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Tequila sips:

The law that establishes all the specifications required to produce, bottle, distribute and sell tequila as a product of a specific geographic area within Mexico is called the Denomination of Origin. According to the "Appellation de Origin Controllee" (AOC), tequila can only be produced in Mexico, only in the areas of those states as indicated. The Denomination of Origin Tequila (DOT) is like a national intellectual property. Other nations agree to respect it and not allow anything to be made or sold in their countries that does not meet the DOT requirements. valley in Jalisco state, Mexico.


Updated June 27, 2007

Mezcal's History

Vintage agave printMezcal - or more properly mezcals because it is not a single product but rather a range of spirits - is the generic name for all of the spirits made from the maguey/agave. The name mezcal comes from the Nahuatl 'metl' meaning agave, and 'ixcalli' meaning cooked or baked.


Distillation of agave syrup was likely inspired by the native drink pulque - tequila's distant and once-removed cousin. Early in the 16th century, someone among the invading Spanish recognized the potential for the agave: if it could produce a low-alcohol drink, it could also be used to make something stronger.


Old mezcal distilleryDistillation in Europe goes back to the 13th century. It may have been started in Mexico by the Conquistadors or their troops as early as the 1520s, although 1535 has also been proposed. There is academic disagreement over how and when it started, but the general belief is that it began within two decades of the arrival of the Conquistadors. Some references suggest it was started by sailors who arrived with the Conquistadors. Records show the Spaniards were already brewing beer by 1544, and pulque was also being made.


Some researchers also believe there is evidence of Prehispanic distillation, but this remains unproven and based solely on interpretation of archeological remains. That interpretation has been disputed, however similar finds have recently been made in China.


Still drawn by Carl LumholtzSome believe distillation was initially introduced by Filipinos arriving via the Manila galleons which docked in Colima and Jalisco. The seamen used their stills initially to make coconut brandy (they may have also brought the coconut palm with them - it was introduced into Western Mexico through the ports of Colima and Acapulco, from Panama around 1539, from the Solomon Islands around 1569 and from the Philippines from 1571 onwards).


The Filipino technology used local materials and was easily fashioned for small-scale distillation, which helped spread the process among the natives, outwards from the coast, into areas where there were no palms, so the agave was used instead.


Others believe it was the Spanish themselves who brought distillation to the New World.  There is some evidence the Conquistadors tried to make spirits by distilling the fermented pulque directly in these native stills, in Colima and possibly also in Chiapas. However, archeological evidence tends to lean towards the Filipino introduction.


Modern moonshine still showing ancient Filipino technology still in useThe commercial or larger-scale technology changed when the Spanish imported Arab alembic stills made of copper in the late 16th century, originally brought in to distill sugar cane for rum production. However, the Filipino methods, using easily-obtained native resources and native plants, spread rapidly. It is still is use in many parts of Mexico and can be seen in many small mezcal or moonshine producers. Similar technology remains in use worldwide.


Alcohol was not merely a luxury: it was a necessity. The Spanish were accustomed to drinking alcoholic beverages with meals - in Europe, water could be a dangerous drink, unpurified and teeming with bacteria and parasites. Most people drank weak wine and beer with meals. Alcohol helped kill the bacteria.


The distillation technology spread rapidly from the west coast, and was soon found everywhere the Spaniards were. In 1621, Domingo Lazaro de Arregui wrote that mezcal was "clearer than water, stronger than moonshine."


Zapotec mezcal makers showing off a blanket with Mayahuel woven into itBut because it was primarily small-scale, operated by single families or farmers, mezcal remained a back-yard business, a cottage industry without the industrialization and parallel history that tequila has, mezcal has remained a people's drink, associated with local legend and ritual, never entirely divorced from the Indian legends and myths.


Many medicinal benefits have been attributed to mezcal, even in modern times. In 1812, the Diario de Mexico ran an advertisement stating,


Pure mezcal wine has the virtue of being able to cure illnesses... It greatly facilitates female menstruation... relieves the pain of childbirth. It kills worms and prevents other parasites from spreading. Taken at room temperature, it is effective in relieving women's post-natal pains. In order to experience these salubrious effects, the mezcal should be pure, not mixed with water or any other spirits.


Mezcal is still used by elderly people for its invigorating and medicinal benefits. Today the colloquial proverb is:

Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien

As a remedy for everything bad; mezcal, and to celebrate everything good; mezcal too.


Day of the DeadMezcal also plays an important role in Mexican funeral ceremonies. After the dead are laid out, mezcal is served to everybody. Mezcal features prominently during the Day of the Dead, the annual Mexican festival each November. It is also used at weddings and baptisms and most special occasions.


Although mezcal production began in the early 16th century, it didn't develop into a serious, commercial business until the Revolution of 1910-20, and has grown slowly but steadily since.


Mezcal is currently undergoing its own revolution in popularity and similar standards for its production have been established - thanks in great part to the efforts of a small handful of active and aggressive distillers who want their products to get well-deserved recognition and respect, as well as international sales. The first 'super-premium' handmade tequila exported to the US was Encantado ('Enchanted'), in 1995. The company was formed by Californian vintners Carl Doumani and Pam Hunter. After meeting with scores of palenqueros, Hunter and Doumani selected just 29 of them as sources.


Mezcal agave after harvestingThat same year, American artist Ron Cooper founded Del Maguey Mezcal to export several artisanal 'single village' mezcals. His efforts to position mezcal as a natural, premium product has created a new image for mezcal over the past few years and his products garner raves from reviewers.


Del Maguey limits production of its single-village brands to only 3,200 bottles a year - and only 500 of the rare wild tobala mezcal.


