Just after Thanksgiving (perhaps just in time to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition…) the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the agency that oversees all things alcohol industry related, released its updated labeling and advertising regulations. It’s a very long and tedious 100+ page document that states in its opening summary:
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is proposing to amend its regulations governing the labeling and advertising of wine, distilled spirits, and malt beverages. TTB proposes to reorganize and recodify these regulations in order to simplify and clarify regulatory standards, incorporate guidance documents and current policy into the regulations, and reduce the regulatory burden on industry members where possible.
This update has been a long time coming and means different things for different categories, This is a good summary of what it means for whiskey, a category we always keep. As for agave spirits, you can be excused if you didn’t make it all the way to the bottom of page 60665, nearly 3/4 of the way through the document, for this little update:
§ 5.148 Agave spirits. (a) The class agave spirits. ‘‘Agave spirits’’ are distilled from a fermented mash, of which at least 51 percent is derived from plant species in the genus Agave and up to 49 percent is derived from sugar. Agave spirits must be distilled at less than 95 percent alcohol by volume (190° proof) and bottled at or above 40 percent alcohol by volume (80° proof). Agave spirits may be stored in wood barrels. Agave spirits may not contain added flavoring or coloring materials, except as specified in § 5.155. This class also includes mixtures of agave spirits. Agave spirits that meet the standard of identity for ‘‘Tequila’’ or ‘‘Mezcal’’ may be designated as ‘‘agave spirits,’’ or as ‘‘Tequila’’ or ‘‘Mezcal’’, as applicable. (b) Types. Paragraphs (b)(1) and (2) of this section describe the types of agave spirits and the rules for each type. Type Standards
(1) Tequila ………………………. An agave spirit that is a distinctive product of Mexico. Tequila must be made in Mexico, in compliance with the laws and regulations of Mexico governing the manufacture of Tequila for consumption in that country.
(2) Mezcal ………………………. An agave spirit that is a distinctive product of Mexico. Mezcal must be made in Mexico, in compliance with the laws and regulations of Mexico governing the manufacture of Mezcal for consumption in that country.
Why is this news? As a sign of the times, the TTB seems to finally be catching up to the larger changes in the market. It aligns standards here in the US with standards of the CRT in tequila production, primarily by saying if you are going to produce agave spirits in the US, at least 51% of the product must be made from agave sugars. That means that we could have a home grown mixto soon! Of course the reality is that there is no one here to monitor what is happening with any domestic production. The real news is that the US government is officially recognizing (and validating) uncertified agave spirits that meet the standards of the CRT for tequila or the CRM for mezcal. While Destilados de Agave and Agave Spirits have been in the market for years, from now on those spirits are officially sanctioned to be labeled as such.
So does this mean there will be a rush to produce a domestic Destilado de Agave? I have no doubt that within five years there will be a California produced agave distillate, specifically one produced from agave grown here. Do I think there will be a stampede to do this? Probably not because of the very, very significant start up costs. That said, California certainly changed the wine industry and people are definitely working on this project.
But don’t fret Mexico: In spite of California dominating the wine industry, it has not curtailed or diminished production or stature in France, Germany, Italy, or anywhere else in the world. It seems that rising tides really can raise all ships. In the world of wine and, it seems, mezcal, additional participants may only solidify the category as a whole.
The public comment period is open till March 26, 2019.