Review: “Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico,” by Marie Sarita Gaytan

Review: ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico. Marie Sarita Gaytán. Stanford University Press (2014).

As Tequila nerds, we love trivia. “How long does it take agave to mature? How long is añejo aged? Who first exported Tequila?” All too often, knowledge of these basic, rote facts is touted as expertise. The deeper questions of Tequila’s meaning(s), winners, losers and future trajectory are all too often sidestepped or not even considered. Marie Sarita Gaytán’s ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico is a fantastic book that addresses these issues in a way that’s likely new for the non-academic Tequila fan.

¡Tequila! presents and analyzes Mexico’s most famous beverage as “a complex cultural commodity…first and foremost…about the people of Mexico.” The book is a critical cultural analysis of how and why Tequila came to be constructed as a potent symbol of Mexican national identity and its changing meanings throughout history and into contemporary times. Gaytán is a sociologist and although I am sure this book will be used in undergraduate university courses, the book is lucid, accessibly written and of interest to all Tequila aficionados.

While not attempting to be a thoroughgoing history, the book deftly connects the dots between important historical events and eras from the Spanish Conquest to the present. The first chapter, on the history of Tequila, mezcal, and pulque, is possibly the best summary in English that I’ve seen. Even if the rest of the book’s cultural theory loses more casual readers, this chapter should be required reading for anyone interested in Mexican beverages. The relationship of pulque – an indigenous, pre-Hispanic brew of fermented agave sap- to Tequila is widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the Tequila industry. Gaytán demonstrates how pulque was seen by the ruling Spanish (and later creoles) as “too native.” Its association with the rowdy, race-mixing masses of Mexico City made it inappropriate as a national icon. Since there was no way to stabilize and bottle it at the time, its geographical range of consumption was also limited.

This artful weaving of cultural and material factors is characteristic of Gaytán’s analysis. She draws upon both types of evidence to explain the “why” of Tequila. Why is it that, amongst Mexico’s scores of distilled spirits, the one from Tequila, Jalisco became a national emblem? In the post-Tequila Boom 21st century, it can be easy to forget that this was far from a foregone conclusion. The Tequila-soaked world in which we live is a very new reality. The first “Norm” governing Tequila production wasn’t published until 1949, Tequila became Mexico’s first Denomination of Origin product in 1974, the Tequila Regulatory Council was created only in 1994

Gaytan BookIn explaining how Tequila came to be the globally recognized Mexican spirit, Gaytán analyses how Guadalajara and the Jalisco Highlands were deliberately juxtaposed to Mexico City as a “racially pure,” idyllic-yet-modern archetype for a new Mexican century and identity. The extermination of natives in Jalisco had been particularly effective, meaning there was a surplus of available land. Investment flowed into the region when precious metals were discovered, and the cultivation of agave was a cheap investment with a guaranteed payoff. Very often “why Tequila?” is treated as a mystery to which there is no real answer. It is gratifying to see material factors like the ascension of the Port of San Blas and the introduction of the railroad finally acknowledged in a serious way.

It isn’t news to anyone that Tequila is considered a symbol of Mexican national identity, an internationally recognized marker of “Mexicanness.” Gaytán’s analysis goes beyond the surface though, to explore the ways in which this symbol was constructed historically and how its meaning continues to be contested in ways that reflect upon social class, race and gender. If Tequila comes to represent a certain way of “being Mexican” or “doing Mexico,” that is necessarily at the exclusion of other potential ways of being and doing. In Gaytán’s analysis, “Mexicanness” itself is a contested category that would at times exclude the indigenous, urban poor and women.

A feminist gender analysis is present throughout the book – a long-overdue development given that popularly accessible books about Tequila have been overwhelmingly written by men. Gaytán addresses Tequila’s role in the construction of masculinity and femininity, using depictions of Pancho Villa, and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema as rich sources of data. The chapter on Tequila in the comedia ranchera film genre is particularly rich, and is an excellent introduction to that crucial piece of Mexican culture.

This book will tear some people’s blinders off when it comes to the contemporary reality of Tequila. If you are content buying into marketing myths and not questioning the ethics behind the industry, this book will make you a bit uncomfortable. Gaytán’s analysis of Tequila’s tourism industry is particularly damning. She argues strongly that projects like La Ruta del Tequila, and the village’s “Pueblo Mágico” designation have all served to further concentrate resources in the hands of the industry’s largest players, to the detriment of small producers, farmers and local families. Likewise, her critique of the use of jimadores and the agave goddess Mayahuel to sell Tequila and elicit loyalty to the Tequila category provides necessary “next-level” understanding of the myths and realities of Tequila culture.

My only substantive criticism of this book is that a couple of the chapters (on Pancho Villa, and discussions on Tequila with current-day Mexican and Mexican-American drinkers) don’t feel as integrated as the rest. In particular, the interviews with consumers on the meaning of Tequila drinking was the only place in the book where the theoretical aspects felt rather forced, and where it seemed like grand conclusions were drawn from limited data.

The book is so strong though, that it did leave me wanting more. I’d love to see the gender analysis of Tequila’s cultural history brought to bear upon contemporary branding and consumption practices, as well as further qualitative research into the meaning of Tequila consumption amongst the international and multi-ethnic aficionado scene. Hopefully this book will inspire further writing in the same vein.

I highly recommend this insightful book to anyone with any interest or involvement in the Tequila industry. Regardless of your level of knowledge or experience, you’ll certainly learn something, have your assumptions challenged in a constructive way, and deepen your understanding of the culture of Tequila.

-Clayton J. Szczech

Check out previous Tequila book reviews from Experience Tequila, including a selected bibliography of older Tequila books. 

Leopoldo Solis on Fifth Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Leopoldo Solís is a legendary master distillery and Tequila consultant. He was at Cazadores in its prime, and has worked on flavor profiles for several brands made at the Vivanco distillery (NOM 1414), and Tequila Don Pilar. His explanations of the chemistry of fermentation and distillation are some of the most lucid I have heard.

“Experience Tequila’s contribution has been the diffusion of the culture of Tequila. They have contributed to a better understanding and, therefore, appreciation of this world class alcoholic beverage.

Congratulations for having this idea, and we wish you many more years of growth and success. Onward!”

-Ing. Leopoldo Solis Tinoco,  Profesionales en Equipo y Filtración, S.A. de C.V.

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us

Jacob Lustig (ArteNOM) on 5th Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Jacob Lustig has been blazing his own trail in the spirits business for many years. When I first became aware of his Selección ArteNOM line of tequila, I thought “That’s a great idea!” When I saw that he had chosen three of my favorite distilleries to feature – NOMs 1146, 1414 and 1079 (now 1580)- I thought “I have to meet this guy!” What ensued was an hour long phone call while we were both traveling and the discovery of an agave brother from another mother. I can’t emphasize enough how much I respect Jake and what he does for tequila. Salud, amigo!

“Experience Tequila has drawn more people to the enjoyment of Mexico’s premier agave distillate by increasing product knowledge and popularity. Clayton’s pursuit of accurate, pertinent production details and dissemination to a growing body of enthusiasts fulfills a critical need in the continuously developing culture of tequila.

Congratulations Clayton, the first five years are the hardest!”

-Jacob Lustig, Las Joyas del Agave

 Jacob Lustig

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us

Ana Maria Romero Mena on 5th Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Ana María Romero Mena is the most widely recognized maestra tequilera in the field of tasting and sensorial evaluation. I’ve had the pleasure of studying with her in various courses since March, 2011. Her instruction has been invaluable in honing my modest skills as a taster, and she continues to have a huge impact on the industry as an educator and consultant on flavor and aroma profiles. Maestra, thank you for everything!

“Many congratulations, Clayton. I feel proud to have had students like you, committed to tequila not only with professionalism, but with heart. May you have many more successes for many more years. A big hug!

-Ana Maria Romero Mena, Sensorial Creativa

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us
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Diana Jimenez (Tequila Centinela) on 5th Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Diana Jiménez is one of the most recognizable faces in the industry, traveling tirelessly as a global ambassador for Casa Centinela. Centinela has been a regular stop on our Highlands tours from the very beginning. Thank you, Diana and Centinela!

“Experience Tequila is a great opportunity to get closer to the Tequila Culture. Since this great project started, it has grown into the hearts of the people and also helped to increase Tequila knowledge.

Clayton, you certainly deserve all the success and recognition from us in the industry, for your hard work and dedication. Salud to that!”