The agave shortage that affected tequila production had a backlash effect to mezcal. Tequila producers were sending trucks to Oaxaca to buy espadin and other agaves. As the demand grew, agave prices in Oaxaca skyrocketed, four to five times their initial cost. Small mezcal producers found it difficult or even impossible to produce mezcal at those prices.


A story filed Nov. 29, 1999 in the Reforma/Infolatina warned that mezcal faced a serious challenge from tequila manufacturers:


"Mezcal Industry Threatened by 40 Percent Rise in Costs and Demand from Tequila Distillers: The export of agave from Oaxaca to the tequila producing state of Jalisco, and the consequent 40 percent rise in prices for the plant is threatening the Mezcal industry in Oaxaca. Mezcal is similar to tequila, and uses the same raw material, agave, for its production. But a crisis in the agave industry in Jalisco, caused by the rapid growth in tequila distilling, plagues, and other problems, is forcing tequila producers to look elsewhere for the plant. But 500 mezcal producing companies in Oaxaca are now facing costs which put their businesses at risk."


Five thousand tons of Oaxaca agaves were being shipped to Jalisco in 1999 for tequila production according to one story.


Espadin agaves waiting to be shipped to Tequila during the shortageOn December 3, 1999, Oaxacan farmers marched in the capital to protest of their agave harvest being purchased for use by Jalisco tequila producers. Agave harvests in Jalisco are also lower because of a shortage of plants - many farmers stopped planting agave 8-10 years ago when there appeared to be a glut on the market. The governor of Oaxaca has asked for federal help dealing with the "indiscriminate purchase" of agaves in his state by tequila producers.


Tequila Tres Magueyes was one of the distillers noted as importing Oaxacan agave.


The Oaxacan state governor stated , "The plundering of our mezcal plantations by the tequila industry is considered very dangerous to the supply of raw material for mezcal."


This led to some heated exchanges between tequila and mezcal producers.


Ofrenda al JimadorOn April 24, 2000, mezcal distillers in Oaxaca blocked a convoy of trucks leaving for tequila distillers in Jalisco with what they called 'stolen' agaves from Oaxaca state. Mezcal distillers claimed that over the past six months, 15,000 trucks loaded with agave had been sent to Jalisco. Shortages of agave have driven the price of tequila up to 200% above its price in 1999.


In June, 2000, the National Chamber of the Mezcal Industry accused Tequila producers of "savagely" importing 70 thousand tons of agave, the cactus-like plant used in the manufacture of both liquors, from the state of Oaxaca. Tequila distillers are supposed only to use blue agave grown in the region of Jalisco state, but Mezcal producers claim companies are mixing other kinds of agave, such as is grown in Oaxaca, due to the severe shortage of the plant."


Throughout 2001, mezcal producers faced challenges, mostly from aggressive tequila makers, who were buying the Oaxacan maguey at higher prices than the farmers could get locally. As a result, several mezcal producers had problems getting enough agave to make their products. Despite claims by tequila makers that they were not using other agaves to shore up their own production shortages, large shipments of agave heads have been documented leaving Oaxaca. Many of these were said to be disease- or insect-ravaged crops.


According to Doug French,


"One upside of this one-time shortage was the lesson it taught to the dirt-poor local farmers: agave is their only chance to accumulate wealth with a cash crop. When the tequileros paid these farmers outrageous, undreamed-of sums, they added rooms on their houses and bought pickup trucks. Today that bubble has burst and prices are back to normal, yet still, in these harsh, arid plains of Oaxaca, maguey is all that grows - slowly to be sure - but more readily and profitably than corn."


Also in December, 1999, the state government of Guerrero announced a program to boost production of local mezcals from 720,000 liters a year to 12 million! It was estimated this would mean 766 new distilleries or plants, modernization of 240 existing plants, and creating 12,000 new jobs. But the story did not say where the producers would get their raw material from!


mezcal sellerAs a nod to the growing market for mezcal in Asia, and because Asian drinkers all want to eat the worm, in 1999, several mezcal manufacturers began adding more worms to their products - up to four in a single bottle. The Asian market was worth about $8 million US in 1999, but is expected to triple within two years. This increase in demand caused a shortage of gusanos in Oaxaca and a dramatic rise in price for each worm. Some companies were forced to put security guards in  their agave fields during the rainy season (when the worms are harvested) to discourage worm poachers.


In 1995, some mezcal producers began a movement to ban the worm, ostensibly because of its high fat content, but others rejected the idea, worried that North American buyers would miss it. They feared that the worm had become so entrenched in urban mythology that consumers in North America might reject non-worm mezcal as not authentic. So pervasive has the worm identification become that it has also tainted its sister, tequila.


The fight went all the way up to Mexico's federal government, and eventually the Mexican Health Department decided the worms are safe for human consumption, so it allowed them to stay. The movement to ban the worm lost steam and was pretty much forgotten by 2005.


Comercam - Mezcal Regulatory AgencyA Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (CRM) and a Camara (Chamber) have been established to monitor and regulate the mezcal industry in the same way similar associations do for tequila, and assure compliance with the NORMAS that govern mezcal.


New labelling regulations were introduced in 1999, based on those already in use for tequila: 100% agave mezcals are now labelled as such, and whether the mezcal was bottled at the distillery (envasado de origen) or elsewhere in Mexico (envasado en Mexico). All mezcal must be bottled in Mexico: no bulk sales are allowed for export.


Km. 7.5 Carrt Cristobal Colon
Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, 68050
Phone: 951-518-7575
Fax: 951-518-7599




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Del Maguey Mezcal