As the market for agave spirits grows so does the debate about the effectiveness of a Denominación de Origen
Values change across society over time and since laws are derived from peoples’ values it stands to reason that the way a law is enforced should adapt to our evolution as social individuals in every aspect of life. It has been forty eight years since the creation of the Denominación of Origen [DO] for Tequila, and twenty eight years for the DO of mezcal. The DO has significantly shaped the industry of mezcal, but the current needs of the industry at times feel out of sync with the DO, which has led to different efforts, among mezcal authorities and producers specifically, to adapt the norms to better fit their current needs. This has been a challenge in the last few years due to the rapid growth of the category and the roaring demand for mezcal and agave spirits. Every time we hear about a new legislation, or Mexican Official Norm (NOM), to regulate the making of an agave spirit, it is a good moment to review and discuss the origins and functionality of the DO.
What is in the regulation?
In Mexico the designation of a DO is a complex process led by the federal government. In a previous story, Max Garrone explained in detail how it is created and commented on its cultural implications. Even though he talks about mezcal and tequila, the discussion also applies to raicilla, an agave spirit traditionally made in the coast and highlands of Jalisco. In 2019, the Mexican Institute of Intellectual Property (IMPI) authorized the declaration of a DO for raicilla. Like other DO’s, it needs a norm to be finalized before it is executed. On April 27th, 2022 a bill proposing a new norm was prepared by different parties including the Government of Jalisco, the Mezcal Regulatory Council, the Tequila Regulatory Council, the Secretary of Economy, universities and five raicilla producers, and then subjected to a period of revision summoned by the Secretary of Economy. Within this time period, a group of academics, raicilla aficionados and producers led by Dr. José de Jesús Hernández López from El Colegio de Michoacán, published a letter in which they made suggestions to the proposed bill. Most of the observations made are related to imprecisions in the history of raicilla, the characteristics of the agaves, and the categories established by the norm.
Some of the comments about the document were regarding the origins of the name raicilla, of which there are different versions. Some people claim it comes from the roots, or raíces, that some producers used to infuse the spirit, others believe that it was used to differentiate it from mezcal, using a different name to distract the authorities during the prohibition established by the Spanish Crown. The latter is used in the document, however, Esteban Morales owner of La Venenosa, rejects that thesis saying that raicilla was never forbidden in the territories of the Nueva Galicia, constituted by the current states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Colima, Aguascalientes and Guanajuato. Jorge Carbajal from Hacienda Divisadero, one of the producers involved in the creation of the proposed bill and a fifth generation raicillero from the coastal region, declares that the name raicilla has always been in use and was known historically as vino de raicilla.
The group that made these revisions public through change.org, is making the case to stop raicilla from becoming another massively industrialized spirit like many tequilas. Another disagreement they present is the categorization of raicilla into the three categories of classic, artisanal and ancestral (sound familiar?) The characteristics of the classic category in the bill describes the use of batch distillation done in column stills, mill trains, and other methods seen widely in tequila production.
One of the priorities in the suggested revision of the document is the preservation of biodiversity. The proposed norm states that agave species used to make raicilla are limited to: maximiliana, rhodacantha, angustifolia haw, inaequidens and valenciana. However, at the end of the list it says “among others” which according to Dr Hernandez’s views “opens up the possibility of using species that are not from the region as well as the opportunity to transfer seeds, germplasm and crop diseases from other regions [and does] not consider the tradition or temporality of making the drink, only the tools that are used in production.”
At Mezcalistas, this topic is so important that we also ran a previous story about the round tables by MILPA AC in which critics of the DO argue that the norm tends to homogenize the product without considering the social heritage, such as the collective traditions of the origins and sense of community. According to Maria del Mar Diego Fernandez, from the National and Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) there is this disassociation between the DO and the protection of social and cultural heritage. Other critics of the DO warn that the concentration of power may generate protection, but only if the private interests of those in power are covered. For Maria del Mar, the request to create a DO should come from within the community, but she notes that it is usually overtaken by business people that do not belong to these same communities, so the context is altered and the protection ends up prioritizing the consumable product in the market, rather than the health or sovereignty of the communities that the product comes from.
After the publication of the proposed bill, there was a sixty day period to receive comments and suggestions from producers, academics and interested people. This period ended in June 2022, and the revision was followed by sessions in which the original creators of the bill discussed all suggestions made. According to Carbajal, every article in the norm was discussed and voted on.
“We expect the new NOM has less legal impact and is less harmful to the raicilla producers” said Pedro Jimenez, founder of Mezonte and part of the group requesting the revision of the proposed NOM. He believes that the new regulation will be ready within a month. He hopes to see some of the suggestions they published on the petition included because he is certain that the Dirección General de Normas, the area within the Secretary of Economy organizing these roundtables, has always remained as impartial as possible.
DO: A governmental instrument to boost agricultural products
A few months ago, I visited La Rifa Chocolatería, a Mexican company that makes chocolate out of cacao grown by family producers with agro-ecological practices. Monica Lozano, co-founder of the project, directed a detailed tasting through different chocolates made with cacao from the southern states of Tabasco and Chiapas. She told us that the difference between Mexican cacao and others is that Mexicans used it mainly as a drink and this created a totally different cultural heritage and identity. Mexican cacao being so different and unique, I asked if it was worth registering it under a DO to which she replied “a DO only increases the differences between producers and it doesn’t guarantee a commercial advantage, on the contrary it means standardizing the making process and for small producers, [which] is prejudicial to their essence, product and traditional processes.” In her paper, Fernandez mentions the Grijalva cacao from Tabasco, which in 2016 received a DO, apparently as the result of a joint effort between a private company and the government, leaving small producers totally in the dark.
