Sotol’s Cultural Appropriation

sotolFor over the past seven years, I’ve been a huge supporter of the Mexican spirit known as sotol.  You can read what I had to say about it in Tom Barry’s excellent article, A Sotol Story.

In case you’re unaware, sotol is made from the Desert Spoon plant (Dasylirion wheeleri) that grows in Northern Mexico, as well as Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, and what is known as the Texas Hill Country, and all the way south to Oaxaca.

Sotol has its own Denomination of Origin, and can only be produced in the Mexican states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Coahuila.

In the latter part of 2017, there has been a good bit of positive press like this one in Forbes, for three gentlemen from Austin, Texas who have produced their version called Desert Door.  They’ve even opened a distillery in Austin and are giving tours of their facility.

Claiming historical evidence that it has always been smuggled across Texas borders as moonshine, the owners of Desert Door have been quoted in the Forbes article as “…We want to make sotol to Texas what bourbon is to Kentucky.”

In other words, they propose that their version of sotol be adopted as Texas’ official spirit.

Caution:  Rant Ahead

The above statement prompted the following late night Facebook Live rant on one of our final days of the Wild Wild West 2017 Tour.

It was brought to our attention that the above rant was considered “strained,” “weak,” and “petty” after it aired on Facebook.

While the reader had some valid points for his argument, here’s what we do know–

The Facts on Sotol

–Sotol does have a Denomination of Origin (DO), as mentioned above, since 2001-2002.  It is recognized by 27 countries, except the USA.

–Under the original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1993-94, only Tequila and Mezcal were recognized by both the US and Canada, while Bourbon Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Canadian Whiskey were all recognized by Mexico.

–However, the 1997 agreement between the European Union and Mexico recognized the intellectual property of Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol and Charanda.

–At this writing, we have solicited samples of Desert Door Texas sotol for our Sipping Off he Cuff(c) series, but have yet to receive any.

–We have tasted Genius Liquids’ version of Texas sotol made from the Dasylirion texanum, a variety of the plant that grows in Texas.  You can read all about it in our article A Sotol By Any Other Name.

Pay close attention to the owner, Mike Groener, as he explained the lengths he took to distill an authentic product by conferring with several sotol producing families in Mexico.

–It is true that Mexico has been less-than-stellar in protecting and maintaining its DOs, especially lately when it comes to amending the Mezcal normas (regulations) and admitting additional states into the producing and growing regions.

It seems that whenever the transnational corporations that heavily lobby for such changes in order to line their pockets (remember NOM 199 ?), the Tequila or Mezcal Regulatory Councils see fit to do so.

The Denominations of Origin in Mexico have failed small agave spirits producers.  The fact that the US has randomly recognized only a few of these DOs, doesn’t help, either.

–Our sources point out that the Sotol Regulatory Council is not as well financed as the other two major councils.  Their efforts to police and protect its DO are hindered by disorganization and (shocker, here), corruption.

Those sotol producers with pedigree find this fact a source of frustration and disappointment.

–In Sotol’s defense, the original petition for its Denomination of Origin clearly states the archaeological and historical evidence of its existence south of the border, as well as north of it.

The indigenous people who inhabited what is now considered the Borderlands, have a centuries old cultural tie to the sereque (sotol) plant.  Its everyday uses were discovered and exclusively utilized by them.

–The oldest permit to distill sotol commercially on both sides of the border belongs to the famed Jacquez family of Janos, Chihuahua, makers of the Don Cuco and Por Siempre brands.

–And, yes, sotol has been smuggled into the US since before Prohibition.

Probably, the most famous of these smugglers was Pancho Villa, who at one time maintained a “stash house” in El Paso, Texas.

Ironically, he was a teetotaler.   He did, however, partake of sotol for medicinal purposes.  After all, he was born in the Mexican state of Durango, part of the Sotol Denomination of Origin.

Sotol Smugglers’ Blues

Lastly, we salute the partners of Desert Door and their well funded efforts.  Texas has a long entrepreneurial history of Empresarios.

What it does not have is a history of distilling this particular spirit as part of its culture in order to support whole families and communities.  This, in fact, is what Appellations of Origin were designed for.

As Sarah Bowen , a member of our Women In The Tequila Industry gallery discussed in this Facebook thread–

…what is really needed is a more rigorous and thoughtful legal system that recognizes DOs across borders.

