The rise of the destilados
As the world of mezcal turns we’re seeing agave spirits from everywhere but if you’ve been paying attention to mezcal’s home turf, you will have noticed a remarkable fluorescence of a new mezcal category, destilados de agave or agave spirits. These are mezcals which eschew the certification process that would allow them to legally be labeled as “mezcal” in favor of a more generic category because it offers them greater freedom and aligns with their principles. These are technically uncertified mezcals and they are spreading rapidly on the basis of word of mouth about their quality and narratives. They may also represent the original mezcal in form and ethos.
The power of a word
The reason why we have this new category goes back to the mezcal world’s original sin – the idea that the word “mezcal” is owned by an entity that defines what it means. Unlike the a generic category term like “wine” or “whiskey” which mean fermented grape juice or distilled grain mash, the term “mezcal” is owned by the Mexican government and managed by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) which defines who can use it and what properties their distillates must have in order to use it.
That original division created a cultural and epistemological rift because in Mexico the term “mezcal” generally refers to any agave distillates and is even used more expansively for distillates that are made using the same process as mezcal with different plants like Sotol. So, you can (and do) run into situations where someone says “do you want a sip of mezcal?” and what you’re sipping is what the person offering it to you thinks of as “mezcal” but can’t legally call it that. Not that she cares, Mexicans have been using that term generically for hundreds of years. But this legal definition is causing problems.
So, what does certification mean? You have to apply to the CRM to get certified which means paperwork, money, and chemistry. There are the usual application papers, fees attached to that, and then you need to submit samples of your mezcal to the chemical labs used by the CRM and prove that your mezcal is within the ranges that the CRM has defined for substances like ethanol and methanol. Those ranges have various arguments in favor and against them, they align with some countries, and are much more conservative than others. It’s been difficult to understand how the ranges were decided while the CRM makes frequent claims that it’s chemical levels ensure that its products are safe for consumers.
The CRM also has to certify your distilling facility so certification also includes inspections. You have to seal your production after applying for certification and the CRM’s inspectors may and sometimes do visit to check those seals as well as the chemical structure of its contents to see if it aligns with the original test results. If you’re lucky and manage to receive certification, then you can bottle your mezcal and use the term “mezcal” on the label. After the initial fees you will pay a per bottle fee, continue paying additional certification related fees, and accrue expenses related to working with the CRM as it requests information and checks in on you.
In principle this is a simple process and for many mezcal brands it works out that way. I’ve visited many palenques and brand offices where CRM representatives are present checking in on things. It’s always been a very professional interaction and the brands that certify think that this is a very important part of their business because the CRM creates product definitions that they can follow and it supports the entire category in a world that can be very tough to navigate as a single company. One of the fundamental ideas is that all of this work results in the term “mezcal” meaning certain things to people across the globe and that the CRM will promote those associations. Ideally, this creates a situation where brands can go into a bar in Missoula, Macao or Monaco and be met with the same basic understating of their products.
Certification in Mexico has ended up being more like a corporate brand management strategy rather than the original idea of an appellation designed to recognize a traditional production method and protect it from people who might profit from cultural heritage. The most obvious example is tequila which is managed by the Consejo Regulator del Tequila (CRT) which has steadily watered down the definition of tequila over the decades in order to allow for greater production volumes while also deciding on key global branding strategies. Their formulation appears to be to promote tequila as “100% blue agave” as the brand even though tequila traditionally was made from a variety of agaves in a very limited geography and according to a much more limited production process.
Rebels or simply reclaiming a name
So, why have a number of brands and projects have abandoned certification in the past few years? The list of destilados de agaves reads like a who’s who of high quality boutique mezcals including Rezpiral, Cinco Sentidos, Neta, Caballito Cerrero, Dos Volcanes, and Maguey Melate. All of them are highly regarded, so why did they abandon all the promise of ‘mezcal’ for ‘destilado de agave’?
The answers are varied and distinct for every brand. Some, like Maguey Melate, have made very public declarations. Others will tell you what they’re doing privately. Others just let it slide. But in conversations with many representatives across the industry (even some who are certified) a common picture emerges where money, cultural identity, and flexibility are all intertwined. And, in at least one case, they had no alternative whatsoever.
The easiest answer is money. Getting certified costs money so when margins are tight and the value of certification isn’t clear, then why spend it? The financial motive is frequently intertwined with mezcal’s batch distilling process. All save for the very industrial mezcals are distilled in batches which means that each is necessarily different. In traditional mezcal production everyone assumes that this is feature, mezcal aficionados love this approach because it means that you taste the seasons, the terroir, and the subtle machinations of the maestro mezcalero.
But in the certified world you either need to to keep the chemistry of your product consistent in order to remain in line with the CRM’s chemical fingerprint of your mezcal, blend various batches to meet that chemical fingerprint, or pay to get each batch certified. So, if you really want to keep production in an absolutely traditional manner, you’re putting yourself in for a ton of work and expense.
And then there are the factors of time and complexity: If you’re having to wait for the CRM to process your paper work and invest energy in dotting i’s and crossing t’s then you’re spending time and energy on something that may not be your greatest strength. All that makes for more financial expense and aggravation. It’s just easier not to certify given the bureaucratic investment.
