed Norm change and COMERCAM’s Director. The worst of these (June 12, June 11, May 29)  have appeared in Oaxaca’s ironically named “Imparcial”  Unfortunately, many people have been misled by these articles into thinking that the proposed changes are an attack on traditional mezcal, rather than an attempt to level the playing field for them somewhat.

On the public front, CAGP has officially issued a counter proposal that would change….almost nothing. “Type II” (mixto) mezcal, diffusers, column stills and carbon filtration would continue to be allowed. They would do away with the proposed changes to make terminology more consistent, as well as axing the “madurado” (glass-aged) class, the requirement that additives be clearly stated on the label, and they would maintain the nonsensical maximum allowed level of acidity. Indeed, their only apparent concession to the nearly universal desire for change would be to define the term “artisanal.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, CAGP’s proposed definition of artisanal mezcal would please practically nobody. First of all, the “artisanal” label could potentially be applied to Type II (mixto) mezcales, as well as reposados and añejos. The “artisanal” process would be defined as cooked with wood (curiously, not defined as cooked in earthen pits), milled by hand or stone wheel, fermented in stone, wood, earth, clay or skin (with agave fiber), and distilled in alembics of any material (including stainless steel).

It’s interesting to say the least that CAGP proposed to define “artisanal” mezcal, since they have otherwise made it clear that they would just as soon these mezcals disappear entirely in the name of progress. Their strongly worded letter to COMERCAM that accompanied the counter-proposal is worth reading in its entirety (the English translation used here is my own). CAGP make clear that they are opposed to any Normative restriction whatsoever on production methods. They argue that the very purpose of the Norm should be economic growth, increasing efficiency and lowering production costs, rather than preserving tradition. They also make reference to the pro-growth policies of Mexican President Peña-Nieto, none too subtly suggesting that they will fight any proposed changes further up the political ladder (all Norm changes must ultimately be approved by the Legislature). Most remarkably, they protest that the meetings of producers have been run democratically, which they claim as unfair since of course the smaller producers outnumber them. (As a reminder, these meetings are simply advisory in nature, and every individual member of CAPG’s team has voted in each of the meetings they have attended. Most brands have, at most, one representative voting at one meeting.)

Speaking Up for the Little Guy

At the other end of the spectrum, Erick Rodriguez (Almamezcalera) and Marco Ochoa (Mezcaloteca), educators and strong advocates for traditional mezcal, are organizing among producers and crafting their own counter proposal. At the June 2 meeting in Mexico City, Rodriguez proposed and passionately argued for a three-category Norm of industrial, artisanal and traditional mezcals. Responding to semantic argument over the idea of “traditional,” Rodriguez made it clear that the terminology is secondary to creating some more restrictive category that recognizes the most primitive production techniques, and was amenable, for example, to the idea of a “rústico” category. At the time of voting however, there was not sufficient support for a third category.

The traditionalists will be present at the Oaxaca meeting on June 23 to formally present their counter-proposal. While they would like a third category to be limited to mezcales produced with earth ovens (up to 15 tons), hand-mashing, and clay- or copper-distillation, they are also calling on COMERCAM to fully study production methods in the various communities to ensure that no traditional process is left out of any new Norm.

Meanwhile, COMERCAM is urging all interested parties to submit their written comments on the proposed Norm changes. Please take the time to educate yourself and comment. Another opportunity to affect changes to the mezcal Norm might be years down the road.

UPDATE: This article continues in Part Three.

COMERCAM Proposal Would Recognize, Define Artisanal Mezcal

COMERCAM Proposal Would Recognize, Define Artisanal Mezcal

by Clayton J. Szczech, June 1, 2014

For years, artisanal mezcal producers and their advocates have critiqued the mezcal Norm as biased in favor of large, industrial producers, and out of touch with mezcal culture, tradition and the reality lived by small mezcaleros. Specifically, it seemed to many to have been simplistically copied from Tequila’s Norm, in making no mention of traditional production processes, introducing a mixed sugar source type of mezcal and establishing aging categories not traditional in mezcal.

On May 19, Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco, president of mezcal’s regulatory body – the COMERCAM- issued a draft proposal for changes to the Norm governing mezcal (NOM-070-SCFI-1994) that would take major steps towards elevating the status of artisanal mezcal and its producers by means of some radical changes to everything from mezcal’s very definition, to the way it is bottled and labeled.

Please keep in mind that the proposal is a “draft for discussion,” and that these or any changes to the Norm would require a political process, most likely lasting years. The Mexican government ultimately establishes what is in the Norm, and authorizes COMERCAM to enforce it. I’m putting this very basic piece out immediately in the interest of timely dissemination of the proposal in English, and will follow up with analysis and perspective from various parties – on the content of the proposal, the process of changing the Norm, and the interests involved in both.

The current article is based on a line-by-line read through of the draft proposal against the 2000 revision to the Norm (NOM-EM-007-SCFI-2000). The originals documents are in Spanish, and the translated English text presented here is my own. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, here’s the take away: there is a lot in the proposal that should please fans of traditional and artisanal mezcal. COMERCAM is proposing that all mezcal be 100% agave, the creation of a traditional / artisanal mezcal category, and a couple of significant changes to the classes within each category, which would include the prohibition of both diffusors and continuous (column) distillation.

