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No mezcal, gracias — por favor, destilado de agave

What do you call it?

Editor’s Note: This contribution comes to us from Lou Bank, a mezcal aficionado and force of nature in the mezcal world who organizes tastings, fund raises for causes in Oaxaca, and generally spreads the good word about mezcal. He’s based in Chicago and travels frequently to mezcal country.

We’ve had a variation of the conversation below with Lou ever since we met him. While in so many other areas of the world appellations have worked to the advantage of most people involved in creating traditional agricultural products, the world of agave spirits in Mexico has left people and traditions behind.

As we’ve seen with the recent passing of NOM 70, battle over and subsequent revision of NOM 199 the whole question of Denominación de Origen for mezcal remains a live wire. If you ask “what should mezcal be called?” you’re also asking a cluster of questions like “who gets paid?” “what tradition are you using?” and “who’s in control?” just to name three. So it’s high time that we open the doors to the wider conversation and do some work on the big, existential question of the mezcal world. I’ve been thinking a lot about what mezcal can learn from wine appellations which isn’t exactly new territory but continues to offer ideas. I know that there are plenty more perspectives on this front so definitely get in touch with your ideas or post them in the comments section below.

Yeah, I know — by writing this, I’m starting a fight. And I know that because, in saying this to friends, I’ve started numerous fights. But here goes:

Stop calling it mezcal. It’s an agave spirit.

Before the Mexican government laid claim to the word “mezcal,” everyone in Mexico used that one word to describe the category of spirits made by fermenting and distilling agave. Now … well, now they still use “mezcal” to describe those same spirits, whether those spirits have been certified with the Mexican government as mezcal or not. But if they use the term “mezcal” without certification, they’re putting themselves in legal jeopardy while simultaneously feeding the growth of the very same people who stole the word from them.

I won’t claim to understand completely how it must feel for Mexicans who have had this word stolen out from under them. My great-great-grandfather never made mezcal; it wasn’t served at every important celebration and ceremony during my life; it wasn’t the center of my town’s economic livelihood. Hell, I only really learned what it was in 2005. So I accept that I can’t possibly feel the depth of betrayal felt by the people who have been shut out from using their word.

What I do understand is, because of the way the Denomination of Origin (DO) structure works, that word “mezcal” is no longer in the public domain. It is an owned word. Just like you cannot use the names Coca-Cola or Spider-Man in any form of commerce without the permission of the owners, you cannot use the name “mezcal” commercially without the owner’s permission. And just like Coca-Cola or Spider-Man, you can maybe get away with it right now, if the owners aren’t in earshot — if they aren’t aware you are using it. But it’s not a safe bet that this will continue.

There’s a reason the DO for mezcal exists. There is a reason that the Mexican government laid claim to the word “mezcal.” And anyone who thinks it is to protect the integrity of the ancestral spirit has never tasted Gusano Rojo.

A properly structured DO could be an enormous support to traditional and artisanal mezcal. But the Mexican government has demonstrated for decades that they have no intention of using the DO system to protect the artisans who make these craft spirits, the methods used to make the spirits, nor the agave that is required to make these spirits. Once you certify something like Gusano Rojo or Zignum as “mezcal,” you’ve proven that you have no intention of constructing laws that actually protect this national treasure.

No — in fact, I think the writing is on the wall: The purpose of the DO is to benefit the large corporations, who in turn, I would guess, benefit the politicians. Trying to summarize Sarah Bowen’s excellent book Divided Spirits would be impossible. Read the book. In roughly 200 pages, she lays out how DOs work (and don’t work) in Mexico and in other countries, and how that system is applied to tequila and mezcal, and then leaves it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I defy you to close that book and come to any other conclusion than that the Mexican government is following the desires of the large corporations.

So why would they have recently brought some artisanal and traditional producers into the DO? The cynic in me says it’s to capitalize on the hard work of these maestros to benefit those same large corporations. Anyway, that’s what the cynical me has been saying for a couple years. And I think we finally have some evidence to support that.

The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (Mezcal Regulatory Council or CRM) set up Mezcal.com to serve as a marketing tool for the mezcal category. Visit that site and what you’ll see are a lot of images of traditional and artisanal mezcals being made — agaves being roasted in earthen ovens, milled by oxen-pulled stones, fermented in open-air wooden barrels, distilled in wood-fired stills. Yes, okay, there are a couple images of industrial mezcal being made, too. But those are buried. The message is clear: Mezcal is a handmade product. It’s a craft spirit.

Without some mid-level producers providing these romantic artisanal and traditional optics, could the CRM market their category — a category which includes the Gusano Rojos and Monte Albans and Zignums and Benevas — as a romantic artisanal and traditional spirit? No, not with any authenticity.

And all these uncertified small “mezcal” producers and the mezcalerias that serve their uncertified “mezcals” are acting as a support tool to this campaign to make the large producers appear artisanal and traditional.  A maestro who does everything correctly and produces beautiful, small batch agave spirits is harming himself by calling those spirits “mezcal.” When I drink his spirits at Mezcaloteca or In Situ, I understand what I am drinking — but my friends from back home don’t. And they go back to the USA and talk about how amazing “mezcal” is. And when they try to order it at a bar for their friends to experience, they inevitably end up sharing, at best, Vida. So that uncertified maestro in Santa Maria Sola de Vega is building the “brand recognition,” for lack of a better phrase, for a brand he will never be able to put onto his bottles, and in so doing helping the very corporations — the Benevas and Zignums — that stole the word from him.

And, to be clear, this problem isn’t just a USA problem. I’ve spent enough time in Mexico City to know that, while the public recognition of “mezcal” is greater there than in Chicago, it’s still not widely understood. It’s like asking the average Chicagoan what bourbon is: They’ll have heard of it and maybe even tasted it, but they won’t know what it’s made from, how it’s certified, or how it’s different from whiskey or Scotch.

But the problem is certainly exacerbated in a place like Chicago. The vast majority of people still don’t know what mezcal is — and I don’t mean they can’t tell you what it’s made from; I mean they’ve never heard of it. Good example: I was in New York in January 2015, waiting for friends at Casa Mezcal, arguably one of the city’s best known mezcal bars. I was drinking an espadin, neat, at the bar, and struck up a conversation with the three people sitting next to me. They’d already identified themselves as semi-regulars, visiting the place about every other Friday. One asked what I was drinking; I asked her what she thought I was drinking.

Absinthe?, she asked. Gin? Rum? Vodka? She worked her way through every clear spirit she could think of, and finally said, “Well, then, what is it?”

“Where are we?” I asked her.

“Casa Mezcal.”

“So what am I drinking?”

“I don’t know!”

When I told her it was mezcal, she said, “Oh. I didn’t know you could drink that neat.”

But you can drink vodka neat?

My point is, the vast majority of the drinking public has never heard of mezcal, let alone knows how it is made or even what it is made from. And the majority who have heard of it assume it’s that yellow stuff with the worm in it. But agave? They know what agave is — that’s the alternative sweetener that’s healthy for you. So why fight an uphill battle with “mezcal”? Why spend a year’s wages getting your palenque certified, and put yourself in a position where it makes more economic sense to increase your batch size (due to the per-batch charge for certification), only to be identified with Gusano Rojo? Especially when you can identify with this brand “agave” that’s better known and perceived in a much better light?

Let Gusano Rojo and Monte Alban be “mezcal.” Call your traditional and artisanal agave spirits “destilado de agave” in Mexico and “agave spirits” in the English-speaking world. Mexico will never own the word “agave” — they can’t, the plant is growing all over the world.

Again, I appreciate that I can’t appreciate how it must feel to have such a cherished word plucked from the Mexican vocabulary. But what I do appreciate is that you just exacerbate the harm done when you continue to support the very corporations who stole the word in the first place.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Rimas Sidrys #

    Ohhhh, so painful to let it go. The meaning of the word, the history behind it…even the way it sounds and looks – such a shame.

    You make a strong argument though. It’s one of adapting to the reality of the situation. The problem is that as “agave” spirits grow in popularity, the corp giants are only going to continue to gain power and influence over this matter. Perhaps it is time to change the strategy and focus on a battle where there is a greater chance of victory as you are proposing.

    February 16, 2017

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