The situation of Mezcal


The popularity of distilled agave has, perversely, always been a problem for the makers of mezcal. The Spanish saw it as subversive, li...

Agave cooking

The popularity of distilled agave has, perversely, always been a problem for the makers of mezcal. The Spanish saw it as subversive, linked to pre-Columbian festivities and beliefs, and banned it. In the eighteenth century, King Carlos III, hoping to promote the sale of Spanish products, outlawed the production of all alcohol in the Mexican colony. The prohibition was lifted a decade later, when an ancestor of the Cuervo family was granted permission to distill mezcal on his property near the town of Tequila, in Jalisco. Tequila, with its special dispensation, became a center of production; its makers acquired money and status, exemplifying what one academic calls “the hacienda fantasy heritage.”
As Mexico industrialized, and tequila started to be exported to the U.S., tequileros rapidly developed technology to extract the maximum amount of liquor from each agave in the least amount of time. Column stills were used instead of pots, and masonry ovens replaced the pits: no more smoke. Then masonry ovens gave way to autoclaves, speeding up production, and most companies invested in shredders, to break up the agave mechanically. In some distilleries, the agaves are no longer cooked at all; the sugars are extracted by washing the raw plants in a chemical bath. In 1974, tequila became the first product outside Europe to be protected by a denomination of origin. The D.O. said little about production methods, but explicitly allowed for the inclusion of up to forty-nine per cent other alcohols. Intense monocropping of blue agave, the designated source material, began.
Regular mezcal, meanwhile, largely remained humble, unromantic, bumpkinly, but with its own mythology. Its makers hid out in the mountain towns and formed a loose resistance. Many stills were portable, easy to pack up when the authorities were near. Graciela Ángeles, the rigorously traditional fourth-generation distiller behind a successful label called Real Minero, told me that her great-grandmother sold bootleg mezcal from the back of a burro. In 1994, the Mexican government, seeking to develop a valuable market around what many consider to be the unofficial national drink, created a D.O. for mezcal, essentially copying the rules for tequila, though by then the products were sharply distinct. According to the D.O., in order for an agave spirit to be sold as mezcal—and to be awarded the hologram sticker that marks it as an approved export—it has to come from one of several specified regions, and submit to a certification process that is daunting and costly. Those that don’t must be sold as “agave distillates.”
Many mezcaleros are by long habit suspicious of authority and more comfortable in the shadows. But a growing international audience has foisted clout and visibility upon mezcal, which may bring unwanted pressure. Proposed regulations, backed by the tequila industry, would rename the agave distillates by an obscure Náhuatl word, komil, and forbid producers to advertise that their products contain ingredients used in either the tequila or the mezcal D.O. Some see the proposal as the latest in a long line of exclusions. “It’s a pretty egregious appropriation,” Sarah Bowen, the author of “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production,” told me. “The producers are already not allowed to use the word ‘mezcal’—which is what they call their product to their families and to each other. Now they’re not even allowed to use ‘agave,’ which is what their product is made from.” Imagine a French vintner barred from using the words “wine” and “grape.” Pedro Jiménez, a filmmaker and bar owner who lives in Jalisco and champions the agave distillates made there, told me, “Tequila was just another type of mezcal, and now they’re trying to abduct the word from them. It’s like spitting on your background.” He worried that people wouldn’t be able to sell their spirits; tequila companies, he said, are already approaching small producers, urging them to forsake their own businesses and grow blue agaves for them instead.



Mezcal and agaves: The situation of Mezcal
The situation of Mezcal
Mezcal and agaves
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