Graciela Ángeles Carreño is the co-owner and general manager of Real Minero, one of the most prominent mezcal producers in the small village of Santa Catarina Minas, just an hour outside of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Her family’s mezcal roots date back to the 19th century, but their sustained focus on tradition has made them leaders in the industry today. Real Minero only uses agaves grown in the vicinity of the distillery, and just as it has been done for generations, they’re harvested ripe after around a decade of growth, roasted underground, crushed, fermented in wooden tanks, and then painstakingly distilled in clay pots.
What Real Minero produces has always been called mezcal, a word which conjures not just an appellation, but an entire culture, history, and tradition. Nonetheless, in 2021 the Ángeles family decided to quietly remove the word mezcal from new bottlings.
Real Minero is just one of a number of producers choosing to forgo both the official certification process and the label with it, adopting the more generic term of agave spirits instead. This has led to an incredible variety of agave spirits reaching the U.S., such as Agua del Sol, NETA, and Rezpiral.
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The global agave-based spirits category saw volumes increase by 18 percent in 2021, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, and while tequila and mezcal hold the lion’s share, producers are banking on some of that staggering demand spilling over to agave spirits. But, with some traditional and new producers abandoning the official certification process, what does this shift mean for the future of mezcal?
A Convoluted Certification Process
Over the past 10 years, mezcal has exploded in popularity. Today, it’s difficult to find a bar that doesn’t have a mezcal cocktail on the menu, and the numbers bear that out: Mezcal production has risen from 1.45 million liters in 2014 to 7.9 million liters in 2020, with the U.S. consuming more than 70 percent of that total. Whether—or how much—that can be attributed to the appellation, is an open question. The certification authority for mezcal always claimed that the unified brand identity was the major factor in mezcal’s success.
In Mexico, mezcal commonly refers to any spirit made from agave roasted underground. However, legally, the word has a very different meaning. The Mexican government created an Appellation of Origin for mezcal in 1994, publishing a Norma Oficial Mexicana to outline its official production standards, and later establishing the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) to enforce those standards. It recognized areas of seven Mexican states and upwards of 50 varieties of agave—which later expanded even further—defining the required chemical standards and production process. This was despite enormous variation in terroir and traditions amongst producers across the country.
One of the CRM’s goals was to build mezcal’s reputation as a safe, high-quality, and traditional product, because it had frequently been sold in souvenir bottles and carried negative associations. Makers were required to submit samples from every batch for chemical analysis. While this proved the safety of the product, and worked within the framework of larger and more industrially produced spirits, the vast majority of mezcal producers are small, family operations with one or two stills, often making 100-liter batches at a time. The logistics of getting samples to the lab —and the economics of paying for them—made certification a non-starter. For many, the arbitrary chemical standards of the appellation also meant many small-batch mezcals didn’t qualify.
Political tensions and issues within the CRM, long an open secret in the industry, came to a head in the spring of 2021 when an election for new leadership resulted in two factions claiming victory. As their standoff evolved, the CRM imploded and other certification organizations emerged. Today the CRM website is offline and there are at least four organizations certifying mezcal in Mexico, with the Asociación de Maguey y Mezcal Artesanal the apparent successor to the CRM. All four are recognized by the Mexican government and use the same standards that the CRM promulgated, only further complicating matters for producers.
A Difficult Decision to Decertify
The fundamental question of whether to certify or decertify, however, remains loaded with cultural significance. As one of the early adopters of mezcal certification, Real Minero was both a leader and a risk taker. “We were possibly the first clay-pot distiller to be certified,” says Ángeles. Back then, “the majority [of producers] were selling mezcal without certifying.”
Certification made complete sense to Àngeles and many others exactly because mezcal was an important cultural expression. Mezcal is what they, their families, and their community had always called the spirit. The fact that they could now receive an official stamp of approval and proudly label their spirits as such on the global stage was also a full-throated recognition of their cultural heritage.
Over time, however, it became a burden due to the politics and bureaucracy involved. Ángeles and her family couldn’t get through to the CRM on the phone, their calls went unanswered, and every interaction seemed full of friction. The final straw for Ángeles came down to a name: Real Minero had used colloquial agave names like Becuela (A. marmorata, also known as Tepeztate) since 2005, but then the CRM published an official list of agave names and theirs were not on it.
The whole certification system now seemed anathema to the culture and tradition of mezcal. “I [don’t] want this story to seem reductionist,” explains Ángeles. “For us, this step has been difficult, hard, and solitary.”