Of course many people see no value in the CRM and whole idea of certification. They would like to make their mezcal how they want to make it. Sell it as they want to sell it. They also argue that…
No one owns mezcal
The ideological opposition to the idea of someone owning mezcal is a huge factor for many people. Many mezcaleros really dislike this idea because they see their work as part of a greater tradition that someone or some entity can’t own. Many families have been making mezcal for generations and many of their relatives sparred with the government to keep doing what they were doing so they have a long and vividly present history that they want to maintain.
It’s really hard to emphasize just how important this line of thought is. Even within the world of certified mezcals one of the dominant arguments against expanding the appellation is that other states don’t have a demonstrated tradition of producing mezcal. So, this is really a shared cultural identity with a bureaucratic body standing against expanding it. In all of this there is a not so subtle hatred for that very bureaucracy. No matter the issues, clearly these organizations have changed the cultural identity of mezcal and tequila, and they continue to do so.
Last but not least, some people have no alternative because, if you’re making mezcal in areas that aren’t covered by a current appellation what are you going to do? You can’t call it mezcal. If you’re outside of the CRT’s appellation, you can’t call what you’re making tequila. Everyone understands that lines are inevitably drawn but currently the majority of Mexico isn’t covered by the major appellations which should give everyone pause. That’s the position that Dos Volcanes is in. Produced from blue agave grown in Colima in the same environment as Jalisco but just across the border and distilled by tequila people, it was out of the official tequila and mezcal appellations so it goes out of its way to label itself as “100% agave spirits.” Sound familiar?
Why does this really matter?
All of this seemed like it was just going to be a story of interest to people really interested in the details of the mezcal world. For a second there it felt like the CRT and CRM would let this little destilados de agave category do its own thing. Who wants to deal with disgruntled producers anyway? And besides, they represent a fraction of a percent of the industry.
That argument went out the window in the fall of 2018 as additional states tried to join the mezcal denomination, the CRM pushed back arguing both that they weren’t traditional mezcal producers (see, this argument cuts in many different directions…) and that only the CRM had the power to grant them access. The CRM ultimately prevailed in that argument. Later in the summer of 2019 the CRT and CRM joined forces to oppose the entire destilados de agave category. In the interim more brands from the mezcal world had decided forego certification, a movement had emerged in Michoacan to self certify, the federal government appeared to open the door to other certification organizations, and El Caballito Cerrero entered the American market uncertified.
El Caballito Cerrero is an old tequila brand founded in 1952 by a man with ample experience in the tequila industry at a distillery with an amazing pedigree. His family continues to make Caballito today and it’s highly prized among tequila aficionados but a combination of friction with the CRT – the family actually helped to found the CRT but broke with it after it watered down regulations – and a desire to remain a very traditional tequila meant that they decided not to certify. The brand remains one of the most highly rated tequilas, it just can’t call itself that. That had to be part of the motivation for the CRT to work with the CRM to solidify their franchise. Because if one brand in one of the most prominent sectors of the spirits business breaks with the sector, others might be inspired to follow.
Does the emperor have any clothes?
All of this poses the most obvious question: What does certification really get you? After all the branding strategies do consumers really care that their tequila is 100% blue agave? Is that the most important thought running through their head as they order a margarita? Is the idea that the word mezcal is defined by a membership group foremost in the mind of someone ordering at a bar? I’m sure there is plenty of research about the power of these names and that they have value but the growth of the destilados category argues that there is room, possibly a category redefining argument, for many more.
If you’re one of the certifying bodies the worst part is that the US seems to agree with the destilados producers. In a November 2018 proposal the TTB, which governs how spirits are defined and regulated in the US, proposed to recognize agave spirts outright.
So, where do we go from here? The destilados category is churning along. The most recent brand to launch in the US was the long gestating NETA. Other, already certified brands, are looking closely at the idea because another wrinkle is the cultural assumption within Mexico that you need some form of legal or quasi legal certification to do business. Some producers are astounded that companies aren’t certified and are building a business. They’re the examples that the CRM and CRT most definitely don’t want out there.
But realistically it doesn’t seem like this is a huge movement, at least not imminently. Right now the destilados category is something of a proxy for a different type of mezcal. Smaller batch and, generally, more expensive than many of the larger production runs of certified producers. They’re also sold very differently with a focus on the specialty liquor stores and bars that will tell their stories as the primary sales pitch. The consumer base for this sort of thing is still very limited but they know what they like and they’re willing to pay for it.
The funny thing is that the CRM really tried to create exactly this sort of category in the major overhaul of the industry regulations from two years ago called NOM 70. After much discussion which threatened to make mezcal into a industrialized category, the CRM carved out three categories so that smaller producers would have a space and name all their own. The industrial producers got the name “mezcal” while the smaller producers got the names “mezcal artesenal” and “mezcal ancestral.” At the time those latter two categories were significant victories for small producers and smart work by the CRM. It still well be but right now the destilados category appears to have leapfrogged the CRM and the entire idea of certification to meet the specialized consumers where they are.