Artesanal vs. Ancestral Mezcal:
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Artesanal vs. Ancestral Mezcal: How Legal Infighting, Mule-Powered Mills and Clay Pots Shape Agave Spirits

Ancestral Mezcal

Artesanal and ancestral mezcal are some of the most misunderstood words in the industry. But they also come with a complicated history. (Photo: Mezcal Union)

The mezcal landscape can be a confusing place even for the most hardened of agave spirits experts.

If you’re browsing a well-stocked liquor store shelf, you’re bound to encounter all sorts of mezcal terminology that doesn’t do much to explain itself. Those terms are doled out by the Mezcal Regulatory Council (CRM), a government-certified organization that for years single-handedly oversaw and defined different agave varietals, production methods and states of origin.

Here’s a helpful guide to understanding the essential categories.

The CRM recognizes three types of spirit: mezcal ancestral, mezcal artesanal (with an e) and mezcal.

Mezcal Ancestral is the most complex certification. Agave must be crushed by hand or by mule-drawn stone mill (tahona) and then cooked in an underground oven fueled by either rocks or firewood. Finally, it can only be distilled over fire in clay pots. You can witness many of these steps in action throughout this video from Popular Mechanics:


Mezcal Artesanal is a little easier. Agave can be roasted in an above-ground manmade chamber, crushed as above or with a machine, then distilled in either clay, wood, stainless steel or copper.

Mezcal is the broadest category. Agave can be crushed any way, cooked in an autoclave or diffuser then distilled in massive continuous columns of copper or stainless steel. Typically these are the spirits produced on the largest scale; recognizable name brands like Del Maguey Vida, Ilegal and Monte Alban.

All of these terms, however, have been thrown into confusion amid ongoing legal controversy within the CRM.

Though the CRM regulates, defines and protects mezcal’s designation of origin, it is technically not a government organization but rather a government-certified organization. For decades, the CRM thrived as the sole regulator of this relatively small-scale market. But as international interest in agave spirits exploded in the 2010s, many producers (particularly those outside of Oaxaca) felt that the CRM couldn’t keep up with demand.

Ancestral mezcal

The mezcal market grew faster than it could be regulated. (Photo: ResearchGate/ COMERCAM, 2020)

The issue came to a head in 2018 when the Secretariat of Economy approved three additional mezcal regulating bodies; the Center for Innovation and Agrifood Development of Michoacan (CIDAM), Verification and Certifian PAMFA, and Certificacion Mexico (CMX).

The CRM was none too happy with the decision. In 2020, the CRM filed and won a lawsuit that reasserted its position as the sole arbiter of the mezcal market. The decision upturned hundreds of producers that had resorted to other certification methods over the past two years.

Unsurprisingly, the battle continued.

Later that month, the Mexican government fined the CRM nearly one million pesos ($45,000) for “deceptive, abusive” practices. Around a year later, the court flip-flopped on its 2020 decision, revoking CRM’s monopoly over the market and opening the floodgates to the other three regulators.

Today, mezcal certification is an incredibly confusing patchwork of rival organizations. Many producers can’t keep up.

Instead of navigating a convoluted system, a growing number of mezcal distillers are opting for the term “Destilado de Agave” that circumvents CRM jurisdiction. As a result, many mezcals that would otherwise be termed ancestral or artesanal are now being sold under a generic catch-all.

The tricky situation will likely evolve further in the coming years. Though ancestral and artesanal remain helpful guiding terms, the easiest thing you can do is just to look up how a bottle is made online.

Read More: 

Mezcal Mastery: Every Mezcal Finalist at the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition

DNA Testing Concludes That the Mezcal Worm Is Actually a Mezcal Moth — But Its Cultivation Remains Mystery 

‘It’s Like Autozone in a Glass’: Youtube Comedian Trevor Wallace Takes Aim At Mezcal Snobs in New Video — Here’s What He Got Wrong 

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Pedro Wolfe is the managing editor of Tequila Raiders. With several years of experience writing for the New York Daily News and the Foothills Business Daily under his belt, Pedro aims to combine quality reviews and recipes with incisive articles on the cutting edge of the tequila world. Pedro has traveled to the heartland of the spirits industry in Tequila, Mexico, and has conducted interviews with agave spirits veterans throughout Mexico, South Africa and California. Through this diverse approach, Tequila Raiders aims to celebrate not only tequila but the rich tapestry of agave spirits that spans mezcal, raicilla, bacanora, pulque and so much more.