Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director’s Cut

Skepticism and Terror

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57m

In early June 2017, I was interviewed via email by VinePair’s conscientious staff writer, Nickolaus Hines, on whether I thought that mezcal could “…Grow its way to the Mainstream Without Losing its Roots.”

Skepticism usually sets in whenever we’re approached for quotes by writers attempting to compose complex articles about the plight of agave spirits.

Skepticism turns into sheer terror whenever the writer represents a website that is not known for its thoughtful content.

More often than not, facts get muddled and the same old tequila cliches are regurgitated.

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57m

Such was not the case here.

Director’s Cut

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57m

When interviewing several people at once to create a relevant article, it’s a rarity for a journalist to be able to use all of the interviewee’s replies to produce a coherent final piece.

It’s a common practice in the movie industry to edit a character’s scenes only to later add them back in.  It’s what becomes the Director’s Cut once the movie is available to buy or rent.

What follows are the exact questions Mr. Hines asked, and my answers, including what wound up on the cutting room floor.

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NH:  Was there a defining moment that you’re aware of when tequila became a mainstream spirit in the U.S.?  Did it have to do with a multinational liquor company’s investment?

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57mMM:  For me personally, it was when the sale of Herradura tequila to Brown-Forman was announced in late 2006 (and subsequently finalized in January of 2007).

Jose Cuervo’s Especial and 1800 “mixto” brands (51% agave, 49% other sugars) had been mainstays in clubs and restaurants for decades prior to that, mostly consumed in shots and margaritas.  At that time, 100% de agave tequilas like Chinaco, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, and Herradura Blanco Suave, were out of most people’s price ranges, and sipping them was a foreign concept.

I had visited Herradura’s historic San Jose del Refugio distillery earlier in 2006, and was shocked to hear news of its sale to B-F, a transnational corporation.

I knew then that things would never be the same.

NH:  How has tequila becoming a mainstream spirit impacted tequila producers?  Is it harder than ever for small and independent producers, or is it easier because consumers are more familiar with tequila in general?

MM:  According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), tequila volumes have jettisoned 121% since 2002.  Much of this consumption is due to multinational corporations and their massive distribution, sales and marketing channels.

As of the current Consejo Regulador del Tequila’s (CRT) NOM list (dated May 31, 2017), there are 1373 brands of tequila being produced by roughly only 130 distilleries.  Most are what are called “maquiladoras,” that distill tequila for various brand owners.

Small and independent craft tequila producers, as well as reputable small-to-mid-sized maquiladoras are few and far between, but they do exist.

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57m

Most don’t have the funding, marketing budgets and distribution channels that the Big Boys have, so they struggle to compete on a level playing field.

Constant and consistent education of the average consumer by smaller brands of their quality is a key component to their success, and vital for their continued existence in the marketplace.

NH:  Mezcal has less restrictions on where, with which types of agave, and how it can be produced than tequila does.  Is that an advantage that could make mezcal as popular (or more) than tequila?

MM:  Actually, like Tequila, Mezcal has a Denomination of Origin.

It is currently produced in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Durango, Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57mZacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas.  Michoacan has also been recently admitted, and many other states are expected to be added in years to come.

Because several other types of agave can be used to distill mezcal (as well as bacanora and raicilla), unlike the singular blue weber agave from which tequila must be produced by law, that is its main attraction to consumers.

The fact that it is relatively new, unusual, has a story behind every bottle and batch, and is arguably the most artisanal product in the world, makes mezcal particularly attractive to Millennials and connoisseurs alike.

The danger is that these characteristics COULD, indeed, make mezcal even more popular than tequila.

NH:  Does the rise of tequila provide a blueprint for mezcal, or is the intended consumer base too different?

MM:  The rise of tequila does provide a blueprint for mezcal, but not in the way you think.  The Mezcal Industry has shown that it has learned from the mistakes made by the Tequila Industry.

In February 2017, the Mezcal Regulatory Council passed into law an amendment to its normas that would categorize mezcal by its methods of processing (mezcal, mezcal artesanal, and mezcal ancestral).

These new categories will allow for small producers to continue making mezcal their way, and for large, multinational corporations to attempt to mass produce juice that can still be labeled mezcal.

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57m

Unlike the Tequila Industry, where consumers who are tired of the same cookie-cutter flavor profiles of the more popular brands, and are desperately seeking authenticity and quality, this type of transparency lets all consumers choose for themselves which type of mezcal best suits their tastes.

NH:  Where do you see the mezcal business in 10 years?  Will it be mostly owned by multinational corporations, or will smaller companies retain control?

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57mMM:  The above mentioned new law will presumably allow both large and small producers to thrive, but mezcal finds itself in a conundrum: 

That is, how to simultaneously protect the industry for future survival while meeting the burgeoning global demand.

Aside from the more commercially grown espadin variety, many of the more sought after agave are wild harvested and take years to mature.  As I mentioned in question #3, the different types of agave used for mezcal is the attraction, but could also lead to its demise.

Unless sustainability and preservation of all types of agave–and the cultural and economic well being of the communities in which mezcal has been historically distilled for decades–is part of any business plan (especially by transnational corporations), then the Mezcal Industry is doomed and the collateral damage could be devastating.

