Protected Designations of Origin
The Denominación de Orígen Mezcal or Tequila etc. is a Protected Designation of Origin, which works similar to a protected trademark and is owned by the -in this case Mexican- state. This means that only products that meet the rules of the DO may carry the name of a product under protection of a DO. In Germany, for example, Allgäuer Bergkäse. Spreewälder Gurke, on the other hand, is only a Protected Geographical Indication. DOs are concepts of a European mindset and seek to preserve and convey authenticity in a world of dwindling cultural identities. Used correctly, DOs can create sustainability in manufacturing culture and quality, economics, and environmental protection. The opposite case can be expected if used incorrectly. In any case, of course, they are also marketing tools.
The DO Tequila was the first outside Europe. Under the free trade agreement between Mexico and the EU, there is mutual recognition of all Protected Designations of Origin. All bottles protected by a DO carry a NOM number by which the distillery can be located. Mezcal also carries a sticker with a hologram, bottle number and QR code with more information about the product.
Several factors have caused an increase in the production of "Vino Mezcal de Tequila" over time. One was the local market in the capital city of Guadalajara, the coastal location with the export port of Puerto Vallarta, and the predominant form of large-scale land ownership (haciendas), which allowed for a production structure based on the division of labor for agaves and their processing. This is the prerequisite for being able to scale production. In regions with landowning smallholders (such as Oaxaca or Guerrero), the distilling culture developed in a completely different way.
The 1974 standard was another milestone on the way to becoming a player in the international spirits market, which had been in the offing since the turn of the century. The development came at the expense of small producers, traditional methods and product diversity. In an initial regulation from 1949, the raw material was specified as A. tequilana Weber, although a variety of agaves had been distilled in the region before - and still are, as can be seen in MEZONTE's products. In the '74 form, "mixtos" were permitted, allowing foreign sugars of unknown provenance up to 49%. If the product does not specifically state 100% agave (or puro de agave), it is a "mixto". So, despite the idea to the contrary, the DO and international success ensured that tequila was "sold off". The ever-worse products were followed by an ever-worse reputation.
Only recently, in the course of the craft movement, has there been a revival of old techniques with a focus on diversity, carried by small, family-owned distilleries that want to set themselves apart from anonymous industrial goods and celebrity brands. In the wake of this, DO is also increasingly being questioned.
For critics of DO Mezcal, which was introduced only 20 years later, Tequila has always been considered - with some justification! - as a deterrent to the effects of these regulations. Yet Mezcal has been able to retain much of its cultural identity precisely because of the absence of government regulation. Its production was banned during the colonial period, partly to give a market advantage to alcoholic beverages from the mother country, Spain. In many areas, prohibition applied in modern Mexico until the 1980s, this time to the advantage of competitors from the domestic spirits and brewing industries. There, too, no opportunity was missed to brand small-scale agave spirits as impure and dangerous.
The standard for Mezcal introduced in 1994 was essentially a copy of that for Tequila, with the only differences being the region and the free choice of raw material. In sum, it was very far removed from the cultural reality of Mezcal production, for example, by prescribing barrel aging (traditionally, Mezcal is not aged in barrels) and addition of foreign sugars during fermentation (traditional distillers process only 100% agave). In fact, the standard defined not only geographically which products were now within the legal framework, but also through other physical-chemical parameters: Consequently, some distillers are trying to meet the requirements of the standard and to change their old recipes and flavor profiles (gusto historico) in order to be able to continue to use the name Mezcal and to participate in the market. The result is a loss of product diversity, as is already a reality in the Tequila world. There, most products now serve a uniform mass taste.
Many Mezcal distillers and their families have had the experience in the course of half a working life that the state first classified their products as inferior and banned them, then retracted this, but only to introduce regulations on how they, the producers, would have to manufacture these products in the future in order to be allowed to carry the name Mezcal, which they had handed down for centuries. This is rightly perceived by many indigenous and traditional producers as an illegitimate cultural takeover.
Reform of the DO Mezcal
A reform was passed by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) in 2017, after tough internal wrangling, which should satisfy new and old players in the Mezcal market alike. Three categories were defined to communicate an industrial (Mezcal), artisanal (Mezcal Artesanal) or strictly "ancient" (Mezcal Ancestral) production method. These can be combined with six classes that specify, for example, barrel aging or further processing (e.g., addition of an "agave worm"). In addition, Mezcal may only be distilled from 100% agave.
What is remarkable about this law is that it attempts to define the terms Craft or artisan through given production methods for the product Mezcal and to convey this to the consumer on the label. And it sometimes comes surprisingly close to trying to depict a tradition. Unfortunately, some elementary points are not even touched upon, for example the addition of colorings or flavorings in the final product or chemical additives during processing. Thus, the standard discredits itself among traditional distillers and connoisseurs.
Currently, an erosion of the DO can be observed, as producers either leave the DO and thus the dictates of the CRM, or new, dedicated brands do not get certified in the first place and prefer to label themselves as Aguardiente or Destilado de Agave instead of Mezcal.
The spirits of the DOs Bacanora and Sotol have so far played only a small role on international markets. Raicilla likewise, but is catching up in terms of reputation with Tequila and Mezcal.
You can find the technical details of the DO regulations under TYPES AND QUALITIES. On the next page, however, we will first deal with PRODUCTION.
An excellent book on the subject is “Divided Spirits – Tequila, Mezcal and the Politics of Production” by sociologist Sara Bowen. A must read for anyone seriously concerned with agave spirits.
A comprehensive scientific article on DOs and the case study Raicilla by Verdebandera (Spanish).
And a blog post by Clayton Szczech on the subject of DOs.