Regulating mezcal, tequila and talavera pottery leaves Mexicans in poverty

Cinco de Mayo is such an appropriate day to write about mezcal, but not for the reasons you might think. It is important to remember that today is not Mexican Independence Day. It is a battle that the Mexican state of Puebla won between the French forces. And while this day is celebrated as a “booze-fest” in the United States, it is largely ignored in Mexico.

The battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 makes a proposed law to regulate mezcal, a spirited drink made from agave, much more poignant. A few years ago, Mexico had the “brilliant” idea of regulating its Talavera pottery. It is largely produced in the Mexican state of Puebla, though not exclusively.

The “Denominación de Origen” for Talavera, which is authenticity based on the location where it is made, was given to Puebla. It is claimed that the clay used to make this type of pottery can only be found there, along with its historical significance. While the historical significance may be a factor, the clay used for Talavera can be found in various states in Mexico.

Other states, such as Guanajuato, make this pottery as well. However, the Mexican government has refused to certify their pottery as “talavera”. The methods used to make talavera pottery in Guanajuato are the same as those approved by the governing body for Puebla’s talavera, and the clay is just as authentic. However, because of Guanajuato’s lack of official certification, their pottery can be purchased at a fraction of the cost than those sold in Puebla.

To date, only sixteen workshops in Puebla are certified to make Talavera. Which means only those who have the money and resources to put up with Mexico’s regulating bureaucracy, get the coveted certification and a special hologram that certifies the piece’s authenticity.

Not only has this regulation marginalized impoverished communities outside of Puebla and within the state itself, but it has also made it possible for the lucky few who have the monetary means, to set up shop and place a ridiculously high commercial price on the pottery itself. Talavera pottery made in Puebla have sky-rocketed over the years.

Which brings us to the issue of mezcal and the government’s recent actions to regulate it.

Mezcal consumers understand why the Mexican government is trying to regulate the product, in much the same way that its counterpart, Tequila, is now regulated. An avid Tequila or Mezcal connoisseur would know that there are some producers of said drinks that try to market the “watered-down” version as 100% pure agave. Some add water, while others mix in corn, sugar cane or other ingredients to fill their bottles. That is an issue that the Mexican government is attempting to change, at least on paper.

While the Mexican government boasts of its thriving regulated tequila market, the altered version of the drink, is still being sold in national and international markets by some not-so-honest manufacturers. In curving pirated versions of Tequila, the regulation process has not fully worked as intended. While the governing body for the regulation of tequila may “find” a producer or two who have tried to pass off their liquor as authentic, the law itself has done little to stop it. Corruption is rampant in Mexico and a few dollars from manufacturers will keep the whole thing “hush-hush”.

Like the talavera pottery “authenticity” recognition, the Tequila approval process has largely left impoverished communities marginalized from the entire process. Only those who can afford the arduous process of obtaining the desired authenticity seal of approval, have been able to obtain it and prosper from it. The rest? Not so much.

So why then, should the outcome of the proposed mezcal industry regulation be any different than the Tequila industry?

There are eight Mexican States that have qualified for “Denominación de Origen” for mezcal (DOM). These eight states include Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, San Luis Potosi and most recently, Zacatecas. And yet, even within these states, there are regions that are not included. Currently, mezcal is produced in 27 Mexican states. Those living within the 19 unrecognized states, would be most affected. Most live in indigenous communities who for centuries have distilled the spirited drink. The artisanal process is basically the same in all states that currently produce mezcal. Yet it seems that to the Mexican government, people with money and resources, are more important.

Oaxaca is obviously the mecca of mezcal and although it seems that Oaxacan producers are not in any danger of losing recognition, the “authenticity label” does not apply to some indigenous communities within the state. A region in Oaxaca that is not part of the government’s designated DOM includes the famous Sierra Juarez, where the nation’s former President, Benito Juarez, was born and raised.

Under the proposed law, NOM-199-SCFI-2015, mezcal producers who reside and produce the spirited drink outside of the DOM, will not be able to use the word “mezcal” nor include the listing of its main ingredient, agave, when marketed. Instead, they will be forced to use the irrelevant and antiquated term, komil, which does not describe the spirited drink at all.

In short, Mexico says it wants to prevent piracy but in the process, it is smashing the least fortunate of its people. Aside from government overreach, the Mexican government is once again trying to profit off the backs of its indigenous inhabitants. This cinco de Mayo, there is nothing to celebrate in Mexico. Instead, using the hashtag #SeLlamaMezcal activists want to raise awareness of Mexico’s racist and discriminatory proposition.


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