Mexico has sixteen products with a DO, and most of them are agricultural goods. The DO is an instrument to boost the production and distribution of foods and beverages with unique biological and cultural characteristics. In that sense, its creation should be opening up new markets to improve rural development. Even though the implementation of a DO benefits many, the systemic failures towards the farmland development is reflected in its application.
According to a study made by the FAO in 2018, the indication of origin allows for an increase in price to the consumer between 20 to 50 percent compared to similar products. The flavor, color, texture and quality of these products inspire capable consumers to pay higher prices for them. However in her paper, Fernandez explains how sustainable development is not a priority for legislation to regulate a DO. She criticizes that this instrument is controlled by governmental agencies every step of the way and how the legal framework reinforces these power dynamics.
As we have mentioned in different stories related to sustainability, when talking about management of agricultural products we see a systemic failure related to rural development. There is a loss of production techniques, and traditional and unique processes in favor of industrialized products. In a time when we worry about the availability of resources for the production of agave spirits, does the proposed bill promote sustainable development?
The revision of the NOM should consider all of the organizations involved in the supply chain. According to Esteban Morales from La Venenosa, this debate has a lot of gray areas that should be taken into account. He says there are many producers who believe it should be called raicilla, who agree with the certification because they want to be part of the growth of the category. He says there are those who romanticize the industry and believe it should not change or grow and he believes that is unfair for those producers who want to make a living off of the production of raicilla. He believes education is the key to let brand owners choose what is more convenient for them. “Nothing is black or white, there are many gray areas because the market needs to mature.” His company works with 22 producing families and respects their opinions regarding the regulations and the use of the name raicilla. In his opinion, the trend of opting out of certification that started with mezcal will also happen with raicilla. Even though they were the first company to export raicilla, they have decided to eliminate the word raicilla and sell their product as destilado de agave.
Carbajal of Hacienda Divisadero says they respect the process of the agave and only harvest when mature. They only use maguey capón and sazón (ripe), and work with the angustifolia and rhodacantha varieties, mostly known by their common names: verde or criollo and cenizo. His brand was created in 2007 but they started growing agave in 2000 when they knew a Consejo Regulador de la Raicilla was created. He works for his own brand and exports a smaller one called Las Perlas de Jalisco in small amounts to California, Texas, Florida and New York.
Carbajal explains that the DO provides them with a sense of belonging, through which they have created a group to guide the producers but not to regulate them, at least not yet. One of the next steps is to create a Consejo Regulador because the current Consejo Mexicano Promotor de la Raicilla is only an advisor. Once this happens, regulation will be formally executed.
During a special online conversation with Misty Kalkofen, Jimenez shared in more detail what he thinks the new NOM should include. I asked him if the regulation had any effect on the quality of the destilados, and he said it does not because there are good products that are aligned to the norm, he clarified that the problem is that growth comes with a cost. The current economic dynamic in terms of commerce indicates that the market sets the tone, so most likely it is the producers and marketers who have to adjust to macroeconomic principles that leave aside ancestral principles for the care and recovery of natural resources. If this is the reality, where in the industry are raicilla producers standing?
Becoming a formal producer is one reason used by regulatory councils to join the DO and to create a NOM. One of the arguments against this is that this legal framework limits the production of traditional makers. However, Carbajal argues that is not the case, and it is just a rebellious attitude because they do not want to respond to an institution. Being united provides a platform to rural producers to gain visibility and better opportunities to sell their product. He remembers that five years ago, the price of a liter was between 150 to 170 pesos and now it fluctuates between 250 and 300, a statement that calls for the improvement in the business of the producers.
A solution repeatedly proposed to create a DO that better adapts to Mexico’s characteristics is to follow the European model of geographic indications. However, Fernández suggests that having a unique model is possible and takes the case of the rice from the state of Morelos. For 165 years, this rice has been a traditional crop and known for its quality. After years of dealing with unfair competition and plagiarism, a collective of producers started the process to register it under a DO. Because they were organized and supported by academia and local government, in less than a year the DO was declared (2012).The difference that Fernandez refers to is that the initiative came from small producers to deal with the power of an industry that was diminishing the value of its traditional crop. And also, functioning as a self-governing organization in which the same people participate in the production are the ones managing the business, allowing for better accountability. However, Mexico imports 80% of the rice that it consumes and Morelos’ production is only 1% of the national consumption so their challenges are beyond the implementation of the DO in this case.
Is there a way forward?
The history of agave spirits is full of both praise and rejection, a duality that goes back and forth with high peaks of discrimination towards those who liked and enjoyed the spirits. The problems that we see today within the production of such distillates have to do with the enormous challenge of creating an industry from a tradition that wasn’t considered an economic activity in the first place. Local governments enjoy the benefits of the industry created in their states, but aficionados start rejecting the big corporations that produce these spirits even if it means driving investment and generating jobs. The need for regulation is more present than ever, but how can it serve everyone? With otherwise unclassified destilados de agave becoming the rule, how are Mexican producers going to compete with agave spirits producers in California, Australia and Hawaii? As the country with the most diversity of and deepest cultural relationship with agaves and agave spirits, organization at all levels is desirable, if not mandatory. The cultural conditions of Mexico should lead to the creation of a unique model where prioritizing conservation as well as reducing overexploitation in the name of sustainability are the goals at every level.