Failure to do so could result in a reverse effect for Bourbon Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Canadian Whiskey within its own borders.

Tit for Tat

The obvious question is–

Why doesn’t Mexico just make their own version of Whiskey and call it Bourbon?

As Ricardo Pico of Sotol Clande so eloquently put it in his response to this Facebook thread…

“…out of respect for an existing category and because we don’t have a tradition or heritage…on Bourbon production.”

Open Doors

Showing respect–a true Texas tradition–especially for an existing spirits category, was successfully accomplished by Genuis Liquids.

Perhaps, someday, like the Karakasevic family when they produced their Charbay Tequila at the renowned La Altena distillery with the blessing of Tapatio’s Carlos Camarena, someone on this side of the border will distill a true sotol at a proper vinata (sotol distillery) on the other side?

It could–and should–happen.

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams

Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4juThere are few books on the subject of Tequila that are considered classics.  The Book Of Tequila by the late, great Bob Emmons, stands out as the most essential for any student of agave spirits.

I consider Emmons the first, true Tequila Journalist.  He was the first American author to demystify the much maligned Mexican tipple, and give it its rightful place among other elite sipping spirits.

Even posthumously, Emmons’ tome is so sought after that it is almost impossible to buy in paperback, let alone in hardcover.  Obtaining a used copy, in any condition, is like discovering a treasure bottle of Porfidio Barrique, and just as pricey.

Ian Williams’ Tequila:  A Global History, is not that kind of book–

But it could be.

What’s Left?

Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4ju

To say that Emmons volume was ahead of its time goes without saying.

Chock-full of such useful information as addresses of the then existing distilleries, to the history of tequila, and even drinks recipes, Emmons covered it all.

So, what’s left to report?

Everything!

The Rest of The Story

Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4ju
The late Bob Emmons.

Since the first printing of Emmons’ book in April 1997,  coinciding with the bilateral agreement between Mexico and the European Union that recognized tequila’s and mezcal’s denominations of origin a month later,  the Tequila Industry has boomed and busted at least twice, maybe even three or four times.

And Agave Spirits, in general, has zoomed to the forefront of every mixology menu riding the wave of an unprecedented global cocktail craze.

That’s where  Williams’ Tequila:  A Global History steps in.

Have A Drink!

Sadly, Emmons is no longer on this earthly plane to have a drink with and to discuss the dawning of the growth of the Tequila Industry.  Ian Williams, on the other hand, is alive and well and free for a drink!

Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4ju
Ian Williams, author of Tequila: A Global History.

We asked Ian to join us on Open Bar to discuss Tequila:  A  Global History.  You can view that episode here or read on.

A wordsmith of the most delightful kind, the affable Williams literally embodies the voice and narrative of his book.  With a sly smile and a gleam in his eye, this witty Brit kept us in stitches, sumptuously entertaining us with his tequila and mezcal travel tales.

Something For Everyone

His information isn’t just historically priceless (his interview with the controversial pariah Martin Grassl, innovator of Porfidio tequila, alone is

Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4ju
Porfidio Barrique

worth the purchase price), but also timely.

Williams deftly discusses the contentious implications of the recently tabled NOM 199 facing the Mezcal Industry and explains the true meanings of the newest designations (ancestral, traditional, artisanal, and industrial) that marketers have diluted into buzzwords to drive the craft spirits sensation.

He skillfully weaves the known Mayan, Olmec and Aztec chronology with current archaeological discoveries of Asian influenced distillation methods that stand to rewrite that history and the part played by the Spanish conquistadors.

And for Millennials seeking to educate themselves, Williams tackles sustainability issues, organic agave spirits, premiumization in the agave spirits market, and the sexiness of the agave plant itself.  Even photos and cocktail recipes are included.

Mr. Williams does all this while craftily drawing parallels and similarities from his whisk(e)y, scotch and rum experiences (see Rum:  A Social and Sociable History) as well as touching on other Mexican spirits like sotol and bacanora.

Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4ju

If Bob Emmons’ quintessential primer is considered The Greatest Tequila Story Ever Told, then Ian Williams’ Tequila:  A Global History, could be its worthy sequel in a continuing agave saga.

