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Whistleblower Puts the Kabash On So-Called Mezcals

While I’ve been writing about artisanal mezcal—the smoky, complex, and original agave spirit of Mexico—for years, my articles have often been written more out of the hope of inciting a trend than actually chronicling a real one. But now, I can finally say with confidence that there is a definite mezcal trend occurring.

How do I know? Well, for one, there was a major (though incomplete) article in the NYT last month. Also, there are all sort of delicious new mezcal brands popping up. There’s Benesin, repped by SF bartender Jonny Raglin (Absinthe, Dosa), Métl, and Sombra, which we chronicled here. And, finally, I can confirm with first-hand experience that after almost two years bartending at Cantina during which customers never asked about mezcal, in the last few months, I’ve been asked to pour flights of it, to mix cocktails with it and to explain what the hell it is.

But it turns out that some of what I was telling people about mezcal was wrong: It was recently brought to my attention in an open letter from Ron Cooper (mezcal importer, founder of the Del Maguey brand, and pretty much the Johnny Appleseed of artisanal mezcal) written to the world-renowed San Francisco International Spirits Competition, pointing out the competition mislabeled some of its winning agave-based spirits as mezcal.

The common misunderstanding about mezcal, says Cooper, is any agave spirit made in Mexico that is not tequila can be classified as mezcal. When actually, like tequila (or, for that matter Champagne), mezcal is a name that can only be applied to the products of specific regions. The Mexican government passed these laws in order to protect the original, indigenous mezcal producing states and their producers. And finally, it's spelled with a Z! Get it straight.

I print, with his permission, Ron Cooper's letter:

Dear administrators of the San Francisco International Spirits Competition,

Somehow a google search for another matter pointed me to the results the 2009 competition and I was somewhat dismayed and shocked and feel I should bring the following to your attention: NONE of the following spirits (listed below) have the legal right to be considered MEZCAL. They may be called AGAVE SPIRITS as is written legally on their the bottles. However there is an International Denomination of Origin for Mezcal and it may be produced in 7 states only.

I recommend the Competition either change the category (Mezcal, Sotol, Bacanora) to include Agave Spirits or do not include Agave Spirits in their competition.

The following is the Mexican Government's publication on the DO for Mezcal. It is from the "Diaro Oficial". On the date something is published in that document it becomes Law:

Declaración General de la Protección a la Denominación de Origen “Mezcal”, publicada en el Diario Oficial de la Federación el 11 de Fevrero de 2003.
Durango, el Municipio de San Felipe, Estado de Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, los municipios de San Carlos, San Nicolás, Burgos, Miquihuana, Bustamante, Palmillas, Jaumave, Tula, Cruillas, Jiménez y Méndez del Estado de Tamaulipas,  y Zacatecas son los Municipios o Estados que se encuentran protegidos por la Denominación de Origen Mezcal.


By that definition none of the following medal winners are in the Denomination of Origin for Mezcal:

Best Mescal, Double Gold Medal, Los Osuna Reposado Mescal, Mexico [40%] $38. Importer: Gateway Group,
LLC - San Carlos, CA www.gatewaygroupllc.com

Bronze Medal, Los Osuna Blanco Mescal, Mexico [40%] $35. Importer: Gateway Group, LLC - San Carlos, CA
www.gatewaygroupllc.com

Bronze Medal, Doña Santa Mescal, Maduro 100% Blue Agave, Morelos, Mexico [34%] $16. www.donasanta.com

By the way, MEZCAL, is spelled with a Z... even though the American dictionaries have made the error for years of using an S.

Thank you for your attention to this matter,

Sincerely,

Ron Cooper