This just in: Mexico’s trademark bureau (called the IMPI) has issued a proposal to restrict the use of the word “agave” as it is used to describe some agave-distilled spirits. Under the proposal, which is sponsored by the tequila industry’s trade group, only spirits produced within a limited geographic area would be able to put the word “agave” on the label. Any agave-based liquor produced outside that area would have to carry the designation “Aguardiente de Agavácea” (spirit of agavaceae) or “Destilado de Agavácea” (distilled from agavaceae).
So there are a couple of strictly botanical problems with this. First of all, there are many species of agave in Mexico that could be used to make some sort of alcohol. In order for a spirit to be labeled as “tequila,” it must come from a specific geographic area (the very area the tequila industry group has proposed for this new restriction), and it must be made from Agave tequilana ‘Weber Blue,’ the species traditionally grown in the region. So to claim exclusive use of the genus, when the tequila industry by law only uses one species (and one particular cultivar of that species, for that matter) seems both silly and innacurate.
The other problem is that to insist that all other agave-based spirits be labeled “Agavácea” would be sort of like requiring that all sugarcane, wheat, and rye-based spirits be labeled Poaceae, the taxonomic designation for the grass family, of which they are all members. The Agavaceae family (which is missing an “e” in the Spanish version–why, oh why, can’t we all just use Latin if we’re trying to be all botanically correct?) is a rather large family that includes yuccas, the grass lily Anthericum, and those crazy beautiful ornamental grasses that aren’t grasses Cordyline (you know, like these), among others. So isn’t that a little broad?
Such a proposal is irritating to those of us who would like more botanical accuracy, not less, on not just our bottles of booze, but our seed packets and our plant tags. Think about it this way: Plant taxonomy is gloriously simple. Yes, it’s intricate, but it’s not really complicated. It’s a straightforward family tree, with names written in a universally agreed-upon language, and changes to that family tree are made according to a reasonably well-ordered process. So how hard is it to simply go with that and tell the truth?
Meanwhile, here’s how this matters to drinkers: Agaves can be used to make all kinds of very nice drinks. In Mexico, geographic designations have been established similar to the Champagne region in France. Tequila, mezcal, and a couple other spirits enjoy some protection under a geographical designation. An American distiller, for instance, can make “agave spirit” but cannot call it tequila, just as sparkling wine made here cannot be called Champagne. And most importantly, the good stuff is always labeled “100% agave,” which lets you know that it hasn’t been mixed with cheap grain alcohol. It’s a pretty clear system that allows someone to read a label and buy what they really want. It’s also a system that lets small, artisinal distillers produce a very fine product and get into the market with a clear, honest label. This new law actually prevents distillers from labeling the bottle with the actual name of the plant with which the drink was made. Lunacy.
If you’re interested in reading more: There’s a petition you can sign here, more from those in the know here, an article about the situation in the Economist and one (translated) from Spanish BBC, and you can even read the proposal itself (in Spanish) here.