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. 

Review: “The Tequila Ambassador” by Tomas Estes

Review: The Tequila Ambassador. Tomas Estes. Sauce Guides (2012).

Tomas Estes has written an instantly classic tequila book that is indispensible to the library of any agave aficionado. Estes, a native of Los Angeles, has spent more than three decades getting to know Mexico and mastering agave spirits. Along the way, he has opened 17 pioneering tequila bars in Europe and Australia, co-founded Tequila Ocho and was named the Tequila Ambassador to Europe by the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry.Tequila Ambassador Tomas Estes

Estes’ distinctive voice comes through lucidly in this work. He’s warm, positive, enthusiastic, inquisitive and humble. If you have been lucky enough to meet him, you’ll feel like he’s right there with you. If not, you’ll wish you had.

Estes’ attitude towards his status as Ambassador is, characteristically, at once ambitious and humble: he sees himself (as well as fellow Ambassador – to the USA – Julio Bermejo) as an “Ambassador Maker,” creating other ambassadors throughout the world through education and advocacy. Indeed, Estes emphasizes the primacy of education (for consumers and industry alike) throughout the book.

Estes shares his platform (which he modestly calls a ‘notebook’ or ‘scrapbook’) with his peers, mentors, teachers and other industry insiders. The book contains 13 interviews, from the owners of Cuervo and Patrón to distillers, scholars and experts such as Jose Sandoval and Miguel Cedeño, who may be as yet unknown to the casual tequila fan. The interviews are distributed throughout the book between chapters on each step in the tequila production process, tequila’s history, notes on the village of Tequila and a bit about Oaxacan mezcal.

Anyone looking for a purist’s diatribe should move along. As befits an ambassador, Estes avoids taking controversial or overly strong stances. He truly wants the tequila category to be broad, diverse and accessible throughout the world. So he doesn’t demonize the mixto category or large-scale industrial production methods. On the contrary, he sees both as providing more points of access to the entire world of tequila. He does, however, state a personal preference for tequila production that is small in scale, natural in technique and slow in pace. He also strongly advocates for a “less is more” approach to filtration, a detail whose importance will escape the novice but excite the advanced tippler.

The book is consistently good and there is little or no fluff here. However, the history of the margarita, the Robert Denton interview, the discussion of terroir and the final section on the future of tequila really stand out.

Terroir is the concept, coming from wine, that the soil and climate in which the raw material (grapes, agave, etc.) is grown will be expressed in the final product. So, just as Pinot Noir grapes from France produce a wine with different characteristics than those grown in Oregon, blue agave from Jalisco’s Highlands produce a tequila profile distinct from that of the lower Valley regions. Estes is one of the people behind Tequila Ocho, which succeeded in putting to rest any doubts about tequila’s claim to exhibit terroir. Each year, a new vintage is produced by Carlos Camarena (the master behind El Tesoro de Don Felipe and Tapatío, among others) utilizing agave from a different Highlands ranch than the previous year. The finished product, while produced on the same equipment with the same yeast strain, is remarkably different each year.

Robert and Marilyn Denton were responsible for ushering in the wave of 100% agave sipping tequila in the US by importing Chinaco and El Tesoro in the 1980s. Estes’ interview with the Dentons is a fascinating look back to the birth at the US tequila boom, from the mouths of those who brought it to light.

While the Dentons were instrumental in bringing premium tequila to discriminating US drinkers, nothing has increased tequila’s popularity with the general public than the margarita. Estes’ bars have served over 8 million of the tart, salty concoction worldwide, and he takes us along for a ride on both sides of the border to research several versions of the drink’s origin. This is easily the most interesting and enjoyable telling of the margarita story we’ve ever read.

Tequila Ambassador BookEach of the chapters on tequila production provide technical precision and nerdy details in abundance, while at the same time providing a thorough and understandable explanation for the novice or spirits generalist.

Readers with a long history or deep involvement in agave spirits may want to turn immediately to the final section: “The Future for Tequila,” as we did. If the lack of bold prognostication disappoints slightly, all the right questions are asked. Fundamental problems in agave production related to price instability, overreliance on chemical pesticides and the monoculture resulting from cloning as the exclusive method of reproduction are succinctly and intelligently introduced. Estes does make strong arguments for some specific policies. He cites successful examples in Europe and California in arguing for price controls and cooperative organization in agave farming. Maintaining his focus on education and category-wide advocacy, he calls for the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry to be beefed up, take on more of a leading educational role and bring in bar owners and experts as non-voting honorary members. In his view, both the state of Jalisco and the Mexican federal government should do more to promote tequila education, tourism and entry into emerging markets in Asia.

This book has moved immediately to the top of the stack and is highly recommended. Experience Tequila will be hosting participatory dialogues and tastings with Tomas Estes in Seattle and Portland in mid-May, 2013.

-Clayton J. Szczech

Selected Tequila Bibliography

Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History

Selected Tequila Bibliography

Tequila a Traditional Art Tequila: A Traditional Art of Mexico. Ruy Sánchez, Alberto and de Orellana, Margarita (eds.) Smithsonian Books (2004).

Recommended for novices and aficionados alike. Mixing text with engaging graphics and montages, the book itself is attractive and artistic without compromising on information or facts. The book puts tequila in the context of Mexico’s independence and Revolution, while imparting all the necessary details of tequila production, though the idealization of the hacienda system is off-putting.

 

Book of TequilaThe Book of Tequila: A Complete Guide. Emmons, Bob. Open Court (1997).

This classic was perhaps the first comprehensive reference book about tequila. An excellent introduction for the novice, if you can get past the somewhat pedantic tone. The general information on the production, history and geography of tequila is solid, although the information on specific brands and distilleries is out of date. Includes tasting tips as well as food and drink recipes using tequila.

 

Tequila The Spirit of Mexico

 

Tequila: The Spirit of Mexico. (Second edition).  Martinez Limón, Enrique. Abbeville (2004).

A good general overview of tequila with excellent photos. More a coffee table book than a reference work, it’s unique in that the author is willing to go on the record and review and rank dozens of tequilas. However, he doesn’t make his criteria clear and many of the brands reviewed have changed signifcantly since the book was published.

 

Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History

 

Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History. Valenzuela Zapata, Ana G. and Nabhan, Gary Paul. University of Arizona Press (2003).

A fascinating work from two botanists specializing in the study of agaves. Equal parts romantic paean to the spiritual and cultural power of tequila in Mexico, and fairly erudite horticultural science. The book is most interesting when focusing on the plagues and problems of the contemporary tequila industry, and the relationship between globalization and agave production.

 

 

 

Tequila : a guide to types, flights, cocktails, and bites (Book Review)

Tequila : a guide to types, flights, cocktails, and bites / by Joanne Weir.

(Berkeley, Calif. : Ten Speed Press, c2009.)

Celebrity chef Joanne Weir offers up a welcome addition to the sparse, hit-and-miss genre of tequila writing. Weir is a true tequila lover, and her infectious enthusiasm comes through loud and clear in the preface, where she describes creating the Agave Girls, a club of female tequila aficionados in the often male-identified world of agave spirits.

The book will primarily interest bartenders and cooks, both professional and amateur, since over 80% of the text consists of recipes from the author and collected from some of the country’s top mixologists. Weir’s brief survey of tequila’s history and production process is a fun read, and free of the types of embarrassing factual errors that all too often typify tequila writing. The brevity of her treatment, however, keeps this book from being a “go-to” tequila reference book for spirits generalists.

There is really only one other shortcoming here: I had hoped Weir would expand upon the idea of pairing different types of tequila with food, which she seems exceptionally qualified to do, but we get only a brief comment on the topic. Perhaps in a future book, as Weir is a unique voice with even more to offer than we get here.

This book is well-suited for tequila beginners and any cook or bartender, and the hardcore tequila fan will want to add it to their library, not only because the genre is so small, but because the cocktail and food recipes will inspire dreams of a tequila-centered diet.