Prioritizing the Agave and the Mezcalero

The proposal would change the qualitative definition of mezcal, reflecting a much more traditional approach. The existing Norm defines mezcal as

“a liquid of sui generis color and flavor according to its type. It is colorless or lightly yellow when it is rested or aged in white oak recipients, or when it contains additives with being rested or aged.”

Compare this rather dry definition, with such emphasis on non-traditional oak aging to the proposed new definition:

“A liquid whose aroma and flavor are derived from the type of agave used and the production process, whose qualities are diversified by the soil type, topography, climate, water, producer (maestro mezcalero), percentage of alcohol, and regional yeasts utilized in fermentation, among other factors which define the character and organoleptic sensations of each Mezcal.”

While this passage doesn’t necessarily make any formal rule changes, and is found in the middle of the text (section 4.1), it places the traditional elements of agave, land, water, climate, native yeast and, crucially, the maestro mezcalero, at the heart of the very definition of mezcal. In the current Norm, these elements are all but absent. Moving from the general to the specific, the changes are even more radical. The current norm allows for two “Types” of mezcal – 100% agave Mezcal (Type I) and Mezcal (Type II), which may be produced with up to 20% non-agave sugar in fermentation. Three “categories” can be produced from each Type: joven, reposado and añejo. Any of the three categories may be “abocado” – enhanced with flavor or color additives (abocantes).

Good-bye ‘Mixto,’ Hello ‘Madurado

Ironically, while the mezcal Norm is criticized for mimicking the Tequila Norm in nonsensical ways, it doesn’t follow the same logic of classification and nomenclature, leading to a lot of confusion between the two spirit categories. The proposed changes would recognize more traditional mezcals in its content, but at the same time change the nomenclature to make it more consistent with that of Tequila (2 categories, comprised of various classes), presumably to smooth the commercial path for mezcal into larger national and international markets.

Current Norm

          • Type I (100% Agave Mezcal), Type II (80 / 20 Mezcal)
          • 3 categories within each Type (any can be abocado)
          • “Joven” category: un-aged, may be abocado
          • [N/A]
          • “Reposado” category: rested a minimum of 2 months in oak, may be abocado
          • “Añejo / añejado” category: matured a minimum of 1 year in oak containers of max. 200L, may be abocado

Proposed Changes

            • Categories: Mezcal; Traditional / Artisanal Mezcal (both 100% agave)
            • 5 classes within each category (abocado is a class to itself)
            • “Blanco” class: un-aged
            • “Madurado” (matured) class: Mezcal contained in a glass recipient for at least 6 months, underground or in a space with stable temperature and humidity
            • “Reposado” class: contained in wood 2-12 months, in a space with stable temperature and humidity
            • “Añejado” class: contained in wood a minimum of 1 year
            • “Abocado” class: flavored or smoothed via the addition of regional ingredients such as insects, fruits, herbs, vegetables, honey, salt, meats, biochemically obtained colorings, among others, as long as there is no health risk. Limited to 5% mass/volume

The proposal would change “Types” to “categories” and establish “classes” within them. The allowance for 80 / 20 mezcal would be scrapped altogether and, crucially, a Traditional/Artisanal mezcal category would be created. The traditional practice of maturing mezcal in glass would be recognized in the “Madurado” class, and “Abocado” would become its own class. The latter would formally recognize traditional pechugas, as well as allow for continued production of caramel- and other flavored, commercial mezcals.

The proposed changes to the reposado and añejo classes seem to reflect a relative lack of concern for them, which makes sense in the context of bringing the Norm more into line with mezcal traditions. Gone is the specification that the wood used be white oak, and there is actually filler text where parameters for the volume of the wood containers could be inserted.

Defining Traditional

The two new proposed categories – Mezcal and Traditional /Artisanal Mezcal – would be defined by the specific techniques used in production, reflecting a longstanding demand of smaller, more traditional producers.

Proposed New Categories


            • Cooking: Earthen pit, clay ovens, autoclaves
            • Crushing/milling: by hand, stone wheel, mechanical shredder or mill chain
            • Fermentation: stone, wood, earth, clay, animal hide or stainless steel containers or holes, with yeasts native to Mexico (cultivated or not)
            • Double, discontinuous distillation in alembics with clay, copper or stainless steel pots and [/or] clay, wood, copper or stainless steel “monteras”

Traditional / Artisanal Mezcal

            • Cooking: Earthen pits, maximum 10 tons
            • Crushing/milling: by hand, stone wheel, mechanical shredder
            • Fermentation: stone, wood, earth, clay, animal hide containers or holes (≤1500L), with agave fiber & yeasts native to Mexico (cultivated or not)
            • Double, discontinuous distillation with agave fiber, by direct flame, in alembics (≤500L) with clay or copper pots and [/or] clay, wood, copper or stainless steel “monteras.”

