Photo: Chantal Martineau

On the banks of the Río Hormiga Colorada (Red Ant River), a young man named Marcos shows off his new palenque (mezcal distillery) while his son runs around the gleaming copper pot stills. Marcos is handsome with a baby face and a lean, muscular frame. His eyes are large and liquid, but there’s something aloof about him, too. He learned his craft from his father, whose palenque is nearby and who for 20 years has produced mezcal for Del Maguey. His father’s palenque is bigger, but just as rustic, an open-air facility where lime trees and coconut palms flourish and electricity is unnecessary.

Years ago, Marcos did what so many children of mezcal makers and other agricultural workers in Mexico end up doing: He crossed the border to find work. Now that demand for small-batch mezcal is on the rise, young men like Marcos are being called home to join the family business. It’s not all good news. Mezcal’s popularity has prompted concerns about sustainable growth. It also seems to have spooked the tequila industry, whose identity as Mexico’s national spirit is being challenged.

“Mezcal is easy to love. People are taken in by the history and heritage of it,” says Francisco Terrazas, brand ambassador for Mezcal Vago. “But the flip side is that the more people want it, the more large corporations are going to try to get a piece of it.”

The mezcal industry is now worth $88 million, according to the Mezcal Regulatory Council, after growing 22 percent last year. Impressive, but it’s just a fraction of tequila’s more than $2 billion market, an industry expected to balloon to $9 billion by 2019. It’s hard to believe such a giant would fear a little competition, but mezcal advocates claim big tequila brands have been pushing for legislation that would hurt micro-producers of mezcal, the majority of whom are indigenous Mexicans living in rural areas. For the past few months, they’ve been rallying support to fight a bill drafted by the regulatory councils for tequila and mezcal, known as NOM 199.

Evidence suggests that mezcal has been produced in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. While the spirit is made in just about every state in Mexico, only nine states officially sanction its sale and export. Producers in the rest of the country must market their liquid as “destilado de agave”: agave distillate. The proposed legislation would bar those producers from using even that term. Instead it would require them to call their spirit “komil,” a Nahuatl word no mezcal producer had even heard of until now. The bill has sparked vehement protests and a cross-border discussion on human rights and corporate influence.

“Mezcal is easy to love. People are taken in by the history and heritage of it. But the flip side is that the more people want it, the more large corporations are going to try to get a piece of it.”

“NOM 199 has drawn attention to a system that has already written out more than half of the states that have a culture of producing mezcal,” says Terrazas, who adds that if it fails, the regulatory councils and big brands that hold sway over them will simply try again. “There seems to be an institutionalized marginalization of the poor and typically more indigenous classes in Mexico. Bigger companies will continue to push out smaller producers.”

The deadline for deliberations on NOM 199 was last Friday; its fate now hangs in the balance. But this wasn’t the first proposal of its kind. A few years ago, NOM 186 and an accompanying mandate also aimed to restrict the use of the word “agave” to registered producers in sanctioned states. Mexican academics and bartenders on both sides of the border objected, claiming that the proposal violated the rights of indigenous people to make a living and practice their culture. The bill was dropped. Now the same unlikely alliance of scholars and barkeeps has come out in full force against 199. They’ve blogged, made films and circulated petitions denouncing it.

Defenders of proposals like NOMs 186 and 199 hold that the goal was never to harm small mezcal producers, but rather to improve transparency and thwart counterfeiting, which is rampant. A recent report stated that up to 43 percent percent of spirits on the Mexican market are adulterated or bootleg. But coining an obscure term that means nothing to anyone is anything but transparent. It can only serve to confuse consumers and alienate scores of producers.

Regulating the use of the word “agave,” which has been likened to regulating the word “grape” in wine production, is silly. Introducing legislation that could stymie the livelihood of micro-producers is cruel. But are protesters right? Is Big Tequila trying to quash traditional mezcal simply to retain market share? It sounds too paranoid to be true.

Recently, a press release landed in inboxes across the land announcing the launch of the world’s first smoked tequila, made using “artisanal” methods. On the surface, it appeared harmless — just another brand capitalizing on a flavor trend, like smoked rum or smoked vodka before it. But this one struck a nerve. A big tequila company trying to emulate mezcal while supporting a proposal to suppress its least visible producers. It didn’t seem right.

“Sure, there’s [a lack of] transparency in the spirits industry,” says Ron Cooper, the award-winning founder of Del Maguey, when asked about proposals like NOM 199. “But the small producers, you don’t fuck with them, man.”

Chantal Martineau is the author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit.