Agave spirits (like tequila and mezcal created from varietals of the Agavoideae family) are some of the most deeply important to Mexican heritage, speaking not only to the terroir of the land but the social and political history of the country. Over the past 10 years, these distillates have seen exponential growth in the U.S. market, buoyed by a swelling national desire for small-batch spirits and the country’s ever-growing craft cocktail scene. This increased American demand, however, has become a double-edged sword for traditional producers in Mexico, where policy changes and legislation are now threatening their very livelihood.
In response to growing concerns about the preservation of traditional distillation, a group of bartenders, researchers and producers from the United States and Mexico founded the Tequila Interchange Project in 2010. Ask any agave-appreciating American bartender about the current state of mezcal, and it won’t be long before they mention the work of TIP.
(image: Camara Lenta)
This dual-nation nonprofit organization “unites individuals to advocate for the preservation of sustainable, traditional and quality practices in the [agave spirits] industry,” through both academic research and lobbying efforts, according to its mission statement. Led by tequila advocate and distiller David Suro, TIP’s work has become quietly vital to the protection of agave spirits, going above and beyond to raise visibility on issues currently threatening traditional mezcal producers.
Today, the biggest issue being battled by TIP is a piece of legislation, NOM 199, which could pull the rug out from under producers committed to traditional, culturally rooted distillation methods and undo years of work toward a more transparent and sustainable agave community. Under the proposed law, use of the words agave and maguey would be limited to agave spirits produced solely within preexisting denominations of origin (D.O.), meaning all mezcal produced outside of these limited areas would fall into a new ambiguous category called komil.
“Today, only nine states are included in the D.O. of mezcal, leaving out more than 11 states [where it is also produced],” says Marco Ochoa of mezcal bar Mezcaloteca. “Adding this proposed regulation will increase the marginalization and vulnerability of small producers of traditional mezcal, making it more difficult to continue to reproduce their cultural heritage.”
Furthermore, no one is quite sure how the term komil was even added to the mix. “NOM 199 intends to name all the agave distillates produced in Mexico that are not included in the D.O. [areas] as komil. It’s a completely unrecognizable term for everyone. There is no anthropologic, biologic or—above all—social reference where the word komil is related to distillates of agave. This term in Náhuatl means “intoxicating drink” or “alcoholic beverage,” which could literally be a reference to eggnog or tequila.”
Poster against Nom 199
If the legislation is enacted, traditionally produced mezcal and the mixtos produced by conglomerate spirit corporations would fall under the same category, and it will be almost impossible to know where or how the spirit has been made or even what exactly is in it.
“NOM 199 will cause a great disadvantage to the … traditional producers who want to commercialize their product,” says Ochoa. “It will mean an open theft of the word agave from the traditional producers and an attack against the integrity of the Mexican gastronomy.”
For producers of other agave-adjacent spirits, like sotol, the trickle-down impact of the legislation is also cause for deep concern. “NOM 199 does not really affect the current status of sotol and bacanora, which have a recognized denomination of origin,” says Ricardo Pico of sotol brand Hacienda de Chihuahua. “The impact, though, would be opening the door to an abusive system that is trying to manipulate the law to the convenience of corporate interests.”
With the vote on the issue swiftly approaching, there are several ways those in the U.S. can take steps to support traditional distillers, the foremost being signing a petition created by TIP and another created by Pedro Jimenez of the NGO Mezonte. (While the official window for public comment has passed, the petitions are still active.)
(image: Traffic Analyzer)
“Folks should stay informed and be prepared to follow the leadership of actual Mexican producers, even if it’s not exactly in line with what they (the North Americans) themselves believe to be best or would do,” says Clayton Szczech of educational company Experience Tequila. “Long-term, people should study and learn Spanish so that they can do their own research and learn directly from Mexicans, including producers.” Szczech also suggests that Spanish speakers leave comments on the government website, which currently still has fewer than 100 comments.
Overall, with the support of organizations like TIP, small producers are committed to presenting a unified front. “If these producers lose, we all lose a piece of our heritage and tradition. We should stand together to preserve our traditions and step up to defend the most vulnerable,” says Pico. “Regardless of what we produce—sotol, bacanora, raicilla or mezcal—we are raising our voices together on this issue.”