It may seem insensitive to say “Mexico is having a hard time” and then proceed to talk about booze. Then, the mezcal and tequila industries support countless families and a volatile economy, so in a way, this is an important social issue.
Two of Mexico’s most beloved exports are headed for hard times for completely different reasons. Here’s what you need to know.
The problem: agricultural shortage.
Blue agaves will be rare until 2019.
And the drink of Champs must be 51% blue agave to qualify as mixto tequila and 100% to qualify as tequila agave. And the top-shelf stuff, añejo, has to age for a minimum of one year. Unfortunately, the plant’s growth rate is more cedar than kudzu: blue agave takes 7-10 years to mature. Compare that to rum (sugar cane = 9-24 months) or vodka (potato = 10 weeks).
After mid-2000s agave production spiked, prices tanked. Plummeting demand meant circa-2005 agave farmers became circa-2010 corn farmers. Today, tequila supply is down 42% from 2014, the year prices had already risen 500% in two years.
For complicated reasons, the main victims of this are small and startup tequila manufacturers.
The problem: bourgeois oppression.
Mezcal, the larger genre of which tequila is a subset, is any agave-based liquor. Because it can include more than 30 varieties of the plant, mezcal flavors differ vastly from brand to brand, making it a complex and ideal sipping drink.
Proposed legislation NOM 199 (PROY-NOM-199-SCFI-2015) would require mezcal distillates outside of designated areas (or DOs) to rename their beverage and keep ingredients secret. Laws have already forced non-DO mezcal makers to call themselves “Agave Distillates.”
Now NOM 199 would like to do this to them:
- Limit use of the word “agave” or “maguey,” the main damn ingredient
- Require an entirely new product name: “komil,” a catchall term for pure agave juice and every type of mixto
- Rob countless centuries-old businesses of profit and tradition
Legal lack of transparency would diminish non-DO mezcal reputation after the market gets flooded with cheap stuff masquerading under the same vague moniker.
If finding tequilas and mezcals on the wrong side of these issues gives you a morally scrupulous headache, fret not.
You can always try the other endemic Mexican tipple: sotol.