American drinkers don't often trouble themselves with Mexican affairs, but with the future of agave-based spirits suddenly unsure, perhaps they should.
Trouble is brewing in our neighbor to the south, where legislators have proposed a bill that could harm the variety and quality of the agave-based spirits we enjoy, as well as the livelihood of those who make them.
The bill, NOM 186, will allow the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property to brand the word "agave" for use by producers within specific regions in Mexico, limiting the geography from which drinks like Mezcal, Bacanora and other artisanal agave spirits can be produced. It would also limit the word's use to spirits made using only the six types of agave allowed within these areas and prohibit spirits made from the 33 other species of agave outside the appellations from ever entering the market. Distillers outside the appellations would fall under strict rules for labeling their products and would only be permitted to create drinks with an alcohol content between 25% and 35%. Most artisanal mezcals are between 45% and 55% ABV.
"Basically what it comes down to is the big tequila companies trying to push out the boutique tequila and mezcal makers," says Travis Nass, bartender at Rancho Pinot.
The bill was written on behalf of a group of large, foreign owners of well-known agave spirit brands as a way to "protect consumers" from mislabeled agave-based spirits. But its passage, Nass says, could severely limit mezcal production and hurt owners of small family distilleries who have crafted these products for generations.
Most of the states where tequila and mezcal is produced already have large percentages of migration [to the United States]. If these plans go through there will be even less economic incentive to remain. They will eliminate the means for producers to make a living.
A petition to stop NOM 186, proposed by the nonprofit advocacy group The Tequila Interchange Project, is currently circulating online. According to Nass, Americans have a huge potential to block its passage.
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"Americans now drink more agave spirits than Mexicans," he says. "[Government Leaders] are well aware of who butters their bread. If Americans make a big enough stink, we have the potential to shut it down."
Unfortunately, with the current state of the bartending scene, Nass doesn't see that happening at all.
"When Shit Bartenders Say came out, within a day I saw it on every person's wall," he says. "This petition came out maybe a month ago, and I've only heard a few people even talking about it. It's frustrating when something as potentially devastating as this is mostly ignored by the people in the industry that can be most affected," he says.