Wednesday, April 20, 2016

NOM-199. Alcohol Laws: A Looming Change For Agave Spirits In Mexico. Is it Vino de Mezcal? Is it Tequila? Is it Mezcal? Is it Destilado de Agave? Is it Aguardiente de Agave? Is it Bacanora? Is it Raicilla? Is it Sotol? Is it Komil? 

What came first, tequila or mezcal? What about their denominaciónes de origen? Yes, there is a separate denominación de origen for each agave (maguey) based alcoholic spirit: tequila, mezcal, bacanora, and sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri is now in a different family category). Currently, raicilla does not have its own denominación de origen. An agave based spirit produced outside any of these denominaciónes de origen is technically classified as a destilado de Agave (apparently this is about to change). Besides the DOs, there are various NOMs (Norma Oficial Mexicana) - laws passed by Mexico's federal government - which stipulate rules and regulations that these type of spirits must adhere to. Back to the first question, what came first, tequila or mezcal? Any idea? Does it really matter? One tequila company loves to use the "beginning in Tequila, Mexico" and "founded in 1795" historical tidbits, yet fails to mention anywhere on their label it has the biggest diffuser in all of Mexico at one of its two distilleries. It's unbelievable that the Spanish assumed the indigenous people didn't have the means, knowledge or capability of producing alcoholic spirits through various means of fermentation and distillation. Perhaps, the Spanish were selectively ignorant. Maybe the Spanish destroyed all the indigenous people's tools for distillation and all records of it. Clay pots can be used. Apparently a tree trunk can be used. Is the tequila narrative built under false pretense(s)? What about all the archaeological research exploring the possibility of pre-Hispanic distillation? To be honest seeing as the governing bodies within Mexico certified Zignum as mezcal, doubt they'd construct news laws to actually protect such a cultural treasure - much less support any such investigative research.

Agave based spirits have always enjoyed a relatively warm appreciation around the globe. It's no secret that for decades bulk mixo-tequila has been shipped, bottled, and labeled as Tequila in other countries outside of Mexico. It's claimed that the "U.S. is Mexico’s largest export market for tequila, accounting for 50 percent of Mexico’s total production," A few things happened along the way towards the 21st century. The rise in popularity of 100% agave premium tequila around the mid-late 1980s to early 1990s. On December 20, 1994, the Mexican government devalued the peso. Then in the late 1990s the agave crisis kicked in, and prices skyrocketed. Tequila producers paid around 7,000 pesos for a ton of agave. Some producers shifted production to mixto-tequila only to offset costs. A new tequila NOM that permitted the use of industrial diffusers in the production methods. Insert celebrity, actor, professional athlete, or musician owned private brand here. Various brand endorsements. Medals and spirits competitions. The sudden appreciation outside of Mexico for traditionally made 100% agave mezcal. The gradual genetic weakening of the Agave tequilana due to over-reliance on asexual reproduction. Allegations abound that tequila companies were illegally procuring Agave from outside their denominación de origen. The continuous over-harvesting of wild agave and no real reforestation initiatives. Once upon a time, companies and investors rushed at the chance to purchase or start a tequila brand. Now mezcal is the new black, with the likes of William Grant & Sons (Montelobos), Diageo (Unión), David Ravandi (123 Organic Tequila and ex-owner Casa Noble Tequila), Riazul, La Cofradia, Mexcor and Casa Cuervo (400 Conejos and Creyente) getting involved with a mezcal brand. All the while, the Mexican government steps in and tables proposals NOM-186, NOM-070, and NOM-199.

In 2011, a proposed legislation called PROY-NOM-186-SCFI-2011, Bebidas Alcohólicas, Bebidas Alcohólicas Elaboradas a Partir de Agaváceas was tabled for discussion. NOM-186 intended to trademark the word "agave". It dealt with the regulation of distilled agave spirits in Mexico and proposed the exclusive use of the word agave for processed products and registered designations of origin mezcal, tequila and bacanora.  For example, a mezcal producer outside the DO mezcal could only call their spirit aguardiente or destilado de agaváceas. They could not declare the sugar content of agave that the spirit is made from, even if it was 100% agave. Basically they could not produce traditional mezcal (a 100% agave spirit with an alcohol content between 40 and 55 percent), but could produce a somewhat inferior lower alcohol proof product. Fortunately, NOM-186 did not pass into law. But who would throw their support behind such a restrictive proposal?

Correspondence from Don Julio supporting the NOM-186 proposal. At that time Casa Cuervo and Diageo jointly owned (50/50) Don Julio tequila

Master distiller José Manuel Vivanco at Destileria El Ranchito Feliciano - Vivanco y Asociados (NOM 1414) praised National Chamber for the Tequila Industry (CNIT) and COMEFER's attempts to trademark "agave"

Back in 2012, Luis Velasco Fernández, President and CEO of La Madrileña, S.A. de C.V. (NOM 1142) expressed opposition to NOM 186. Don Luis Velasco Fernández, became new president of the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry (CNIT) in 2015. 

How can a binomial nomenclature be trademarked? Agave is part of the binomial nomenclature system. It is commonly understood and accepted that a binomial nomenclature can not be trademarked. What's intriguing and bewildering is that both CNIT (Camara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera) and CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) have attempted or are attempting to trademark "agave".

Then sometime in 2014 - 2015 the Mexican government with the assistance of CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal) tabled a proposal to update the Proyecto de Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-070-SCFI-1994, Bebidas Alcohólicas-. Mezcal-Especificaciones with Proyecto de Norma Oficial Mexicana PROY-NOM-070-SCFI-2015, Bebidas alcohólicas-Mezcal-Especificaciones. NOM-070 appeared to be a genuine attempt by CRM and its president, Hipócrates Nolasco Cancino, to reach out and consult with mezcaleros and families inside the  mezcal  denominación de origen to clearly define the specific categories of 100% agave mezcal (the 80% agave mezcal was going to be eliminated): 1). mezcal (industrial); 2). mezcal artesanal; and 3). mezcal ancestral. The raw material must undergo the following procedure(s) as stated in the NOM for each category to qualify as that specific mezcal. Still unclear whether the use of an diffuser would still be permitted in the mezcal (industrial) category.

Then just a few months after the PROY-NOM-070-SCFI-2015, the federal government of Mexico - Secretaría de Economía - released a proposal, Proyecto de Norma Oficial Mexicana PROY-NOM-199-SCFI-2015, Bebidas alcohólicas-Denominación, especificaciones fisicoquímicas, información comercial y métodos de prueba, that would completely overhaul all alcoholic spirits produced, bottled and imported inside the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. It is definitely a bold move by the government of Mexico. One could argue it is a heavy-handed attempt of compromise protectionism or perhaps something else entirely. A study by Euromonitor International did find that a staggering 43 per cent of the spirits consumed in Mexico were untaxed and illegal - either faked, contraband, unregulated or the product of under-invoicing. So where does that leave PROY-NOM-070-SCFI-2015? NOM-199 revisits the exclusive use of agave from NOM-186. A spirit produced outside any denominación de origen that uses agave as a raw material would now be categorized as komil - with no allowed mention of what variety of agave was used or the percentage of agave used. A spirit in the komil category would only need to be made from 51 percent agave. In other words it could be very difficult for the consumer to differentiate on the label between a small producer distilling a 100 percent agave spirit and an industrial producer manipulating their spirit with 49 percent sugar cane or corn syrup. Again, ask yourself, who would support such restrictive measures? Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, a Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politicain, and Luis Velasco Fernández, the president of the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry (CNIT) appear to support NOM-199,

I understand restricting the use of the words tequila, mezcal, bacanora etc. (must respect denominaciónes de origen), but it's ridiculous to restrict the use of agave. Why not allow producers outside the denominaciónes de origen to use destilado de agave. For the small families producing agave spirits (up to 200 litres per month*in a DO, but unable to pay the full fees and monies to the organization overseeing certification for that denominaciónes de origen, why not permit the use of destilado de agave or permitted name in that DO. Maybe create some sort of cooperative  for such families in the DOs, but if this already exists perhaps expand on it. Again, an argument can be made where agave is a binomial nomenclature which can not be trademarked or even its use restricted for that matter. Unfortunately, it appears Camara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera, Consejo Regulador del Tequila, Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, Consejo Sonorense Promotor de la Regulación del Bacanora, and various national, multinational and transnational corporations have all thrown their support behind NOM-199. Respected scholar, Patricia Colunga García-Marín, wrote this response to NOM-199. But this letter in opposition to NOM-186 said it best: 

"Este proyecto, al igual que el propuesto por el Instituto Mexicano de la Propiedad Industrial (IMPI), para declarar la palabra Agave como una marca de uso exclusivo de los productores de las DO Tequila, Mezcal y Bacanora (Expediente No. 08/0116/171011), pretende establecer normas legales que, de ser aprobadas, significarían: 1) La violación del derecho del consumidor de contar con información adecuada y clara sobre los productos que adquiere, los cuales deben especificar de forma correcta su cantidad, características, composición, calidad y precio, 2) La exclusión de cientos de productores de mezcales artesanales tradicionales del mercado de bebidas alcohólicas, vulnerando así la garantía prevista en el Artículo 5º de nuestra Constitución, que señala que a nadie se le podrá impedir que se dedique a una profesión, industria, comercio o trabajo lícito, y 3) La destrucción de una parte del patrimonio biológico y cultural de los mexicanos, violando los convenios internacionales que sobre la materia han sido firmados por nuestro país."

"This project, as proposed by the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI), to declare the word Agave as a mark of exclusive use of the producers of the DO Tequila, Mezcal and Bacanora (Docket No. 08/0116 / 171011), it aims to establish legal rules that, if approved, would mean: 1) the violation of the right of consumers to have adequate and clear information about the products you purchase, which must be specified correctly quantity, characteristics, composition, quality and price, 2) the exclusion of hundreds of producers of traditional artisan mezcal market of alcoholic beverages, thus breaching the security provided for in Article 5 of our Constitution, which states that no one shall be hindered engaged in a profession , industry, trade or legal work, and 3) the destruction of a part of the biological and cultural heritage of Mexicans, violating international conventions on the subject have been signed by our country."

Is this NOM-199 a sign of the impending apocalypse for agave spirits? Will the big corporations flood the markets with komil? What's strange is the consumers are not as upset with the gradual industrialization of tequila and mezcal. It seems a new flavoured tequila (mixto and 100% agave), produced at a distillery with a diffuser, is being released every odd month. I cannot imagine all of this proposed NOM will be enacted into law. I predict that komil will be redacted. Everyone will have to respect the ever-so-often-expanded DOs, If an 100% agave spirit is produced outside the denominaciónes de origen it should be allowed to be called  destilado de agave or destilado de maguey. If an 100% agave spirit is produced inside a denominaciónes de origen without the proper certification but exported for sale... well I'm not going there. All spirits producers should be monitored and have strict testing certification - obviously costs adjusted according to production size. Maybe ease up on the alcohol proof restriction. Eliminate the mixto category - only 100% agave. Prohibit diffusers. Expand the DOs, at the very least the inclusion of other states/regions could address some concerns about monitoring, inspections and quality. There should be sizable tax benefits to producers that: 1). adopt a reduce, reuse, recycle program; 2). have a low carbon footprint; 3). only manufacture up to 200* litres per month and 4). have an active and successful program for reforestation of agave. Besides, producers only making small batches of spirits through ancestral methods should be rewarded. Producers using industrial methods (ie. diffuser) to make thousands of liters a month should be strictly monitored. If you feel compelled to sign a petition to support opposition to NOM-199 for agave distillates - there is this one created by Tequila Interchange Project.

And for whatever reason, a few individuals and a company have jumped at the attempt to trademark "komil". And then there's Carl´s Jr.'s Mezcal BBQ Thickburger. I don't have a horse in this race. Definitely not an expert. I don't make a living off of the industry. I do enjoy all agave based spirits. The history of pre-hispanic Mesoamérica fascinates me. The story of Mayahuel and Centzon Totochtin. The story on the discovery of pulque. The making of pulque (fermentation and agave). Don't even get me started on the many varieties of corn (maize) and the possibility of a corn whisky-type spirit. NOM-199 is a flimsy attempt to strong-arm the ancestral and traditional spirits producers which just so happens to include a large portion of indigenous people in Mexico's poorest rural regions. Sort of sounds like 1795 all over what came first, tequila or mezcal?

* 200 litres is just a random number thrown out there. The mezcaleros producing spirits through ancestral methods would have a better idea to quantify what "small batch" means when it comes to such numbers involving monthly production

El Mezcalito, a great example of the hypocrisy in this fight. Claims to contain Agave. Yet made with Caña de azúcar (sugar-cane). And what about the brand's name?

While the government of Mexico is so worried about the use of mezcal - Carl´s Jr. nonchalantly uses it for their new Mezcal BBQ Thickburger.

Wild Agave Imports, LLC is a subsidiary of Wahaka Mezcal

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