NH:  Is there anything that happened to small tequila producers and small villages where tequila is made that you believe could happen to small mezcal producers small villages where mezcal is made?

MM:  Tequila and mezcal don’t share parallel histories.

When Jose Cuervo was granted permission by the Spanish Crown to commercially produce tequila in the mid-18th century, distillation of mezcal (or pulque) was legitimized (taxed) and refined for the aristocracy.

Throughout tequila’s over 250 year history, several other clans emerged as wealthy landowners settling in various regions, growing their own agave and establishing family brands.

Tequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57m

The tequila industry charged forward when the Sauza family first exported tequila, then known as vino mezcal, into the United States in the late 19th century.

When the Sauza’s sold the brand in the late 1980s to Spanish brandy maker Pedro Domecq, it signaled that the industry was open to foreign interests, mergers and acquisitions.

Over several decades, some small commercial agaveros (blue agave farmers) made their fortunes during times of severe agave shortages.  With their newfound wealth, many started their own brands and constructed distilleries.

Mezcal, on the other hand, had continued to be clandestinely produced all this time by indigenous people in rural areas of Mexico.  It had remained largely unchanged.

While tequila struggled to elevate its image throughout the 20th century from a poor man’s drink, to a party shooter, to an elegant sipper, mezcal’s has always been akin to white lightening.

Its booming popularity in the 21st century has only proven how everyTequila vs Mezcal: The Director's Cut http://wp.me/p3u1xi-57m facet of mezcal production—from commercial farming of espadin and other agave, to mass production and even regulation—is still in its infancy.

Mezcal can no longer be ignored, though.

The recent positioning by multinational companies capturing significant stakes in popular and pioneering brands has now made mezcal a valuable asset to any spirits portfolio.

It remains to be seen, however, whether anybody outside of these transnational corporations gets rich from distilling mezcal.

NH:  Is mezcal as scaleable as tequila?

MM:  Not at the present time.

Can it be?  Sure.

But concessions by the Mezcal Regulatory Council would have to be made, for instance, by allowing for the distillation of “mixto” mezcal.

Tequila’s Denomination of Origin is currently the only one in existence that is allowed to be adulterated by the production of mixto.

I doubt seriously that the Mezcal Industry would agree for its DO to be bastardized in this way.

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

Women In The Tequila Industry: Marie Sarita Gaytán

Sarita_book Ever wonder how Tequila got to be “The Spirit of Mexico?”

Dr. Marie Sarita Gaytán explains how in her landmark book, Tequila!  Distilling the Spirit of Mexico. 

While we’ve interviewed other Tequila Boss Ladies who have a hand in producing their own brands, this tequila and mezcal researcher, who is also an Associate Professor at the University of Utah, can explain how it came to be known as Mexico’s National Drink.

Besides, when it comes to Women In the Tequila Industry, she’s the one best suited to explain how Tequila actually became an industry.

Here, she gives us her responses to our customary handful of questions.  Afterwards, do yourself a favor and add her book to your tequila library.

***

TA:  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?

MSG:  I think that it’s important to note that, although a woman, I am not actually involved in these industries.  Instead, I’m a tequila and mezcal researcher, so my experiences are much different than those women who are navigating the business side of these trades.

What I can say, however, is that during the process of conducting fieldwork in Sarita_crop (2)Mexico for my book, industrialists, regulators, and tourism employees, both men and women, were generous with their time.

I approached the topic with sincere curiosity—I did not have a hypothesis to prove, I wanted to learn as much as I could, and folks were very open to sharing their experiences.

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

MSG:  What I have done is try to resituate the focus on tequila by paying attention to the people behind the product.

I am less interested in which tequila tastes best, or experimenting with the latest agave-based cocktail.

My work underscores how and why tequila emerged as Mexico’s drink—that is, my aim was to dig into the politics that created the conditions for tequila’s rise to fame within the nation.

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

SaritaMSG:  Women have always been working in the tequila industry.

What’s changed somewhat, is that now they are creating their own brands, starting their own companies.

As tequila and mezcal become more global, there is more room for the entrance of new actors, new competition.

Women are definitely making their mark as the market continues to widen.

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

MSG:  I am not especially impressed with the Tequila Regulatory Council’s close connection to the government, their support of the interests of transnational liquor conglomerates, and their myopic focus on profit.

Together with Sarah Bowen (from North Carolina State University), we’ve published several articles critiquing their politics—extralocal actors, in particular, multi-national companies—have more influence over the direction of the industry at the peril of small-scale agave farmers, local craftsmen/women, and the residents of Tequila.

This remains a critical problem, one that is not poised to change anytime soon.

TA:  Do you approve of how Tequila/Mezcal brands are currently marketing themselves?

I’ve never thought about this question as a matter of approval or disapproval, but what I will say, is that I’m very interested in seeing how tequila and mezcal branding unfolds in China.

What do producers think about Chinese consumers?  What will Chinese consumers be looking for when they purchase certain brands?  This is fascinating stuff.

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?

MSG:  Continue to network and find a mentor, woman or man, to help you understand the nuances of the industry.