What counts as mezcal and who gets to determine that? The use of this word is regional. For the majority of Mexico, the word mezcal is used to refer to any distilled alcohol made from agave. For people living in Sonora, it is called bacanora; for those in western Jalisco, the term is raicilla. In Chihuahua, sotol is the local bebida. The plants used to produce these beverages are also local--distillers use what is available and what grows nearby. Late in the 20th century, the Mexican government decided that mezcal should become a denomination of origin ("DO"), and passed the now famous NOM-070, establishing three methods of production: mezcal, artesenal mezcal, and ancestral mezcal. The first of these is garbage mezcal--industrial production, using a destructive piece of machinery developed for the Tequila industry, called a diffuser. The second two represent how mezcal has been made over the past 400 years. The categories, "artesenal" and "ancestral" correspond roughly to more modern (but still rustic) and ancient methods, respectively. The key difference (although there are several) is that in artesenal production, copper stills may be used, whereas with ancestral production, clay distillation pots must be used. With the latter, ancestral production, maceration is sometimes done by hand rather than horse-pulled tahona. Hand maceration is never seen in artesenal production.
Recent developments in the unrelated science of botanical taxonomy have moved the plants from which sotol is made out of the agavacea genus and into their own, dasylerion. For this reason, sotol is no longer technically considered mezcal. Regional differences in nomenclature, coupled with locals' pride of place gave rise to the separating out of bacanora and raicilla as separate from mezcal. Tequila, which started as mezcal de Tequila, is the most famous denomination of origin in Mexico. (Tequila is a train wreck of a DO and I will gladly defend that characterization against any challenger. It can't be long before it is permissible to piss in a tina of Tequila.) The point is that Tequila is mezcal--raicilla, bacanora, and sotol--all mezcal in the general use of the term. As are destilados de agave (what are termed agave spirits, in the US). Many aficionados will nitpick about this, but their insistence on demonstrating the exception proves what I have presented as the rule.
For many Mexicans, if not most, it's all mezcal. Top to bottom, sotol included. That's how it was traditionally referred to by the majority of the people. (Yes, we want to distinguish the finer points. They make the category interesting.) The Consejo Regulador de Mezcal, which has oversight of the DO, wants to take this word away from those who, over the past 400 years, have had to hide it from their government for fear of persecution and prosecution. Now that the kid they used to pick on is popular, they want to be his friend. We want the makers to have their word back. We should use the word mezcal at our pleasure.
The CRM has been tightening regulations, as these organizations do. It is not hard to be cynical about this inevitability. Is it because, having accomplished the general objective, they have moved on to the finer points? Or is it because they have to regulate in order to justify the "Regulador" in their name, and, by extension, their existence? It is fair to say it is a blend of both. The CRM moves the goal posts regularly. Recently, the CRM has been tormenting Cuentacuentos (and other mezcal brand owners) by demanding we make chickenshit changes to our label: font point size, the use of the word "mezcal" in captions that tell the traditional story of How the Tlacuache Stole Mezcal from the Demons, which appear under the art on our back labels. They are requiring us to remove language we are required to include by the US TTB. They have determined that destilado de agave (uncertified mezcal) cannot be bottled on the same line as mezcal, and that we needed letters from all the mezcaleros whose signatures appear on our bottles, stating that they consent to the use of their signatures (the implication being that we would steal their use, and that the mezcaleros themselves need the protection of Father CRM--two ideas that we resent). They required a letter stating the sacred spring from which one producer draws his water is, in fact sacred, in order for us to refer to it as sacred on our label. And the list of torments continues. Manufacturers comply with all of it, for the final injury of having the CRM delay shipments for days or weeks between when pallets of product are sold and when the CRM shows up to certify them for shipment. This is not an agency that knows its customer.
There is no magic in the word mezcal. None that would justify the labor required under CRM regulations to call it thus, and none that should prevent agave spirits from being bottled on the same line as mezcals. This is another new CRM rule, that if you think about it, can only have been established to force producers to choose a side. To emphasize this point: It's not officially mezcal until after it has been bottled, and the CRM-sold official holograms have been applied. So what difference does it make if a bottler leaves off the final step? The CRM is not the friend of authentic mezcal, not the protector of a category. And as they continue to narrow the definitions of what is permissible, they leave more great mezcal behind, outside the ever-increasingly-exclusive denomination. What drew fans into its orbit--astounding variety--is being cut out of mezcal with every new regulation that is added.
Compliance has crossed the line into nitpicking, and bullying cannot be far off. Prohibitions--alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution--have demonstrated too many times over that people will comply with laws that are reasonable in scope, and easy to obey. When laws become onerous (in energy required to comply or in financial demand), people will ignore them. If that sounds like an oversimplification, sorry: it is that simple. And yet here we are, once again. The CRM signaled that this would be their modus operandi in 1994, when they agreed to permit diffuser technology because (this is factually true) one of the families that wanted to make mezcal had already purchased a diffuser before rule-making had commenced! The one thing they had to keep out, they welcomed. Now, the things they need to welcome, they are regulating out. How much happier we would all be now if we had paid more attention then (not imply that there were not protests, there were, but evidently not enough).
Cuentacuentos has a business to run, one which proudly supports the livelihoods of hardworking families who make our products. Cuentacuentos will increasingly be sold as agave spirit. Cuentacuentos will always bring you authentic mezcal, no matter what name appears on the bottle. We do not blend to specification (the ABV is hand written on each bottle): We let traditional mezcal families do their thing, and then provide that to you, directly. And now we bypass the troll under the bridge. Increasingly, what we bottle will be called Destilado de Agave (Agave Spirit, in the US). It's mezcal by another name.