Like many of my posts, I try to hit upon themes that I hear about all the time from friends, family and people I meet. If I had a bottle of mezcal for every time I am asked “What is mezcal?”, I would have quite a collection. And I have quite a collection – see what I mean?
What is mezcal? Why is everyone talking about it? (well, maybe not everyone – just everyone who knows ANYTHING about ANYTHING!). Mezcal is any spirit that is distilled from an agave – though not everyone can label it as such as you will see below. So tequila is a mezcal, for example, because it is made from the blue agave. What distinguishes mezcal is where it is made in Mexico, the production process, and the types of agaves used. I go into depth on this topic in a variety of previous posts so check out THIS ONE from last August if you want more on this.
Now on to what I really want to write about in this piece: Why Is Mezcal Happening Now? There is not an obvious answer, and for that reason, I wanted to explore the topic. So let’s start with a bit of background.
I live in NYC and have been a passionate premium tequila lover for close to 20yrs. As the premium tequilas (and I am not talking about the only-margarita-worthy Patron)really began to come to market in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I began to get deeper into great tequilas. Then when my wife dubbed me a “tequila collector” I felt I had license to really go nuts, and the bottles really began to pile up!
But mezcal in the late 90’s and first half of the 00’s? It barely existed. I would dabble (and I loved it) when I saw a bottle of Del Maguey, but that was rare. I am talking really rare. Rarer than the NY Post front page without Lindsay Lohan and a bottle of Jack. .
So here we were in say 2005, and mezcal was undiscovered. Del Maguey was the only quality brand to be found. So seven or eight years ago, mezcal was virtually unheard of and you could rarely find it in any bar or liquor store. Now, relatively, mezcal is everywhere: virtually every cocktail bar, top restaurants like 11 Madison and Daniel, mezcal sections in liquor stores like Astor Wines, and even Bed, Bath and Beyond! Well, OK, maybe not….
Now I don’t want to overstate the case because mezcal is also still very much being discovered. As I said, it is relatively everywhere – contrasting it to being nowhere barely five years ago. But what has happened in these intervening years to take mezcal from unheard of to near mainstream?
Certification Legitimizes Mezcal
Many knowledgeable people in the spirits/tequila/mezcal world would point to the official regulation of mezcal producers as the primary reason behind the rise of mezcal. While this is definitely true, it is not the whole story, and I have a theory about how the regulation and certification of mezcal was the catalyst for its rise, but is far from the entire story. But first let’s look into certification and what it means. As usual, I am going to get a bit geeky and academic on the subject because that’s just what I do…
In the early 1990’s, Mexico and quality mezcal producers wanted to gain international recognition and protection for the product known as “mezcal”. Why did they want this? They wanted this because a specific international designation provides a product a measure of protection and prestige, which certainly helps it succeed commercially, but also recognizes a product’s culture, history, and extraordinary uniqueness to the region and the area. This recognition is ultimately granted by the World Intellectual Property Organization under the Lisbon Agreement, which is an international agreement that protects an “appellation of origin” (hang on, coming to that) such that the protected product can be made in specific designated areas. The criteria for an “appellation of origin” are:
- First, the requirement that the appellation of origin should be the geographical denomination of a country, region or locality means that the appellation is to consist of a denomination that identifies a geographical entity in the country of origin.
- Secondly, the requirement that the appellation of origin must serve to designate a product originating in the country, region or locality concerned means that, in addition to identifying a place, the geographical denomination in question must be known as the designation of a product originating in that place – requirement of reputation.
- The third requirement concerns the quality or characteristics of the product to which the appellation of origin relates, which must be due exclusively or essentially to the geographical environment of the place where the product originates.
This all makes sense to me and hopefully to you as well. What type of things are granted an “appellation of origin”? Well, Tequila, for example received its appellation of origin in 1978. But many other things have it including Champagne, Gruyere cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, many French wines, Cognac, and Chianti, among many others. And what this means is you can only make that product in that specific place! So you can make sparkling wine in California but you cannot call it Champagne. Or you could make mezcal in Arizona, but you can’t call it mezcal. Got it? So the appellation of origin is HUGELY important in protecting the cultural aspects of a product and the commercial possibilities as well. The Mexican Institute of Intellectual Property, which is the institution in Mexico authorized to declare protection of an appellation of origin within the country, granted Mezcal its “appellation of origin” on November 28, 1994. Following that, on March 3, 1995, the World Intellectual Property Organization granted Mezcal its appellation (appellation of origin number 731 in the Lisbon database if you are scoring at home). As a result, you may hear some say that Mezcal got its appellation in 1994 while others will say 1995. I think 1995 is the one that counts since that is the international stamp of approval. Finally (and a minor point perhaps), a Geographical Indication (GI) is a subset of an “appellation or origin”, and in Mexico a GI is recognized as a Denominacion de Origen, or “DO”. So you will hear people, including me, refer to Mezcal’s “DO”, instead of “appellation of origin”, but they are the same thing essentially and can be used interchangeably. Wow. Nerdsville.And an additional finally, the mezcal DO is somewhat controversial in Mexico because it originally only included 7 states in the DO (now it is 8). So the DO says only 8 states in Mexico can make an agave distillate called “mezcal”. The problem with this is that there are at least 18 more Mexican states that have been making mezcal for hundreds of years, and they were excluded from the DO. Why? A bunch of political B.S. as far as I can tell, but that’s the way it went down.
Now that we are all steeped in appellation of origin knowledge let’s continue the story.
Once mezcal received its DO, it became subject to a law governing mezcal, also known as the standard “NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-070-SCFI-1994“, which includes the DO. This law sets forth a variety of the rules and regulations governing, among other things, mezcal production, mezcal types, bottling, marketing, agaves to be used, quality standards, etc. While the details are interesting (to me at least) this blog post would get very long if I went into further depth, so for now check out Mezcaleria, which has the details.
In 1994, this NORMA came into existence but it really was not law – merely a suggestion at this point. But it got everyone moving in the right direction as all producers knew that the law was coming soon (well, not too soon – this is Mexico after all). In 1997, an industry regulatory body was established to apply the law. The regulatory body is known as COMERCAM (“Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal A.C.” or in English, the Mexican Council for Quality Regulation of Mezcal). COMERCAM is an association of mezcal producers, brand owners and experts. In 2003 the NORMA became law and COMERCAM began to officially certify producers in 2005. Since 2005, only Mezcal bearing the COMERCAM label is officially marketable.
So there you have it. The fuse is lit. But realize that although mezcal received its DO in 1995, mezcal has only been regulated and certified since 2005! If you wonder why mezcal only began to get popular in the past few years, the answer starts right here. It barely existed until 2005. The first official producer of mezcal, Eric Hernandez, was only certified in 2005, though he is a 3rd generation mezcal producer.
There was a survey taken in 2005 that sheds light on what the certification process can do to legitimize a spirit. In 2005 only 23% of Mexicans thought mezcal to be a quality product. By 2008, that number was up to 40%! That is a very short time period to improve the overall image of a beverage, and it started with certification.
A Confluence of Events Drives Mezcal Out of the Shadows
Certification and regulation put the framework in place for why mezcal is happening today. Let’s take a look at what I believe are a few of the other contributing factors.
- Entrepreneurs and Capital. Personally (and it is my blog so I get to put forth my theories first), I think the most important thing that certification did was provide a fertile environment for entrepreneurs. It costs a fair amount of money and resources for a producer to be certified, and many mezcal producers simply cannot afford it. Once certified, it takes capital to create a brand, produce it, bottle it, label it, export it, develop importer and distribution agreements, and market it in the destination markets. Passionate mezcal entrepreneurs have stepped into this arena because they have the capital (well, barely), vision, energy, enthusiasm, and abilities to create a business with the producers. While I do not know the origins of all the brands on the market, I know many of them have been brought to market by entrepreneurs. Now some people might not like this as they disparage the commercialization of mezcal and the pursuit of profits by entrepreneurs. But most of these brands stay true to the artisanal production process, have created jobs in Mexico (and the U.S.), and have brought recognition and awareness to our favorite spirit. Only the very small minded would question these benefits. The other important element that the entrepreneurs bring is evangelical passion. They love mezcal so deeply, so it is not just a commercial enterprise for them. Thus, the entrepreneurs, in my view, gave mezcal the initial boost post certification.