Creating a Pathway for Agave Spirits
In 2016, when Jason Cox launched Cinco Sentidos it was one of the first uncertified agave brands in the U.S. It began as a way to make house mezcal for his restaurant and mezcaleria El Destilado in Oaxaca. Functioning more like an independent bottler than a distiller, Cox sources from small-batch producers for each expression, with the bottles naming the producer and detailing production practices. These producers, however, often operate on such a small scale that they fall outside of the parameters for certification. If Cox wanted to certify Cinco Sentidos, he would have to submit every single batch from each of those individual producers.
Instead, he opted for the label agave spirit. The category is permitted by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and also exists in Mexico where it’s called destilado de agave. Before Cinco Sentidos, however, few had used the label to market their product in the U.S. because it was generic and didn’t carry any of the brand recognition of mezcal. Producers feared consumers would consider their product inferior. In short, spurning certification seemed foolhardy.
“It was the only option for us,” says Cox. “[We received] a certain degree of pushback. I didn’t see it coming, but I didn’t care. I just want a bottle with good juice.”
Cox persevered, setting out to share with bartenders and retail buyers the amazing stories of the makers he worked with—one ferments in cow hides; another distills with mole—and the bar world tuned in. Cinco Sentidos represents the products of small distillers who are focused on the craft of their tradition—and they taste amazing. They are the essence of what mezcal is supposed to represent. Cinco Sentidos slowly carved out a market niche adjacent to certified mezcal—and other makers were watching.
Agave Spirits Offer Producers Freedom of Expression
Ben Scott is the cofounder of Pueblo de Sabor, which imports the highly regarded labels of Mal Bien, Agave Mix Tape, and Lalocura. One Mal Bien expression is certified as mezcal, but the rest of his products are agave spirits. For Scott, the real issue of certification is whether the requirements alter the end product, because the concept of his company is to import bottles that express their makers’ visions.
Frequently the limits of chemical compounds required for certification just aren’t possible for traditional producers to achieve, such as the naturally-occuring furfural created during the agave roasting process. Producers might have to alter their production methods—as Del Maguey did when the new rules for furfural came into effect in 2018—or water down or blend their spirits in order to meet the official standards. “For us it’s a choice about not changing the product,” says Scott. If regulators changed how mezcal was defined, however, “we’d be happy to certify.”
Cox and Scott have been building a stateside market for agave spirits beyond mezcal. For Scott, different agave spirits express different terroirs and appeal to different consumers. “There are so many markets in agave spirits; it’s a mistake to think about the buyer as one person,” says Scott. “There are different things that appeal to different segments. It’s our job to find the people who enjoy and appreciate what we do.” Evidencing the growing consumer education around the category and curiosity for new discoveries, for most of his customer base the product’s appeal is in who made it and how.
Growing Consumer Awareness of Agave Spirits
Consumers appear to be catching on. Zack Romaya, the owner of Old Town Tequila in San Diego, has noticed a change in the past two to three years. “It’s not like before when people said ‘I want something that says mezcal,’” he says. “Now they say ‘This one is good, I read good things about it.’ They don’t care as much about the name.” It doesn’t mean that certified mezcal is finished. “Mezcal still has cachet,” says Romaya. “Especially when you start getting into mezcal artisanal and ancestral. People want to have those products; they already know at this point that it’s premium.”
In hospitality, guests know mezcal, so bartenders and retailers use that name regardless of what’s on the bottle. “We call it all mezcal as that’s what it is,” says Chris Pastena, the co-owner of Calavera in Oakland, California, a restaurant well known for its Mexican cuisine and mezcal selection. “It also seems like things change all the time,” he adds, in terms of labeling, so using that general term is easier for customers and staff.
For mezcal aficionados, agave spirits offer a sense of discovery and authenticity; often being uncertified implies these mezcals are small batch and coming straight from the families who produce them in Mexico, without having to adapt their product to meet export restrictions.
Looking ahead, perhaps some of the new certification authorities in Mexico will take up the challenge to reexamine the process because the political and economic battles over mezcal have created many opportunities. In the meantime, the uncertified brands keep coming. Today, agave spirits are being made in a variety of countries like South Africa and the U.S. These producers also call their products agave spirits which means that there is no labeling distinction between them and what Real Minero, Cinco Sentidos, and many other Mexican distillers are selling.
Many Mexican agave spirits producers would still like to label their product as mezcal. It’s the term most commonly used and it represents a cultural heritage, regardless of arguments around certification, economics, and global branding. For Ángeles, however, it doesn’t mean what it once did. “The word [mezcal] today doesn’t represent what we do,” she says, noting that they are mere spectators in the battle over the name. “We’re on the other side in a limbo where anything can happen.”
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Max Garrone writes about wine, beer, and spirits and the cultures that create them. He cofounded Mezcalistas, where he is a contributing writer and continues to focus on the world of agave spirits.