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When is mezcal, not mezcal?

Yesterday it was announced that a watered down version of NOM 199 passed: Except instead of mandating that any mezcal not produced within an already defined appellation and certified by the CRM be called “Komil,” it says that these spirits must now be called “Aguardiente de Agave.” To understand who will need to use this terminology see our previous post on the impact of the original proposal; all you need to do is replace “Komil” with “Aguardiente.”

This is being pitched as a triumph for everyone but it’s really an unnecessary face saving political compromise. The current standard of calling anything not certified as mezcal, “Destilado de Agave,” works great. Everyone uses it, the term is clear, it makes sense, and even the people who oppose its use on political grounds grudgingly accept it. Why go through all the trouble of changing it and cause more confusion? Because really, this will just force small business people, the most underfunded and labor strapped, to do more.

As far as I and anyone can tell this revision was created because NOM 199 was opposed with such vigor by pretty much everyone in the mezcal world. Speak up if we missed you, but we can’t find anyone who publicly promoted NOM 199. It seems as if it was one of those mysterious political trial balloons – if it rose and everyone approved it suddenly the bill’s authors would appear and claim triumph. Given NOM 199’s disastrous reception everyone who wrote and supported it just stood back and tried to salvage something. And this is the result of that salvage operation.

To put this in the larger context: The original NOM 199 felt like an attempt to reinforce the monopoly power of the CRM and the larger mezcal businesses because it would make any mezcal  outside of the already approved appellation either/and/or unapproved by the CRM very difficult to sell; at the very least it would lose value. I can see a potential theory here that this would make everyone want to be legal, that is, that they’d run to the CRM to get approved and get their state in the appellation. But, given that the CRM can’t keep up with all the mezcal makers who want to get approved in its home state of Oaxaca already, let alone all the mezcal makers in the other states in the appellation – and all the other states petitioning to get DO, that just doesn’t add up.

The realistic outcome of the original NOM 199, and to a degree of the new one, is that the needs of small producers will continue to be ignored. They are untapped powerhouses of the Mexican economy. If we can’t create an appellation system that recognizes them while allowing their product’s distribution then it’s an economic and cultural loss. Period. NOM 199, the original proposal and this compromise version, is entirely unnecessary. It was designed for a political purpose and ends up serving only that. At this point the whole idea of additional legislation that tries to do anything but resolve the very real and material problems of small mezcal producers is superfluous. We urge everyone in the industry to focus on those issues.

Max co-founded Mezcalistas with Susan way back in 2012. Before that he was a journalist at Salon.com and The San Francisco Chronicle.


  • Lou Bank
    July 28, 2016

    Actually, with the passage of this revised NOM 199, won’t places like Mezcaloteca and In Situ be forced to stop naming the agaves used to make the spirits they bottle?


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