French (and therefore European Union and international) law requires that Cognac brandy be produced in Cognac using the Charentais still. Any variance from that point of origin or that method of distillation yields a product that is simply brandy or French brandy. This is all very common knowledge.
Now imagine, if you will, France changing, for no other reason than an obvious attempt to boost profits and tariffs, its laws concerning brandy and Cognac brandy. Imagine the new regulation leaving the appellation rules for ‘Cognac’ mostly unchanged, while restricting the use of the generic term “brandy” only to brandy produced in the Burgundy region. The fact that brandy from Cognac, distilled the traditional Charente way, could no longer be legally labelled as brandy would not change that fact that that is exactly what it is.
This is why I persist in stating that there are two major types of mezcal available at market in the U.S.A. – Oaxacan mezcal and Tequila mezcal.
Nevertheless, the Mexican government’s manipulation of labeling regulations has worked very well.
Once upon a time, Tequila mezcal was the more-exclusive stuff made near the city of Tequila, Jalisco of a more specific ingredient (blue agave) — while other mezcals could be made anywhere in Mexico from less-specific ingredients (any type of agave), and were usually less expensive. Non-Tequila mezcal was then the common tipple of campesinos in the southern parts of Mexico and of hard-working, under-paid vaqueros in the central and northern parts.
I think of the 1971 Columbo episode, “A Matter of Honor.” In it, el dueño del rancho, played by Ricardo Montalban, tosses a bottle of mezcal to an old cowboy, who responds, “Good mezcal, señor. You touch the heart of an old vaquero.”
Watch the episode. It’s pretty good. But, that was 1971, and non-Tequila mezcal is not for old vaqueros any more.
In their lust to transform Oaxacan mezcal into the next expensive, boutique spirit on the world stage, the Mexican government and the Oaxacan distillers have turned their backs on the campesinos and the vaqueros.
You should consider that next time you want to go to a bar to try various mezcals from bottles that routinely retail for around $200. The focus on the paradigm would be sharpened if the bar were in a freshly ‘gentrified’ part of the city and the guy next to you were paying for his precious, exclusive, sips of Oaxacan mezcal with the proceeds of flipped houses.
What would be needed to remedy this situation would be the Evan Williams or Old Grand-dad of Oaxacan mezcal – something with reliably-acceptable quality at a price that won’t mock the poor heart of the campesino or vaquero (or even of the median-or-lower-income Yanqui).
One such product was the Real de Magueyes mezcal (sensibly without any worm or insect) that I routinely bought at the Beverage Warehouse in Culver City for $19.99 for the yearling (añejo — I never did see the blanco there). It was from San Luis Potosi instead of Oaxaca. It was smokey, yet smooth and perfectly delicious. It seems to have disappeared from the U.S.A. around 2010. Nothing has filled the void it left.
Buenas noches, viejo vaquero.
“Viejo Vaquero” — there’s the product name for a solid mezcal at about $20 per bottle. Now, someone, make that happen!