Counterfeit or Artisanal Mexican Spirits? Pick your Poison, or your lime wedge

New proposed regulations in Mexico threaten the ability of small producers of artisanal agave spirits to market what makes them artisanal

Much like how the farm-to-table movement in restaurants has placed the source of the food on your plate front and center, the Mexican agave artisanal spirits movement is highlighting each element that goes into a glass, from the cultivation of the plant and the methods for harvesting and cooking the piña to the distillation process and ultimate bottling. Long gone are the days of tequila or mezcal with its worms, relegated to shots and frozen margaritas.

“New” Mexican agave spirits are making inroads in the American bar scene precisely because they can be marketed as artisanal and small-batch, with a focus on the specific types of varietal used in the distillation and the specific regions in which they are produced—a transparency that’s particularly attractive to American bartenders and imbibers alike. However, a new regulation proposed in Mexico may severely limit what information will appear on bottles of Mexican spirits in the future.   

traditional mezcal production  source:  flickr.com

traditional mezcal production source: flickr.com

In a proposed regulation first published in November 2015, the Mexican government plans to create new classifications and requirements for labeling and marketing of agave spirits, which it claims will combat the issue of counterfeiting and better protect brands.

The introduction to this new regulation, PROYECTO DE NORMA OFICIAL MEXICANA PROY-NOM-199-SCFI-2015, “BEBIDAS ALCOHÓLICAS – DENOMINACIÓN, ESPECIFICACIONES FISICOQUÍMICAS, INFORMACIÓN COMERCIAL Y MÉTODOS DE PRUEBA,” or “NOM-199,” states that its purpose is to protect consumers from deceptive marketing by setting standards for the naming, production, and testing of agave spirits produced in Mexico. 

In spite of the positive intention behind the new regulation, these same classifications and regulations may ultimately create consumer confusion and threaten the ability of legitimate small producers to advertise the special qualities of their authentic spirits that are driving the increased demand in the marketplace. Outrage is being voiced on industry-specific blogs, with fears that the proposed regulations will hamstring small producers from standing out in an increasingly-crowded field of competitors, both licit and illicit.  

NOM-199 will change how many Mexican spirits are named and categorized. The biggest change under the new regulation is the creation of a new umbrella spirit called “komil.” Under NOM-199, any agave distillate spirit that is 51% or more agave and is produced outside of certain defined Denomination of Origin regions in Mexico must be labeled komil, a word not defined in the regulation nor known by most consumers, but which appears to originate from the Nahuatl word for “alcoholic beverage.”

In the new world of Mexican spirits there would be no distinction between a small-production 100% agave spirit made using traditional methods, and a 51% agave / 49% filler mixture, including industrial spirits made on a mass scale in commercial facilities. No reference can be made to what agave varietals are used; in fact, the word “agave” itself cannot be used in any labeling. As a result, small producers would be unable to distinguish their products based on agave varietal, location, or production method and consumers would have no clue what they were imbibing under the komil name.  (To further complicate matters, Wild Agave Imports, LLC of Texas filed a USPTO intent to use trademark application in January for the word mark “Komil.”)

It is not yet certain that this regulation will, in fact, be enacted. A similar regulation was defeated in 2012 after a concerted effort by independent producers and retailers. There are already a number of petitions opposing NOM-199 that have are gaining support, and it may very well be that the public outcry will be enough to change the course of this regulation. On March 17, David Suro, president of the Tequila Interchange Project, a non-profit advocating on behalf of the agave distilled spirits industry, and one of the leading voices of Mezcal promotion in the United States, and others filed their comment in opposition of NOM-199 with Mexico’s Regulatory Commission.

Retailers and consumers of agave spirits here in America should watch with interest as NOM-199 goes through its comment and enactment process. Depending on what happens, we should all keep our eye on the Mexican spirits that end up behind bars and on shelves in the near future.  

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