Marie Sarita Gaytán is an American academic (an Assistant Professor of Sociology) and ¡Tequila!: Distilling the Spirit of Mexico is an academic text about tequila’s cultural import in its country of origin, its history and the reasons for how it is seen. It is a heavily researched text, informed by huge amounts of both paper-based research and in the field interviews and distillery tours. Lots of distillery tours, lots of bar visits, lots of chats in cantinas, lots of trips to agave fields and lots and lots of tequila. I got the impression that Gaytán had fun writing this. The book offers a chronological tour of the spirit’s history, then a discussion of its global reach. It is informed and informative.
Let’s begin by defining tequila.
Tequila is a distilled spirit, produced from agave (which is not a cactus), and made in the state of Jalisco in central Mexico. (It is a District of Origin qualification that it is made here; distilled agave spirit from the rest of Mexico is just plain ol’ mezcal.) The plant is harvested, cooked, its juice squashed out and fermented, and it is then distilled. The clear spirit is either sold (known as blanco) or aged in barrels (the colour and type changing con el paisaje del tiempo, the liquid being bottled as reposado, añejo or extra añejo depending on length of time) and then sold. It is then shipped across the world and consumed by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. By some it is sipped like a fine spirit, by others it is taken mixed into margaritas, and by many, many more it is slammed back as a fast track to the sweet release of intoxication*. Ooooh, tequila. The world loves you.
Now, some history:
Although it is an incontrovertible fact that indigenous** people of the land that would become Mexico fermented agave into an alcoholic beverage, pulque, it is unknown when distillation was introduced. Obviously, the conquistadores brought the technology with them when they ravaged the New World, but it is quite possible that the technique came the other way, as there is evidence of distillation in the South Pacific that predates European activity in that part of the world.
Pulque was ritualistically consumed by Aztecs and less famous tribes at religious festivals and other important events. Often, it would have plant matter stirred into it that could induce hallucinations. It was not an everyday substance, instead reserved for occasions of spiritualistic abandon. Agave as a consumed alcohol has a long history, and it wasn’t long after the Spanish settled into the land that distillation of agave began in earnest.
Essentially, brandy was too expensive to import, and the hunger for liquor of the Europeans was high – for them, alcohol was a daily consumable, and though they judged the locals harshly when they saw them intoxicated, a mild level of inebriation was craved by many on a daily basis. As time went on, the town of Tequila, a short distance from Guadalajara, Mexico’s Birmingham***, became regarded as the source of the best mezcal, the best distilled agave spirit. To begin with, the spirit was known as mezcal de Tequila, but humanity’s love of abbreviating led the name of the product to drop the first two words, and then shed the capital letter. Tequila was born.
In 1821, Mexico declared independence from Spain. After this, the new government of the new country wanted to promote ideas of national identity, they wanted to cultivate notions of Mexicanness, mexicanidad, an idea that is now know as lo mexicano. Tequila, a national product that already had a burgeoning international reputation, was picked as something to focus on. Initially seen as something crass and lower class – something consumed by those who couldn’t afford imported spirits from Europe – this perception was aggressively attacked in order to raise pride in national production. Then, later, there was the Mexican revolution, when a lot of American press tried to associate the violence that often crossed over the border with the heavy consumption of tequila. Alcohol and excess, alcohol and masculinity, alcohol and passion: righteous anger at a corrupt state, fear of failure masked by an alcoholic taint. The romanticisation of the spirit and its consumption by charros (Mexican cowboys, pretty much) exploded here, and was helped along by the development of cinema and the picturesque, bucolic scenes of rural boozing that became commonplace on celluloid.
Then, big international money started rolling in, big international advertising campaigns, Disneyland-like tourist attractions at the Jose Cuervo factory, Americans started their own companies in the region (Patrón the big example of the tequila company that improves the life of no Mexican), with all the more emphasis on old Aztec gods, on Mexican cowboys, on mariachi and on agave and tequila itself as essential and long-standing parts of the national culture. As tequila becomes less Mexican, as foreign investors buy up tequila businesses, its very Mexicanness is ever-more emphasised. Both by them and by the country of Mexico.
Government departments, international legislation against the production of similar products, global recognition for bars and restaurants that correctly serve tequila (none in the UK yet, but a few in Spain and France), state-sponsored tours – tequila is a massive industry. Mexicans think of it as theirs, it is seen as something for casual consumption with family members and also as something for intoxication – it is everything pulque ever was but more, somehow, as it now has an alcoholic, Europeanised casualness to its consumption. Jalisco, too, the State of Tequila, is also becoming increasingly poorer, in contrast to the profitability of its tequila factories. The success of tequila is inconsistent for Mexican gains – it is theirs, in symbol, in spirit, but it is not entirely theirs in actual, capitalist, fact.
Gaytán concludes that what is likely to save the spirit – and Jalisco – is the increasing connoisseurship of consumers: as people in New York, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, as these people want small batch, artisanal tequilas, they are sending money back towards the smaller tequila producers whose income has been stolen by outside interests****. If this continues, if spend shifts from the big name brands downwards, everyone can be happy. In theory, but we all know that once a brand starts getting traction, a big company will make its owners an offer they can’t refuse and add it to their portfolio.
That is the world we live in.
An interesting book. Glad I bought it for myself as a birthday present.
* That beautiful state where your troubles melt away into nothing, or melt away into differently sized and differently shaped problems, or blur into some kind of thick mess that causes you new problems, or clouds your mind so much that troubles you hadn’t even considered insert hydra-like heads into your once small and contained existence. Alcoholic intoxication is the ultimate distraction: it is easy to consume until the mind and memory are removed from sensation, with neither returning until much later, with all the horrors shifted from mind to body. The hangover destroys the energy that could be used to contemplate the shape of that abscess that cries for liquor, and the moment it reappears, one can drink drink drink. Or drive: the freedom that offers (in theory) is far greater than the temporary freedom of an alcohol-induced blackout, but if one wants that possible freedom in perpetuity, sobriety must be maintained and we all know what that means: regularly having to pull over the car for panic attacks, lol!
** Is that a word it’s ok to say about people?
*** I.e. its second city.
**** Justin Timberlake part owns Sauza tequila, for example.