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As the 'drink with the worm' mezcal has suffered from a bad reputation, and has not been helped by the availability of cheap, poor-quality commercial mezcal that became the defacto mezcal experience for many visitors to Mexico. Ron Cooper and others have struggled to raise mezcal's profile and present it as a premium spirit. Cooper has gone a long way to go beyond the worm image and does not put one in any of his products. Doug French, on the other hand, has played a gambit way beyond it, by putting a scorpion in his products.
Updated June 27, 2007
Mezcal Controls & Regulations
Mezcal had its first modernized set of government regulations (NORMA) in 1994. A new NORMA was drawn up for mezcal in 1997 and revised in 2005. Under the new laws, all mezcal production must be certified in order to sell or export it.
All certified mezcal has a NOM on each label, similar to tequila, to identify where the mezcal was produced. All certified mezcal will also have a green and white circular COMERCOM seal on the label. Mezcal that was aged in barrels prior to certification in 2005 is not allowed for sale or export.
All mezcal must be bottled at point of origin and cannot be shipped out of the country in bulk as is allowed with mixto tequila.
Under these new rules, there are two classifications (types or tips) of mezcal:
There are also aging categories that are similar to those used in tequila. These include:
A recent limited offering from Del Maguey included two añejo mezcals: Chichicapa and San Luis del Rio. Both were aged in the bottle. Contrary to conventional wisdom that mezcal (or tequila) doesn't age in the bottle, Ron Cooper of Del maguey disagreed, and these two brands rated very highly by tasters.
An interesting sidebar: mezcal producers are forbidden from making tequila, and vice versa.
There are also several subcategories of types which may be local descriptions , including:
While tequila can only be made from one variety of maguey (agave tequiliana weber blue variety), mezcal can be made from several species and varieties (24 species of agave grow in Oaxaca). The most common of these, and those listed in the NORMA are:
Barbara Sweetman says 28 varieties of agave are be used for mezcal, while Doug French says 16. Other sources say as many as 30 species are used. The NORMA allows for other species: "Other agaves, provided that they are not used as the primary material in other governmental Denominations of Origin."
The following six municipios (counties) in Oaxaca state can use the AOC to produce a drink labelled as mezcal:
The new laws have allowed mezcal producers to branch out into flavoured products, similar to tequila. These are called 'crema' regardless of whether they contain dairy products. Some new flavoured mezcals include orange, peach, mint, almond, coffee, strawberry, lime, guava, coconut, mocha, pineapple and blackberry flavours.
The non-profit Mezcal Regulatory Council (COMERCAM) was established in December, 1997 to oversee compliance with the official NORM (NOM-070-SCFI-1994) that governs mezcal. COMERCAM works with The Registry of Estates with Plantations of Agave, and certifies all mezcals for national and export consumption.
Mezcal faces the same problems with its monoculture as tequila: with emphasis on the espadin agave as the source for 95% of all mezcal, a weakened gene pool from decades of cloning is exacerbated by the growing demand for product and the developing monoculture. In the 1960s, piñas averaged 200 kgs - today they average only 50 kg. Some companies, like Scorpion, are cultivating other agave for production, including the rare, wild tobala and the massive aruqueño.
The Mexican government generally does not exercise any control over small-scale home brew production of mezcal not intended for commercial sales or export. Making moonshine is a centuries-old tradition the government seems content to leave alone.