Why Agave Spirits
are in Trouble.
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Issue #1: Sustainability and Diminishing Quality of Agaves
Since the 1960s tequila sales have been booming. This increased demand has led to many companies adopting more indtrustial methods of production, such as the use of diffusers and autoclaves, which yield less characterful spirits, as discussed on the tequila main page.
But even more worrisome than a shift in quality, is the what has happened to the agave plant itself. Many of the of the bigger liquor conglomerates have been shelling out big money to acquire tequila brands to push them on a global scale, which pushed tequila production beyond it's natural limits. As we know a typical blue agave takes about 8-10 years to mature, which is certainly not a conducive time table for mass production. Agaves literally cannot be grown fast enough. But companies are trying to keep pace by any means necessary. Massive amounts of blue agaves are being planted and corners are being cut to accelerate maturation, including the use of GMOs.
This has created a monoculture that has left the agave genetically exhuasted. Agaves are harvested before they bloom, they don't seed naturally. Instead they are propagated vegetatively, meaning a piece of agave leaf is planted. This doesn't allow for the diversity needed to develop defenses against parasites and other diseases. Now, it is not uncommon for entire crops to be lost to disease.
Many believe that this is building to a catastrophic outbreak of some kind that could wipe out the agave as we know it, similar to the phylloxera epidemic that nearly destroyed the Cognac industry in the 19th century. Sadly, even with the writing on the wall, those invovled seem reluctant to choose a more sustainable, if less profitable, approach.
Mezcal agaves are not in as dire a state as tequila. But are sales rising fast and soon could be. That’s why it’s important to only support tequila and mezcal brands that are made sustainably and responsibly, even if they cost a little more. Recommendations are on the both the tequila and mezcal pages.
Industrial growth is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing. Naturally these parent companies want to see a return on their investment. But tequila has gotten too big too fast, and mezcal could be next. Like so many things in this world, it seems that when money becomes the primary driving force behind a product, rather than passion, something vital is lost. And in the case of tequila and mezcal, they could actually be lost for good.
Issue #2: Legisalative assault on
agave spirits and small producers.
As you know, agave spirits are made throughout Mexico and have been for hundreds of years. But only nine collective states are recognized by a D.O. to make and sell tequila and mezcal, (see the maps here). The spirits in the remaining states either go by other D.O. sactioned names like bacanora and racilla, or just as “agave spirits."
But the Mexican government has proposed multiple legislative initiatives, called NOMs, to only allow the word “agave” to appear on labels of spirits made in the recognized D.O.s of tequila and mezcal, as well as bacanora made in the state of Sonora. The first, NOM 186 a few years ago, was defeated. Now another that is eerily similar, NOM 199, is currently in the process.
What this passing would mean is that any spirit made outside of those regions could no longer label their product as an agave spirit, even if it’s 100% agave. What’s even more crazier is they are suggesting these spirits now be called "komil," an archaic Aztec word, that means alcoholic drink, with no recognition in today's market. This would fuirther marginalize small producers and alientate consumers.
This is happening is because Mexico's Ministry of Economy directly takes recommendations from the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry (CNIT), an independent organization run by tequila companies. Even more egregious, a company's proportinal memebership in the CNIT is determined by how big their sales are. So the largest companies have the most pull. Which means they can pretty much tell the Ministry of Economy what they want to happen.
Why are tequila companies trying to limit the use of the word agave? It is presumably in response to mezcal's surge in popularity. Tequila once controlled virually the entire agave market, but now a slice of that pie has been lost to the unforseen competior in mezcal and it's growing. By not allowing other agave spirits to be labeled as agave, they can limit their further growth to maintain their stranglehold on the category. Presumably. Of course, none of these companies have admitted to this.
As maddening as this is from an injustice standpoint. The most cruical factor to consider the people that would be most effected. Distilling agave spirits is an integral part of mexican culture and heritage and is the lifeblood of many communities. Many of the mezcaleros who make these incredible spirits live in poverty, some are even illiterate. They don’t have the resources to fight against, or even fully undertsand, these government forces at work. They are powerless. But we aren't.
What You Can Do
There is a bartender organized effort to stop these legislations called the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP). They helped to rasie awareness about and beat back NOM 186 a few years ago and are currently fighting NOM 199. In fact, one of the founders, Bobby Huegel, was a big help to me in untangling this whole mess. If you want to know more about what they are doing, and what you can do, to stop NOM 199 visit tequilainterchangeproject.org.
Outside of TIP, the most important thing you can do is stay informed, particularly if you’re a bartender. Support brands that behave responsively, not just ones that are affordable. Tequila and mezcal are huge export products for Mexico, particularly in the United States. We have 80% of the tequila market, that’s enormous. So the Mexican government actually does notice.
This can be stopped if we maintain standards, ask questions and stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves.