Posted on April 4th, 2012
Controversial legislation in Mexico could change the way agave is distilled forever. Are these changes necessary growing pains for a developing category or might they inflict a permanent stunt in growth? Ulric Nijs discusses.
I remember, not so long ago (or so it seems) when most alcoholic beverages that came out of Mexico were usually badly thought of, and no one would have given tequila the time of the day. Tequila had its place in the speed rail simply because of its quick burst of boozy energy that consumers required, more as a rite of passage than a pleasure-seeking experience.
Today, I generally start my tequila mentoring with a very simple phrase: Tequila is the ‘aristocrat of the underworld’ (a small take on Douglas Coughlin’s philosophy). Meaning that, yes, it has kept up its ‘bad boy’ image but it is now starting to enjoy all the attention given to any other fine spirit. But have we gone a step too far in the opposite direction? Are we now witnessing an over-flooding of this category, similar to the premium vodka boom of the 90s, where some silly number of so-called premium vodkas were introduced behind the bar, and disappeared as quickly as they came? Or are we looking at a genuine expansion of the tequila and mescal categories? I am afraid of the answer.
In Mexico today we have a very different situation to the late 90s, where the blue agave was crippled, diseased and in short supply. However, due to the long incubation period of the plant, we are now feeling the ripple effects of the over-planting program that was put in place in the late 90′s and are left with a considerable surplus of agave. Now, the sight of abandoned blue agave fields has become a common sight in Jalisco (homeland of Tequila). It serves as a constant reminder that we are about to enter a new era in the history of the spirit.
I think that the best illustration of this era is the introduction of NOM-186 that has seen many aficionados raise their virtual voices in anger, calling the new sets of regulations an outrage, likely to put the livelihood of many traditional farmers at risks. Whilst my initial reaction was similar, I’ve started thinking about the implications and tried to understand the reasoning behind such an action. First and foremost, we must identify what the NOM-186 does; it restricts the production and labelling of products outside of the five geographical areas designated for mescal and tequila (the latter being produced only from agave tequilana Weber i.e. blue agave). Producers outside these areas will no longer be able to use the term ‘agave’, but instead will have to use the wording ‘distilled Agavecea’; a generic term referring to about 10 types of genus, to which the agave belongs. NOM-186 would also control the alcoholic strength of these products and impose further restrictions on the types of agave allowed for the production of mescal. All of these actions would not only single-handedly force smaller farmers out of the industry, but tear through a huge part of Mexican culture; a culture that has been prizing the distillation of agave for the best part of 600 years.
Put like this, NOM-186 sounds forceful. In many ways, it is ruthless and certainly does seem to favour well-established and large producers over smaller artisanal productions, but I also think that this may be a necessary reaction to try and protect a national treasure – it’s certainly not the first time we see actions such as this in the world of wine & spirits. Didn’t Louis XV pass a law in 1731 forbidding the plantation of new vine stock to protect the French wine industry, just as Carlos IV of Spain granted the very first licence to Don Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo to produce mescal wine? I do think that we are now in a situation that demands some sort of action to protect the integrity of the mescal category (used in its broadest possible term) and to ensure that this current over-supply does not lead to false expectations on the part of consumers.
At the end of the day, if you continue the comparison with the vodka revolution, it is true that vodka drinkers across the globe were suddenly spoilt for choice and yet it does seem that most of us went back to the tried & tested products and many of these vodkas released during the boom of the category ended up being traded by the container load into smaller markets. I think we should reserve judgement on NOM-186 at the moment and try to look at the long-term implications behind it. Whilst it’s important to preserve the livelihood of the people who work with agave, it is also important to protect the category and if the NOM-186 (or a reasonable adaptation thereof) is a way of doing that, then maybe it really isn’t so bad at all?