-Diana Jimenez, Casa Centinela

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us

Dr. Jaime Villalobos on 5th Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Dr. Jaime Villalobos is a true maestro tequilero. he producers several brands including Realeza Mexicana, Corazón Maya and Mexitas. As a producer, his knowledge of production and chemistry is mind-blowing. As an author and historian of tequila and its tradition, he is equally impressive, having created the “Distintivo T” curriculum for the CRT and written the definitive history of the Sauza family. He was also a founding member of the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila. I had the privilege of studying with Dr. Villalobos for the better part of a year, ultimately earning a certification of “Experto en Tequila.” Thank you, maestro, for everything!

“I greatly value Clayton’s attitude and courage in immersing himself completely in the culture of tequila. I feel proud to be his teacher and a teacher is always happy when his students excel.

Clayton, may you continue learning about our beverage, our history and promote it with pride!”

-Dr. Jaime Augusto Villalobos Díaz, Cultura y Capacitación del Tequila, A.C.

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us

 

Jim Riley (Azunia Tequila) on 5th Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
We’ve been fans of Azunia Tequila since trying it at the Spirits of Mexico Festival around 2009. Owner Jim Riley is part owner of this delicious and under-rated tequila, as well as an off-road truck racer. Jim is a tequila  fan first and foremost, and was responsible for bringing Amatitán’s classic Tequila Regional into the US. Thank you, Jim, for your kind words!

“I have known Clayton and his Company “Experience Tequila” for several years now. Although I have always viewed him as one of the industry experts and one of the few people that are truly passionate for tequila. It was not until a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest did I realize how widespread his effect actually was. In an area where tequila is emerging through the efforts of few boutique brands, Clayton is well known as the main authority on tequilas. His tours are have an excellent reputation as being educational and fun. It is our goal to utilize Experience Tequila more in the future as we continue to grow our own line of tequila.

Congratulations on 5 years of spreading the word about Tequila and the beauty of all that Mexico has to offer. As a producer of a boutique tequila, we sincerely appreciate your efforts to bring guests to a wonderful country filled with the finest people. Salud!”

-Jim Riley, Founder,  Azunia Tequila

Jim Riley made Clayton's day in 2013 by introducing him to basketball legend, Portland favorite, and Azunia co-owner Bill Walton.
Jim Riley made Clayton’s day in 2013 by introducing him to basketball legend, Portland favorite, and Azunia co-owner Bill Walton.

 

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us

Kristina Schulte (Casa del Matador) on Fifth Anniversary of ET

Experience Tequila launched in December, 2008. To commemorate our fifth anniversary, we asked friends and colleagues for their comments or reflections on our first five years. We will post the comments over the course of several months.
Casa del Matador, in both Portland and Seattle, has hosted many of our scores of tasting events over the past five years. We’ve working more closely with Kristina Schulte at Portland’s East Burnside location than with anyone else, and she is a true tequila lover and consummate professional. Thank you Kristin and Casa del Matador for accompanying us on the first five years of our tequila journey!

“Casa del Matador Restaurant and Tequila Bar has had a professional relationship with Clayton and Experience Tequila for years. When I first moved to Portland to take over managing this restaurant I was told by many people that Clayton was the go-to-guy for tequila in Portland. We are extremely lucky to have Clayton as a contact in the tequila industry and I now consider him to be the go-to-guy for tequila in general. His passion and dedication to what he does is apparent the moment he begins speaking about the history, production and traditions of tequila. He has conducted educational meetings and tastings here which have reignited our desire to learn and really get involved in the intricacies of each tequila we carry. I’ve worked in the tequila industry for nearly 9 years and always learn something new when I talk to Clayton. I will continue to utilize Experience Tequila as a resource and recommend his services to anyone who has the desire to learn more about such a noble and complex spirit such as tequila.

Congratulations to Clayton and Experience Tequila for 5 years of educating, sharing and enriching the tequila industry with your wealth of knowledge. May you continue to celebrate your success in the years to come. Thank you for your invaluable contributions to our staff and the spirits industry.”

-Kristina Schulte, Casa del Matador East Burnside

This testimonial is part of a series marking Experience Tequila’s fifth anniversary. If you would like to submit your own, we would love to hear from you! Simply email us