Aspenite Jimmy Yeager, who knows the business of buying tequila perhaps better than any other person in the United States, is taking his expertise to the Mexican Congress on Monday.
The purpose of his journey south is to speak about a bill introduced by the nation’s Ministry of Economy that many — Yeager among them — say could harm small producers of tequila and mezcal.
Critics contend the bill was written at the behest of large, multinational tequila makers as a way “to protect” consumers from drinking inferior or mislabeled brands. But its passage would ruin the centuries-old livelihood of tequila makers in certain regions, said Yeager, co-owner of the popular Jimmy’s An American Restaurant and Bar.
“It’s an issue of national pride and heritage,” he said.
Yeager is traveling with a contingent that includes a professor from North Carolina State who is an expert in sustainable farming and others who started the Tequila Interchange Project to oppose the bill, NOM 186.
Yeager said he was asked along because he is considered one of the “grandpas” of high-end tequila importation.
“I started buying it in 1983 for a bar I worked at in Southern California,” he said. “I was among the first in the nation to buy high-quality tequila, so I’ve been a part of the mezcal movement from the beginning.”
Both tequila and mezcal are made from the agave plant, though the latter can include other types of spirits; tequila containing 100 percent agave is much more expensive and delectable. The bill would mean that only agave spirits produced within three places, or appellations, of origin — Tequila, Mezcal and Bacanora — could label their products as being agave tequila, according to the Tequila Interchange Project’s website.
NOM 186 also would limit the use of the word “agave” on bottles “to spirits made using only the six types of agave allowed within these areas and prohibit spirits made from the 33 other species of agave outside the appellations from ever entering the market,” the Phoenix New Times reported in January.
Makers outside those regions would be forced to say their spirits contain “agavacea aguardiente,” or spirit of agavaceae. That would make marketing for small producers nearly impossible because few people know that term as opposed to agave, Yeager said.
Other provisions of the bill that Yeager and his group oppose: Spirits using 100 percent agave cannot be produced above 35 percent alcohol by volume (most high-end mezcals are 45 to 55 percent alcohol by volume); and a spirit made with 100 percent agave could not be aged.
Supporters of the bill contend their aim is to protect consumers from unethical makers, Yeager said. But he and other opponents believe it is an attempt to create a barrier that would prevent small producers from bringing their spirits to market.
Forcing all tequila and mezcal makers except those in designated regions to use “agavacea aguardiente” would be “ridiculous,” Yeager said.
His bar once offered 150 or so types of tequila and mezcal, but Yeager said he has since winnowed the amount to about 65 favorites. Among the offerings is a Don Julio bottle that sells for $300.
After speaking to Mexican legislators, Yeager said he is to take part in an international press conference on Tuesday.