Certification and the Case for Local Appellation

As explained in my article on the History of Mezcal, the term Mezcal refers to two categories, 1 traditional and 1 modern.


Traditionally the term Mezcal referred to any spirit distilled from sugars extracted from the cooked heart of the agave plant. The use of the term equates to the modern category of Agave Spirits, which includes: Tequila, Raicilla, Bacanora, Destilado de Agave, and Aguadiente de Agave, as well as the modern category of Mezcal.


This modern category of Mezcal is a legal definition, stipulating a denomination of origin, or geographical area in which mezcal can be made, and a set of rules and limitations on production – producers of this sort of mezcal must be registered with an official certifying body, and their product must adhere to certain rules regarding labelling and chemical contents.


Colloquially, the term “mezcal” is often still used in the traditional sense, particularly in the rural parts of Mexico where traditional agave spirits are produced. However, if you want to put the word Mezcal on your bottle, you are legally obliged to ensure its contents are part of the modern category, and adhere to the associated regulations.


This raises the first oft-maligned feature of certification – that it has taken unsolicited ownership of a historical term. Many mezcalero can trace their trade back 5 generations, some further. Mezcal is their profession, their passion, and their heritage. Then, 20 years ago, they were duly informed that they could no longer call it mezcal unless they agreed to pay an annual fee and adhere to the rules of an unelected body with no local representation. This ruffled some feathers - many mezcaleros refused on principle.


The other problems with certification became apparent as the newly formed regulating body – the CRM a.k.a. Comercam – began to take shape. The model was borrowed from the other major spirits regulator in the country, the CRT, responsible for certifying tequila. The CRT is entrusted to interpret a set of laws, known as a NORMA, which governs what can and can’t be called tequila. This interpretation is then relayed to Tequila producers, who pay for right to use the term on their labels via an annual membership fee and a commission on each litre of product sold, funding the operation of the CRT. The CRT is generally considered to be an effective organisation, so its easy to understand why this model was used. However, mezcal production differs from tequila production in two crucial ways: the size of the appellation, and the number of registered producers.


The concept of “appellation” was first developed in Europe and is based on localised production styles - the way they make wine in Bordeaux, or ham in Parma. These styles have developed based on a shared history of local technologies, tastes, and terroir. The tequila appellation comprises a single region of Mexico, centred on the state of Jalisco, meaning the NORMA governing tequila production can effectively reflect the shared history of this region. The mezcal appellation on the other hand covers 10 states, a third of Mexico, and stretches the length and breadth of the country - the largest appellation in the world. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible to find the common ground and shared history which defines such a vast and disparate area.


The number of registered producers is significant in its impact on the power of the regulating body, and so it’s incentive to work in the interest of the producers. The NORMAs are designed to be objective, but inevitably the finer details can be interpreted in different ways. These interpretations can be made in ways which are advantageous to producers – reducing bureaucracy and easing logistics – or not. There are only 135 registered tequila distilleries, which have effectively organised themselves into a sort of union, holding the CRT accountable and ensuring that subjective decisions are made in the interest of producers. Meanwhile there are over 1,300 producers registered with the CRM, making collective action extremely difficult, and so pushing the balance of power firmly in the direction of the CRM.     


At this stage it is important to assert that we are not against certification in principle. Free market capitalism increases scale in the pursuit of low costs, a process which decimates variety of flavour and production culture. This category homogenisation can be seen in the history of spirits such as whisky or brandy, which were guided by commercialisation long before the instigation of appellations such as Scotch or Cognac. In mezcal we have a category which has only just begun to be touched by the market. It is precious and fragile and needs protection in the form of sensitive regulation on production.


How to do this is not entirely straightforward. It seems clear that smaller appellations would be more sensitive to the shared history of production regions, but the financial gains for producers are dubious. The term “Mezcal” has significant and growing currency internationally. The costs and complexities of registering with the CRM are justified by the increased market share available to “Mezcals”. A form of dual appellation could be an option, with protection of both the term “mezcal” and a regional category, such as “Miahuateco” in Miahuatlán. But this would inevitably add to both cost and bureaucracy.


To our minds, the only possible solution is increased consumer awareness of the distinction of these regions. By discussing regionality and its effect on local styles of mezcal we can raise the profile of these regions, increasing its importance to the customer and so the currency of a proposed local appellation. By working with both certified mezcals and uncertified agave spirits from the region of Miahuatlán we hope to open this conversation, highlight he qualities of Miahuateco Mezcals, and further the cause of local appellations.