It's not mezcal and no one cares
You know I’m concerned for the future of Tequila. There’s just so much bad happening in the category and the worst offenders are some of the most popular brands. Not all big tequila is trash, but there’s no doubt that large producers have succeeded in affecting regulation to their advantage. This may ultimately be bad for the product itself, but it means big profits for these companies. Until the marketplace rejects the inferior, manipulated junk that passes for tequila these days, we surely won’t see change. To be honest, there’s almost no eventuality that results in a return to quality as a whole for the category, but it’s important that we acknowledge those who support the traditional way because they are the ones who are most affected by supposed agave shortages and least likely to weather the storm. The independent distilleries, farmers and jimadors who create the truly authentic old style tequila, might never regain the loss in business due to the upheaval in the industry over the last decades and it’s highly unlikely that the industry will self-correct by reinstating regulatory quality controls that are crucial to the viability of traditional tequila production. Not all is lost, but from my perspective the industry is in crisis
Tequila is only the tip of the agave iceberg. Agave spirits, once generally called Mezcal, are distilled all over Mexico. This vast majority of those are not ever registered with the government and can’t legally be called Mezcal despite being historically and culturally referred to using that word. In the same way that the tequila producers have affected their industries landscape via regulation, the mezcal producers over the years have codified what can and can’t be called mezcal. This is justified as a means to control quality, requiring producers to register and meet certain chemical limits, but the regulations do less to insure quality and more to punish small producers who don’t have the expertise and know how to deal with the bureaucratic roadblocks that prevent them from calling their product the name that they’ve used for generations. The system is caged in protective language meant to mimic the strict system adopted in Europe for products of place, but achieve none of the actual goals of the European system. These are not Denominations of Origin in the traditional sense because they often cover diverse areas of production while ignoring other regions that don’t have the political or financial wherewithal to get their products included. In addition, the system leaves open plenty of opportunity for the largest producers to utilize low quality production methods and retain the DO designation. This isn’t a huge deal for most small producers who sell only locally, but as soon as a brand wants to export things get complicated.
Thankfully there is a growing group of producers, importers, and aficionados who understand that Mezcal is just a word and no regulatory quagmire can prevent us from buying the agave spirits that we want. The result is a new type of product that you may have seen pop up – Distilled Spirit of Agave (or uncertified mezcal as I prefer to refer to this class of product.) This is overarching category is applied to producers who can’t or don’t want to register their spirits as “mezcal.” Nearly all of them would certainly call it mezcal colloquially, if not simply vino, but some producers aren’t making mezcal at all. Historically, agave spirits from around the town of Tequila would be referred to as “vino mezcal de tequila,” but some traditional producers no longer qualify for the designation. The Santa Rita Distillery in Amatitan, has produced tequila for generations under the Caballito Cerrero name. The Tequila regulatory board has made it difficult for them to acquire the export license needed to sell their legendary tequila outside of Mexico because the owners refuse to work within the CRT framework. So, what did the Vizcarra family do? They sourced non-weber agave from the boarder of Jalisco and Michoacán and produced an unregulated Agave Spirit in the style that might have been made there 70+ years ago. It’s not tequila, but it is from Tequila.
Just to the west of the hub of agave cultivation and distillation, some of the world’s greatest distillers of traditional agave produce mezcal as their ancestors had, but they can’t call their products by that name. The Tequila industry is very sensitive about having the word Mezcal associated with any product from the region and so non-tequila agave producers must use a local name, Raicilla. This regional nomenclature once to referred strictly to the agave spirit produced on the coast of Jalisco, but now extends far beyond those regional boarders because producers in other parts of the state have no word to describe what they make legally. The champion of those spirits, both traditional Raicilla and agave spirits from all over Mexico, is Pedro Jimenez and his bar/brand of agave spirit Mezonte. His NGO works to bolster the traditional producers of agave (mezcal) and quality in the category in general, devoting themselves to the preservation of this spirit, it’s cultural significance and the biodiversity of the special plants used to make it. No single individual is more responsible for elucidating the diverse agave spirits being produced throughout Mexico and few are more generous a supportive of their producers than Pedro.
His products, by the time the get to us, are very expensive, but represent the true cost of the labor, expertise and quality of the special spirits he makes. You can rest easy knowing that the distillers of his mezcales are getting a truly fair price for their products. It’s not corporate bullshit. If you investigate, many mezcal brands will refer to themselves as sustainable and fair-trade, but on further investigation you find out what they mean by “fair-trade” is that their simply paying their suppliers a market price, without haggling too much. When you’re talking about years of work that go into a distillate and villagers living with almost no means, a market price is way below the true value of the product. But everyone wants to seem like they’re no taking advantage of the people they rely on to create business stateside. No one is more personally invested in the success of his producers and the communities they support than Pedro. And in the end all of that is just icing on the cake because what truly sets Mezonte apart from other suppliers is the products themselves. Each batch is like a pure form of concentrated spiritual energy -years of sunlight, centuries of expertise, decades of hard work sealed in these unassuming bottles for us to savor. No one cares that it doesn’t say mezcal on the label.
Likewise, many traditional producers in Oaxaca who could legally acquire the shiny mezcal seal to put on their bottles, don’t see the benefit of conforming their products to the regulations nor paying the registration fees. They’ve been met with open arms by consumers both in Mexico and abroad. There’s a whole host of devoted bottlers, who are not down there to get rich, but have fallen in love with the culture and people and simply want to devote their lives to the betterment of this special spirit and it’s people. We’ve got an incredible selection of agave from several of these non-certified mezcal representing some of the finest agave spirits of any kind. Here are few of the best: