Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - Currently there is legislation sitting before the Mexican government, NOM-186 as it is called, that is designed to tighten the naming and production of regionally described agave-based spirits like tequila, mezcal and bacanora. Opponents of the bill feel these regulations would benefit large, established producers at the expense of niche and family producers, and were introduced in a furtive manner.
President of Siembra Azule Tequila and owner of Los Catrines Resaurant in Philadelphia, David Suro-Piņera, agrees that something must be done about misleading agave spirits that are currently on the market. "But those offenders are industrial products, and have nothing to do with small producers in Oaxaca and elsewhere." Suro-Piņera is part of the force behind the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP), an interdisciplinary affiliation of academics, small producers, and bartenders in Mexico and the US.
Oaxaca is a state closely associated with the production of mezcal, a spirit distilled from agave, like tequila. Some 90% of mezcal is made by village or family-based small enterprises, and crucial to south-central Mexican economic growth, according to Scorpion Mezcal's Douglas French.
Opponents of NOM-186 don't oppose the idea of increasing standardization and definition of Mexico's agave-based spirits and fermented products, but oppose the verbiage of the current proposed legislation. According to the TIP's website, two initiatives sit before the Mexican legislature that "have direct, debilitating effects on a large portion of producers of agave distillates and possibly irrevocable effects on the agricultural biodiversity of Mexico."
According to TIP, the first proposal, from the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI) essentially tradmarks the word "agave" as a brand name for the exclusive use of producers in designated Appellations of Tequila (five states in Mexico, the primary one being Jalisco), Mezcal (several states in central and eastern Mexico, the primary one being Oaxaca) and Bacanora (restricted to the northwestern state of Sonora). This despite the fact that naturalists, botanists, Wikipedia, and the average spirits writer have used the name "agave" for a broad family of cacti in the Agavoideae family for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Now it would be legally protected and restricted when it comes to labeling distilled or fermented spirits.
The second proposal, NOM-186, from the Ministry of Economy, "further regulates specifications, proof methods, and commercial information of alcoholic beverages produced with species of the genus agave."
According to Suro-Piņera, "parts of this new NOM (Official Mexican Standard) will pretty much prohibit any opportunity for small producers to sell their product, or even make it. They will be prohibited from making 100% agave distilled spirits over 35% alcohol by volume. They could produce mixtos (a blend of agave spirit with a grain neutral spirit that are considered a lower end, inferior product,) but not 100% agave spirits."
According to Suro-Piņero and various bartenders moving the information and calling for signatures through Facebook and Twitter, the legislation would have the most impact on small producers of mezcal, a category increasing in popularity in the US. "This legislation is deliberately designed to eliminate artisanal, (traditional small producers) similar to the legal pressure that was created against micro-breweries. It makes it tough to grow consumer interest" argues Suro-Piņero.
Distillers outside approved growing areas, and who don't meet other requirements of the legislation, would be required to label their products with the terms "agavacea aguardiente" or "distilled agavacea," words that aren't yet in the public consciousness and TIN argues would provide consumers with limited information.
Although the initiatives were introduced in November and the Mexican government allows 60 days for public input and protests on proposed legislation, TIN and its supporters feel they were deliberately misinformed and have only had a few days to rally support in protest of the legislation.
"In November, we found out their intention to register the word 'agave' for the exclusive use of tequila, mezcal and bacanoro," says Suro-Piņera. "We had a three-hour meeting with CNIT (a lobbying organization representing large tequila brands in Mexico, and one Suro-Piņero says was behind the wording in NOM-186). We focused all our attention on the agave word issue because we didn't know at the time they had also introduced the NOM-186 initiative. It was only after the Mexican intermediary branch came out with its report on the objections, that TIN and its supporters learned of the second, regulatory initiative."
The January 21st deadline only gave them a few days to react, hence the global petition-signing movement organized through social media. "Professor Patricia Colunga-Garciamarin drafted the letter on Friday the 20th," says Suro-Piņero, "and by Saturday the 21st, we had signatures from over 1,000 bartenders all over the world. It's wonderful and insane."
In the US, leading industry names from New York, Boston and California signed the petition. In an open letter to fellow bartenders, Phil Ward, co-owner of New York's mezcal mecca "Mayahuel" (restaurant) wrote, "if you read [NOM Regulation 186], you will see it is one of the most despicable proposed pieces of legislation I've ever seen."
The board of TIP sat with the CNIT in November, for a discussion regarding the branding of the word agave. "From what we heard, and from further discussions with the academic memebers of TIP, we knew this was something we could not endorse."
Does the voice of an American bartenders matter? "Big time," says Suro-Piņero. "I would say one signature from a bartender in the U.S. equals ten from bartenders in Mexico. The US is the largest consumer of these spirits, particularly tequila. So yes, they really listen to the American consumer."
As for Suro-Piņero, he says TIN and smaller producers not represented by the CNIT (Camara Nacional Industria Tequilera) would like the opportunity for input on more carefully worded legislation in the future, should NOM-186 be tabled or defeated. "We want to have a creative dialogue to help us find solutions to everything. We are as concerned about some of these very cheap spirits on the market damaging the reputation and quality of tequila, mezcal and bacanara as anyone."TIP's reaction to NOM-186 and its petition can be found at its website, TequilaInterchangeProject.com.