Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Over the past three decades I’ve learned a fair bit about getting mezcal and other agave distillates purchased for personal consumption, out of Mexico and into the US, Canada, England, and to a lesser extent other countries; unscathed as it were. This is not an enumeration of airline, customs, or Mexican governmental and regulatory board rules and regulations, which can in most cases be ascertained online. And in any event that knowledge often does not help either the mezcal aficionado wanting to bring home a large haul, or the novice just wanting to travel back with a few bottles simply to sip and/or show off his new found passion to friends and family. The law is one thing; its enforcement is often quite another.
The questions I field from our Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca clients on virtually a weekly basis, and often more frequently, typically center upon one or more of (a) whether or not mezcal can be mailed from or shipped out of Mexico, (b) how much can be taken on a plane or crossing into the US for example in a vehicle or over a bridge [i.e. at Tijuana], (c) in what packaging, and (4) how much can be brought into one’s home country at what cost. But please, don’t take the following as gospel, but rather as merely non-legal opinion from someone who has had well over 100 personal experiences leaving Mexico with agave distillates, and received feedback from a plethora of clients who have done the same.
Can I Mail or Ship Mezcal Out of Mexico?
The Mexican postal service will not allow you to mail mezcal out of the country. Whether regular or certified mail, or the parcel delivery division known as MEXPOST, you will be asked the contents, and for the latter you cannot seal your parcel without first opening it for the post office staff to confirm the contents.
Shipping is a possibility, certainly to California, though relatively expensive. Currently (August, 2021), one of the two shippers of which I am aware with depots in the city of Oaxaca (Ramos), will not accept mezcal, apparently because of covid. The cost to California is relatively modest (i.e. about 3,000 pesos for 12 one liter containers bottled in plastic). When the service was available, the time for delivery was about two months. Insurance paid is 10% of declared value. The other shipper (Matus) charges about 5,000 pesos for the same service, but with delivery in about 5 – 6 working days. In both cases the bottles should be plastic since cost is determined by both weight and volume. The contents are reviewed before confirming cost, so don’t seal your box prior to attending. Matus typically repacks in its own boxes. While labeling is not required, though advisable, it is important that each bottle be securely sealed at the top. This will reduce the likelihood of tampering by the shipper or customs, or seepage.
Leaving Mexico with Your Agave Distillate
The general rule is you cannot fly out of Mexico, or within the country for that matter, with more than five liters of spirits per person. However, I have had clients taking at much as 29 liters into the US with no issues. Why the apparent inconsistency?
As long as at the check-in desk the airline employees do not open your checked luggage, you’re golden. Remember, the mezcal must be in checked luggage. The staff members typically do not ask if you have any alcohol, but if they do, then you’re in a quandary regarding how to respond. Certainly if you have five or less liters, no issue, almost. The bottle tops should be sealed, as an assurance that what’s on the label is what’s inside. The label should have certain prerequisites, so for mezcal it should state the ABV, what it is, that it’s been made in Mexico, and for good measure perhaps even the producer’s information, even tax number. Regarding the final point, alcohol is not supposed to be sold unless there is a tax stamp on the bottle reflecting that tax will or has been paid. However, in most cases agave distillates sold in very rural palenques lack the stamp. Really, it should not prove an impediment.
In terms of the tax issue, my own labels include all of the pre-requisites including my personal tax number. On one occasion only, over the past decade, someone taking the spirit on a plane from Oaxaca to Houston, was told by a United airlines staff member that she could not take the agave distillate I had bottled, on the plane, because the bottle lacked the tax sticker. The client vehemently objected stating she had purchased the mezcal in good faith and paid what was asked and so it should not be her problem. The boss was called over and agreed with my client that it is not the job of airlines to police such matters. The airline had no right. Perhaps the initial employee was looking to score mezcal for free if there was confiscation.
If the airline opens your luggage for the purpose of examining the alcohol it is usually simply to ensure that the tops are sealed and that there is some kind of label on each bottle whether glass or plastic. If the suitcase is opened it is generally so the employee can be seen to be doing his job. It’s often a joke how little they actually look at the contents, just shuffling around a few pieces of clothing, perhaps looking for weapons or drugs. And as suggested, while there is a per person limit, that is generally not a concern. In fact, perhaps surprisingly, often clients tote back a dozen or so bottles in one of the special wine suitcases. Clearly the airlines have seen them, but at least until today, no employee has batted an eyelash to one of my clients.
These days, with so many Californians traveling to Mexico, and with the plethora new interior flights to and from Tijuana, many visitors to the country are flying to Tijuana walking across the bridge to San Diego (a relatively new facility exists to facilitate the border crossing and thus the increase in routing with Tijuana), and then carrying on, either picking up a car or heading to the airport. In this case the rule is one liter per person, most often enforced. Officals’ enforcement is discussed further long. Many clients who live in or near San Diego get around the rule, however. If they have friends, relatives or business associates who live or work in Tijuana, upon arriving at the airport they arrange to have all but one liter left with someone they know, and then over time, when returning to Tijuana for visits, they slowly get their mezcal across the border.
Wrapping Your Mezcal
Don’t bring bubble wrap into Mexico, unless you are using it to wrap fragile items you intend to leave in the country. Many stationary stores in Oaxaca sell bubble wrap. And there is the Office Depot option. Better yet, we have a packaging store with two branches in the Centro Histórico (Color y Papel) where you can purchase different kinds of wrap, inexpensive duct tape, boxes, and virtually everything else you could ever imagine needing in order to take your distillate out of the country, safely and securely. And besides, wouldn’t it be much better to then use that extra empty suitcase space to pack gently used clothing you can donate to Oaxacan families in need?
