A Brief Guide to the Semi-Underground World of Uncertified Mezcal
Why you should seek out these hard-to-find (but legal!) agave spirits
When I first heard of uncertified mezcal, my mind conjured images of a bootlegging operation involving some type of bathtub gin (well, agave spirit) and midnight border crossings. At the very least, something “uncertified” is going to run afoul of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), right?
Thankfully, Maxwell Reis — the Beverage Director of Gracias Madre in West Hollywood — put my mind at ease. That venue recently partnered with the Ramos and Sanchez families of Mal Bien to offer unique well espadín mezcal batches imported directly from Mexico.
Specifically, these are 1,662 liters of uncertified espadín mezcal. And Gracias Madre is apparently one of the first restaurants in the United States to offer uncertified mezcal in the U.S.
“Uncertified mezcal can be from any region in Mexico and has to pass less strict export standards,” as Reis tells us. “It still goes through testing when being imported/exported and meets TTB standards.”
So basically, mezcal that is “uncertified” means it arrives straight from the families who produce it in Mexico instead of going through the U.S. certification process. It also directly helps those families — the producers — and has some taste advantages for consumers, too, as Reis was kind enough to explain during our conversation, which appears below. And if you’re in Los Angeles and going to Gracias Madre, you can order this mezcal in cocktails, served neat, in full-liter bottles ($52) or via Postmates for delivery.
InsideHook: What’s a quick explanation of “uncertified mezcal”?
Maxwell Reis: Mezcal at its root means simply “cooked agave” so any agave distillate is technically a mezcal. A DO system (Denomination of Orgin) much like wine was put in place, similar to tequila, designating what mezcals from what regions can say “mezcal” on the label. Uncertified mezcal can be from any region in Mexico and has to pass less strict export standards.
How does buying mezcal straight from the families help them?
Uncertified mezcal is more of a loophole around certain regulations like batch-size minimums, and allows the families to make mezcal authentically, as they would naturally make it, without altering it to pass arbitrary exporting restrictions by the Mexican government. It preserves the authentic product and also allows more boutique-sized batches to be exported and sold. With our house mezcal, I was simply alluding that we are going around major brands and directly connecting with the family so we know they’re being compensated.
What do the Mexico and U.S. government agencies, like our TTB, think of this?
For a long time mezcal producers fought for a DO of mezcal to prevent people labeling things like rum as mezcal and selling it. But over time, many feel that the certification process became corrupted and prohibitive, so many are protesting it and its monetarily incentivized confines. If a family has been making something for hundreds of years and calling it mezcal, they should be able to call by its local name and export it authentically as long as it passes U.S. safety standards. The certification will make that quite difficult in some cases, and often impossible.
What advantages does this give the consumer?
You’re getting a product more authentic to how it’s being naturally produced and access to smaller bottlings. A lot of certified mezcals are diluted to proof with water to pass Mexican export standards. It’s easier for a destilado de agave to be brought to proof with heads and tails, which provides a broader depth of flavor and better texture.
Outside of your restaurant, is there any easy way for consumers to taste these uncertified mezcals?
Absolutely. Many high-end producers are abandoning the certification of mezcal, so many are available at boutique bottle shops. Look for “destilado de agave” — more and more are flooding the market every day.
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