- Mixology. To me, the mixologists followed the entrepreneurs into the fray. Rather, the entrepreneurs dragged the mixologists into the arena. But man, once they got there, they lit it up! I am not sure the mixologists would have ever discovered mezcal were it not for the entrepreneurs and their legions who were out pounding the bars and restaurants on a nightly basis to encourage the recognition of this beautiful elixir. Of course, mezcal arrived on the scene in the late 2000’s as the cocktail craze was in full swing so this helped. As the mixologists discovered its smoky elegance, they embraced what it could do in a cocktail. At least in NYC, in 2009 or so, you rarely saw mezcal on a cocktail menu. By 2011, you could barely find a cocktail menu without a sexy mezcal concoction.
The entrepreneurs started it, and the mixologists gave mezcal accelerated visibility. But there were some other things going on in conjunction.
- Cultural Rediscovery. With certification, a cultural renaissance of mezcal began to happen in Mexico. The survey I cited earlier in this post about mezcal’s perception within Mexico drives home this point. Certification provided legitimacy and prestige and Mexicans began to rediscover their cultural roots as they relate to mezcal. Mezcal is part of their national heritage. It was the first distilled spirit in the Americas and has been a part of the Mexican culture for 500 years. It is used in celebrations for births, weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays, and virtually every other celebratory (OK, perhaps funerals are not celebratory) milestone that you can think of. This went on for hundreds of years, but somewhere in the 1900’s this crept into the background. Maybe it was the worm. Maybe it was the times. But somewhere in there, mezcal developed a less than stellar reputation (as did tequila by the way) and the pride for this artisanal, beautiful, historic spirit dissipated. So again, it seems that certification slowly (but only over 5 years or so) unearthed a few historical and cultural roots. Today, mezcal is all the rage in Mexico. In Mexico city, high-end mezcal bars are all over the place and even the finest restaurants now have deep mezcal selections. People are proud that this fantastic spirit is part of their heritage.
- Generational Shift. This theme lives comfortably with Cultural Rediscovery, and is an idea put forth by Steve Myers from Ilegal. As premium tequilas grew quite popular, and tequila itself enjoyed a bit of cultural rediscovery in the mid to late 90’s and carried into the 2000’s, it became the drink of the establishment. Simply, it was what your father drank. When mezcal hit the scene in the mid-2000’s, the young saw it as a way to embrace their heritage but not follow in the path of their parents. So the young crowds discovered mezcal and helped drive it to new heights.
- Artisanal Demand and Premium Products. In the past 10 years or so, “artisanal” and “artisan” became new marketing buzzwords – some authentic, some B.S (see Dominoe’s “Artisan” Pie or Tostito’s Artisanal Chipotle Chips). But many people, thankfully, cannot be fooled and they look for truly artisanal products. It began to filter into the mezcal story that mezcals are not mass produced like tequilas. While they have the relatively high price points to evidence that fact, they also have the quality that people expect from artisanal products. Mezcal fits well into rising demand for the themes of small batch, organic, farm to table, hand-crafted, boutique and less industrialized food and drinks. Think about the craft beer movement. And the rediscovery of American Rye and small batch Whiskeys, like Hudson Whiskey. These things have exploded in the past 10 years. This current also has contributed to the growing popularity of mezcal. Mezcal is made on farms. Not in factories.
These are some of the factors that I believe have been integral to the rise of mezcal. Here is a summary: Check out my groovy graphic.
While mezcal is taking off (like a rocket – get it?), I try not to get to ahead of myself and you should not either. Mezcal is still TINY compared to tequila. For every 1 bottle of mezcal sold in the U.S., about 200 bottles of tequila are consumed. Mezcal is shockingly small.
So that’s my take on why mezcal is rising. I hope you have some other ideas to contribute (I know you are out there Matt, Susan, Pedro, John, Steve, Carlos, Arik, Judah, Mario, Jonathan, Doug, Richard and more). Send me your thoughts, and in the meantime, DRINK MEZCAL!