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Women In The Tequila Industry: Sarah Bowen

Divided Spirits, Sarah BowenI have many fond memories of my first meeting Sarah Bowen during the historic Ian Chadwick Blue Agave Forum tour of tequila distilleries in 2006.

She was a young student then, relentlessly recording every interview with master distillers and jimadores on a digital voice recorder, in flawless Spanish.

Who knew that ten years later she would be a wife, mother, and an Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University?

No doubt, she did.

Her years of intricate research into the tequila–and the now booming mezcal–industry led her in 2015 to publish Divided Spirits:  Tequila, Mezcal and the Politics of Production.

A vital voice that every potential Tequila Boss Lady should heed, here are Sarah’s responses to our handful of questions.

***

Bowen_headshot, Sarah BowenTA:  How would you describe your experiences as a woman in a primarily male dominated industry?  (What are the challenges you face when dealing with the male dominated Tequila/Mezcal Industries?)

SB:  I am a researcher, not a part of the tequila or mezcal industries, so I think that matters.  I have thought a lot, however, about how being a woman mattered for my research.

For my book, I did over 100 interviews, and most of these were with men, who still hold most positions of power in the industry.  I think that in some cases, being a woman gave me an advantage.

Many of the men I interviewed did not perceive me, a young woman and a student at the time, as a threat or even as someone with a lot of knowledge of the industry.

This meant they were often willing to share politically controversial perspectives or details about their companies that I don’t know they would have shared with someone they saw as more of a contemporary.

TA:  How have you been able to change things within the Tequila/Mezcal Industries?

SB:  In my book and in some of my other writing, I have tried to communicate the important issues facing the tequila and mezcal industries and show how consumers in the U.S. can advocate on behalf of small producers, farmers, and workers.

Consumers in the U.S. and Mexico helped defeat NOM 186 several years ago, and I hope we will be able to defeat NOM 199, the absurd proposal that would force many small mezcal producers to use the word “komil” to sell their spirits.

In a certain sense, I have more hope for the future of mezcal, in particular, than I have [tequila] in the ten years since I started studying these industries.

Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about issues related to sustainability, quality, and fairness in these industries, and I hope that I might have played some small part in that.  But I also realize that it’s an uphill battle.

The rules that define tequila and mezcal have evolved in one direction for the last 60 years, and almost every decision has favored the big companies over small producers and workers.  Changing that trajectory is difficult, but I think we’re starting to see some positive changes.

TA:  What do you see as the future of women working within the Tequila/Mezcal Industries?

SB:  I think that women are going to become more visible in the tequila and mezcal industries in the next few years.

Sarita Gaytán and Ana Valenzuela’s research on women in the tequila industry has shown that women are represented in increasingly diverse positions in the tequila industry:  from tequila companies to the CRT.

GracielaAngeles, Sarah BowenThe diversity and amount of mezcal being sold in the U.S. has grown so much in the last few years, and women are an important part of that growth as well.

For example, we see women like Graciela Angeles heading up Real Minero, one of the most interesting mezcal brands, and also being an influential and important voice about many current debates related to mezcal.

I think that these trends are going to continue, and that this is really important for the future of these industries.

TA:  What facets of the Tequila/Mezcal Industries would you like to see change?

SB:  We need more transparency about how profits are being distributed.

As I said above, savvy American consumers and bartenders are increasingly knowledgeable about the practices used to make their tequila and mezcal, and in the case of mezcal, about the type of agave that goes into it.  I think this has had positive effects.

But consumers know very little about how the people who make tequila and mezcal are compensated.

We live far away from the communities where [mezcal] is being produced, and it’s easy to romanticize these producers and their traditions.

We need to ask questions about how their mezcal is being produced—and perhaps most importantly, about how the small producers, farmers, and workers are being paid.

We also need to question a mezcal Denomination of Origin [DO] that excludes so many people and regions with long histories of making mezcal.

The rules of the DO excludes many people by setting standards that are more appropriate for large, industrial producers.  Even more egregiously, the geographical boundaries of the DO exclude people in many regions of Mexico where people have been making mezcal for multiple generations.

And NOM 199 threatens to make this even worse, by now making these people call their products “komil.”

TA:  Is there anything you’d like to say to women who may be contemplating entering and working in the Tequila/Mezcal Industries in one form or another?

SB:  I hope that they will continue, and I hope that they will support each other.

Bowen_agave

Diversifying the voices we hear from regarding the future of these industries–in terms of gender, but also in terms of geography, size, and ethnicity—is the best way to preserve the quality of tequila and mezcal and also support all of the people that make them.

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

NOM 199 Will Bring the Tequila & Mezcal Apocalypse

[This editorial (with my comments) is inspired by the following video on the dastardly NOM 199 currently in review in Mexico.  Please, take a few moments to view this easy-to-follow video, then, feel free to share it among your friends, family, colleagues and cohorts.

Afterwards, go here to sign the petition and unifying statement against NOM 199.]

¿Qué es la NOM199? / What is NOM199 from pedro jimenez gurria on Vimeo.

First, a Little History

In 2012, a Mexican legislation called NOM 186 was launched that would regulate any agave spirit.  It would have deprived many rights to small traditional and artisanal mezcal producers outside the Denomination of Origin of Tequila and Mezcal.

All other agave spirits would have been erroneously called “AGUA ARDIENTE de AGAVECEA.”

It would have also trademarked the word “AGAVE” to the Tequila Industry.

This would be like trying to trademark the word “grape.”

Imagine small winemakers not being able to say that their wine was made from grapes because they didn’t own the trademark, “grape?”

Dumb, huh?

Both these measures were driven by the Tequila Industry and the Mexican Ministry of Economy, among other institutions.

Through the efforts of those in the academic fields, hospitality (bars and restaurants), interested WORLD citizens with large social media followings, and those concerned about the fair regulation of what we eat and drink, this NOM was soundly defeated.

NOM 199: The Zombie of NOM 186!

Now, there’s a new initiative that’s designed to revive those previously rejected proposals.

It has been signed and endorsed by the Tequila Industry, the Regulatory Board of Mezcal, and other transnational corporations—and you know who they are!

This time, they aim to misinform you the consumer, about what you are drinking by renaming agave spirits outside of the Denomination of Origins of Tequila and Mezcal as “KOMIL.”

Ever hear of the term komil?

Me, neither.

Nobody has.

There are no cultural records or documents anywhere in Mexico that refer to an agave distillate by the term komil—

None.

It is based on a Nahuatl word (KOMILI) meaning, “intoxicant [inebriating] drink.”

If one of NOM 199’s very own passages is correct:

“The information printed on the labels of the bottles must be truthful and not induce confusion in the consumer as to the nature and characteristics of the product,” then…

They’re doing it all wrong.

If these distillates are forced to be labeled KOMIL and forbidden to use the word AGAVE, it will be more ambiguous and confusing to the consumer and he/she won’t be as informed as to what the drink is made from.

Komil could literally be eggnog like rompope, a tequila or mixto tequila, or any drink that intoxicates.

Currently, any mezcal outside of the Denomination of Origin cannot be termed Mezcal.  Instead it is referred to as “destilado de agave” (agave distillate) or “aguardiente de agave” (agave firewater).

That is already a huge commercial disadvantage.

If this legislation passes and becomes law, these spirits would be forced to label themselves as KOMILES [plural of KOMIL].

This would not only increase unfair competition and confuse the consumer, but would also deprive the basic human rights of those who preserve the tradition of making these distillates by calling them by their actual true name.

This proposed legislation is a cultural and labor dispossession, and an arbitrarily imposed term.

It is designed to wipe out or erase the cultural, historical and familial stories inherent in each beautiful and distinctive agave spirit.

 Consider it a form of genocide.

fb 199Imagine not ever being able to tell the story behind your grandmother’s favorite recipe for cookies or apple pie even though it’s been in your family for generations?

We agree that all alcoholic beverages need some sort of regulation because there are those unscrupulous producers whose beverages deceive and defraud consumers and threaten their health.

This is precisely why we demand consistent, detailed, inclusive, normas (laws) with not only an economic basis in mind, but with academic and bio-cultural, as well.

The spirit that each of these small producers make are derived by distilling AGAVE.

There’s no reason to lie and call it KOMIL.

Let’s call it what it is.

Stay informed and protect what’s yours—The National Heritage. #sellamamezcal  #NoKomil

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How to Get Paid to Drink Tequila:

How you can turn your passion into profits and get paid to drink tequila as a blogger, vlogger, podcaster or author

 

Salud!!