The most striking proposal is that diffusors and column distillation would be disallowed entirely, in either category. (This will certainly be controversial to the largest industrial producer, which I’ll address in a separate article.) Both clay ovens and autoclaves could continue to be used in the Mezcal category, though all Traditional/Artisanal Mezcal would have to be produced from earthen pits. The only difference in milling would be that Traditional / Artisanal Mezcal could not employ the type of milling chains widely used in Tequila production.

In fermentation and distillation, Traditional /Artisanal Mezcals would be prohibited from using stainless steel and both fermentation tanks and stills would be limited to a maximum volume. Only mezcals including agave fiber in both fermentation and distillation could be labeled Traditional /Artisanal. The specification of “yeasts native to Mexico (cultivated or not)” would seem to prohibit the use of imported commercial yeasts, but allow for those developed in Mexican labs.

Other Changes: Maturity, Acidity, Filtration

Other significant proposed changes include:

            • Agave

              • Defining mature agave as ““near the development of its inflorescence or having had the inflorescence cut, or being at least five years old”
              • Effectively removing the prohibition against mezcal produced with Agave tequilana in the states of Tamaulipas, Guanajuato and Michoacán, which are in both the Tequila and Mezcal Denominations of Origin
              • Introducing controls and oversight of agave fields
            • Labeling

              • Requiring that additives be listed by name on the label (whether traditional or biochemical)
              • Requiring the scientific or common name of the agave(s) used, on the label
              • Requiring blends or ensembles of more than one agave to state the percentage of each agave used
              • Substituting “DOM” (Denominación de Origin Mezcal) for “NOM” on the labels, with the producer’s identifying number
            • Physicochemical Parameters

              • Removing the parameter for maximum acidity allowed (artisanal mezcals tend to be more acidic, and the existing maximum threshold for acidity has effectively blocked many from becoming certified)
              • Lowering the minimum parameters for methanol and dry extract
            • Bottling

              • Prohibiting activated carbon filtration
              • Establishing a 19 liter maximum on bottles for sale
              • Establishing new rules for bottling

What is Next?

Meetings between mezcal producers / brands and COMERCAM took place in Oaxaca City on May 26, and Mexico City on June 2. In the coming weeks more will be held in Guerrero, Michoacán, Sal Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas. COMERCAM is collecting comments and feedback from producers, and a meeting with representatives of all 8 DO states will be help in Oaxaca City on June 23. I’ll continue to report on developments here.

UPDATE: This article continues in Part Two and Part Three.

Mexico Bans Additives in Blanco Tequilas

Mexico Bans Additives in Blanco Tequilas

The current, revised “Norm” on Tequila (NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-006-SCFI-2012, Bebidas alcohólicas – Tequila – Especificaciones), was published in December 2012 and went into effect in February of 2013. In early 2013, I had extensive and detailed conversations with the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) and several Tequila producers, which led to this piece. While I have been speaking about this in presentations and trainings since May 2013, it is being posted here for the first time, in order to reach a broader audience. 

Most people reading this will  know that many “mixto” Tequilas are chock-full of caramel coloring and glycerin. But many don’t realize that, when it comes to additives, both the 100% agave category and the “mixto” category are allowed the same “natural” additives.

The Norm explicitly allows caramel color, oak extract, glycerin and “sugar-based syrup” to be added  to either category of Tequila. So then, if these are the permitted additives, where have all the obviously foreign flavors in blancos in recent years come from? The vanilla, coconut, cotton candy, marshmallow and tutti-fruity candy notes? (Note that vanilla and coconut aromas result naturally from oak aging. For the moment we’re talking only about blancos.)

It seems that over the years, some producers got rather cheeky with the “sugar-based syrup” allowance, and that is where they were adding other additives – to the syrup itself. After all, sophisticated, expensive additives created in laboratories are effective in such small amounts that the syrup to which they are added is still inarguably “sugar-based.” What’s more, since the Norm doesn’t specify the source or type of sugar, that opens the door for the addition of agave-sugar based syrup. Imagine that – adding agave syrup to a finished Tequila blanco!

If this doesn’t strike you as authentic or fair, you’re not alone. And there’s good news. As of February 2013, no blancos may contain additives, period. Yes, you read that right. No Tequila in the blanco / plata class may contain abocantes – the aforementioned additives. The “new” Norm states explicitly that only water may be added to blancos after distillation. (Blancos may still be rested in/on oak for up to 60 days.)

Like any regulatory document, the Norm is subject to interpretation, but it’s ultimately the CRT that determines exactly how it will be enforced. In 2013, I was party to a very interesting discussion with the CRT and a well-regarded producer who uses certain additives. He was reading the new text in a way that would have allowed for the continued use of additives in blancos. After a few weeks of back and forth and checking up and down the chain of command, we had a definitive answer. After February 2013, additives are not permitted in blancos. (There will inevitably be questions and cynicism about how well this is being enforced, but these are beyond the scope of this article.)

Here’s what I suggest: blind tastings of blanco Tequilas that you’ve previously believed to be using additives – using 2012 bottles and 2014 bottles. Feel free to share your results!

No changes were made regarding additives to the other four classes of Tequila. Also, “flavored Tequilas” are a completely separate category and must be labelled as such.