America’s Role in Latest Fight for Small Mezcal

Big distilleries in Mexico are waging a battle for market share in the U.S., often at the expense of small producers. Sarah Bowen on how a new proposition—NOM 199—threatens the livelihood of small distillers throughout Mexico, and how Americans play a big role in its fate.

Mezcal artisanal nom 199

“Poor Mexico—so far from God and so close to the United States.” So goes the saying, often credited to former Mexican president Porfirio Díaz.

Díaz’s regime ended more than 100 years ago with the Mexican Revolution, a bloody uprising of landless peasants and workers who were fed up with Díaz and his elite cronies. But his lament about Mexico-U.S. relations still rings true. The countries’ geographical proximity and close historical ties, combined with massive disparities between them, foster Mexico’s dependency on a fickle U.S. market. There is, perhaps, no better example than the production and sale of Mexico’s national spirits, tequila and mezcal. And here the more contemporary version of Diaz’s expression is perhaps more appropriate: Mexicans joke that when the U.S. economy goes on a bender, it’s Mexico that ends up with the hangover.

Mexican distilleries began exporting tequila to the United States in the 1800s, and since then, the specter of the foreign market has loomed large. Often the whims of U.S. consumers take the market—and the institutions that regulate it—in absurd directions. For example, in a misguided concession to the U.S. craze for everything from cupcake vodka to Fireball, in 2006 the Mexican government decided to allow for the production of flavored tequila. Tequila traditionalists were outraged.

“Do you think we’re ever going to see a tutti frutti-flavored Scotch?” one asked me. But the big distilleries won. They argued that success in the lucrative U.S. market meant watering down the standards used to ensure the quality and authenticity of tequila and mezcal. Cuervo celebrated by sending bands of revelers, painted from head to toe in the colors of Cuervo’s new line of flavored tequilas, to Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Over the last century, the big distilleries got used to getting their way, and they often used the U.S. market to rationalize their decisions. But what they didn’t expect was that a small but influential part of that market could come back to bite them.

In 2011, the Mexican government released a proposal for a new law, NOM 186, which aimed to restrict the use of the word “agave” to producers in regions associated with existing denominations of origin (DOs), such as the DOs for tequila and mezcal.

Like many regulations before it, NOM 186 was written by the big tequila companies behind closed doors and justified as promoting greater market access. They designed the rules to protect their own market share, by running producers in other regions out of business. It was a cynical move, and the tequila companies had every reason to expect that it would pass fairly easily. But it failed.

NOM 186 was published, strategically, just before Christmas, and it shocked and enraged the small producers who would be most affected. Along with activists and academics in Mexico, they circulated petitions and built up support on social media. Basically, they out-organized the organized.

Incidentally, the movement against NOM 186 also included thousands of U.S. consumers and bartenders, who signed and disseminated petitions and spoke out via social media.

“The position of the tequila companies changed when they saw how many people were against NOM 186—when they saw all of the signatures,” explains David Suro, president of the Tequila Interchange Project, a non-profit advocacy group that fought it. “It sent a very clear message to the industry, that it could have negative consequences for the industry—both economically and in terms of its image.” 

The defeat of NOM 186 was a landmark victory. It was one of the first times in the history of the regulation of Mexican agave spirits that small producers triumphed over large distilleries and multinational liquor companies.

But now it’s happening all over again.

On February 29 of this year, a proposal for a new standard, NOM 199, was published in Mexico’s Official Journal of the Federation. NOM 199 would again prevent mezcal and spirits producers outside of a small set of protected regions from using the word “agave” anywhere on their labels. These producers would instead be forced to market their spirits as “komil.” If you’ve never heard of the term, you’re not alone. It’s a Nahuatl word that wouldn’t be recognized by most people in Mexico, let alone the rest of the world.

“It’s as if a chocolate company wanted to register the word ‘cocoa,’” explains Erick Rodríguez, the Mexico City-based owner of Almamezcalera, which works with small mezcal producers throughout Mexico. “It’s as if a wine company wanted to register the word ‘grapes.’”

And to be clear, this does nothing to defend the quality of traditional mezcals or tequilas. Many of the companies supporting NOM 199 support lowering standards for their own products, and in the past, they have pushed to continue watering down the laws that regulate tequila and mezcal. This is about larger companies protecting their share of the market.

According to ethnobotanist Patricia Colunga García-Marín, there is evidence of a history of mezcal production in 24 Mexican states. But the DO for mezcal only allows distillers in nine of those states to sell their product as mezcal, even if their families have been making mezcal for generations. Now NOM 199 would prevent producers outside the registered DO regions from even using the word “agave.”

“We’ve already lost mezcal,” says Erick Rodríguez of the further restrictions that NOM 199 would place on producers outside the DOs. “We aren’t ready to lose the category of agave.”

Once again, people like Suro and Rodríguez are rallying to fight NOM 199, and again, the stakes are high. If NOM 199 is passed, “it’s going to push them into illegality,” said Suro, “and it will have catastrophic consequences: economically, socially, culturally.”

The public has until April 29 to submit comments, and organizations in the U.S. and Mexico are working to mobilize support against the proposal and communicate its potential consequences with small producers. At a meeting held between activists, academics and small mezcal producers in Zapotitlán, Jalisco, producers were asked if they had ever heard of “komil.” “No,” they said, again and again, “I’ve never heard of it.”

The petition that originated with that meeting now has more than 30,000 signatures. But the fight against NOM 199 isn’t over. “The role of consumers, bartenders and people from the spirits industry in the United States was fundamental to stopping NOM 186,” says Pedro Jiménez Gurría, director of Mezonte, a group that supports the preservation and promotion of traditional distilled agave spirits, “and now it is vital for stopping NOM 199… the zombie of NOM 186.”

Allied once again with small Mexican producers like those in Zapotitlán, consumers in the U.S. can make a difference. We may have driven the demand for frozen margaritas and gold flecked-tequila, sure, but we also have a chance to protect small producers throughout Mexico from yet another U.S.-induced hangover.

For more information, or to sign a petition against NOM 199, visit: http://bit.ly/1ZoKmf6

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  • Tequila DK

    Very interesting article. I hope you will write again when something comes out the negotiations regarding 199. I have not been able to find a time frame anywhere as when decisions will be made