The wrapping-in-dirty-clothes tradition is still a good idea, but best to do that after the mezcal has been secured using bubble wrap. The kind with small bubbles is preferred for more easy packaging and conserving space. Of course the wine suitcase option is a reasonable alternative, as are wine sleeves, Styrofoam cylinders designed for transporting liquor, etc. My preference is bubble wrap because it is inexpensive and readily available, and enables the traveler to bring other items to leave behind in Mexico. Aside from clothing, educational materials for young children, toys and souvenirs from your homeland are always appreciated. You can always find the appropriate people to whom to gift anything you bring. I have often received a diversity of such items from clients, with my mezcal aficionados relying on me to ensure appropriate distribution.
And Finally, Customs
Not only is every country’s customs protocol at least a little different, but practices and procedures often vary from airport to airport, even in the same state. Take California for example. Clients tell me that San Francisco is a breeze, but that Los Angeles can be a grief-provoking experience. And then there are the dramatic differences in countries, even if both are members of the British commonwealth. Heathrow in London will allow pretty well all residents of England into the country with virtually any amount of alcohol packaged in any way, even in unsealed unlabeled jerricans. By contract, Pearson International in Toronto can really stick it to you if the agent at the Canada Customs and Immigration desk is so inclined.
The duty free limit for Canada is 1.14 liters (litres there) per person. If you were to fly into Toronto with 1.75 liters of tequila (mezcal is not yet a listed category) at 48% ABV, and the distillate cost you $100 CAD, the tax payable would be a whopping $89.89 CAD. However, since the early 1990s I have been flying into Pearson an average of twice yearly, with almost always over the duty free limit, declaring typically between three and five liters; not once have I been asked to pay anything. By contrast, a good friend drove from the US to Canada with a couple of bottles of tequila a few years ago, and was dinged for the duty payable. Discretion of the customs agent (and others in the chain of possible glitches beginning with leaving the state of Oaxaca) is the most important nugget you should appreciate from this article, not only entering Canada, but certainly the US and Britain, and likely elsewhere. Some countries (and jurisdictions, airports, etc.) are strict, while others are lax.
It’s our faith in humanity which leads us to believe that telling the truth is rewarded. Most of the time that holds true, but not always. How you interact with the customs agent, her perception of you, her level of seniority and the side of the bed she woke up on and with whom at her side, can each play into the equation of to pay or not to pay.
Certainly telling the truth is important, but each international traveler has a different approach. If you are snarky your luggage will likely be checked by an alternate, secondary agent. But sometimes as kind and cooperative as you are, you are sent to another line where your luggage is opened. And if you have not been truthful to the first agent or on the customs form, you can count on paying duty …. and a fine. I suppose your passport will be flagged for future customs agents.
The US is completely different from Canada, except for the fact that agent discretion is also the order of the day. As with Canada, there is an age restriction, federally in the US being 21. But state and provincial age of majority regulations can differ. And import rules and regs especially in the US can vary greatly given that there are very few matters, it seems to me, which are uniform in all American states. As long as it’s deemed for personal consumption by the customs agent, there is no rule as to amount which can be imported. However personal consumption can mean different things to different agents. For California I have heard of cases of red flags going up if the resident tries to bring in more than a case of 12 bottles, and yet there is apparently a state convention stating it is 60 liters. Even if there is a suggestion that the mezcal is not for personal consumption, the reasonable traveler can finesse his way around that perception of possible resale. Simply stating that you are a mezcal aficionado of relatively modest means would likely help; you don’t want to pay US prices and are prepared to pay the piper with the applicable customs duty and federal excise taxes.
The published regulations for charges bringing mezcal into the US (yes, it now has its own category), are precise. But the price you must pay if asked to do so is nominal and based on amount (and prior to the mezcal category coming into existence, the ABV was as well calculated into the equation). My reading is $1.78 USD per liter, but depending on the bottle labeling, it could be as high as $2.35. What you paid for the mezcal does not appear to figure into the calculation, unless you are paying for having brought more into the country than the total duty-free limit, and then you could end up paying more. Again, “could” is the key, rather than “will have to.” The federal regulations read as “required,” that is, mandated, but again agent discretion, just as in Canada and further abroad, is what should be understood. The US also has rules regarding size of container, typically with a maximum of four liters. This should not be of concern since you will hopefully be importing mezcal in 750 ml, 1 liter or perhaps 1.75 liter bottles.
The Final Word
Once again, the foregoing is far from authoritative. Travelers will do as they please based on personal custom in dealing with buying mezcal and bringing it home. There are even those who fill two suitcases to the brim with agave distillates, often in unsealed unlabeled multi-liter containers, leaving a 500 peso bill on top of the “contraband.” And so if an airline agent opens the luggage and sees the money, the hope is that needing those pesos for getting by, will trump enforcing the rules, and the suitcases with be quietly closed, with a smile directed at the mezcal aficionado. It’s something I would never do, but to each his own. As I get older I become more conservative, and prefer an easy stress-free existence, even if at the end of the day it costs me a bit more. At least I know I’ll get my mezcal to its final destination, ready to imbibe by me, my family and my friends.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).