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. 

Mexico Bans Additives in Blanco Tequilas

Mexico Bans Additives in Blanco Tequilas

The current, revised “Norm” on Tequila (NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-006-SCFI-2012, Bebidas alcohólicas – Tequila – Especificaciones), was published in December 2012 and went into effect in February of 2013. In early 2013, I had extensive and detailed conversations with the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) and several Tequila producers, which led to this piece. While I have been speaking about this in presentations and trainings since May 2013, it is being posted here for the first time, in order to reach a broader audience. 

Most people reading this will  know that many “mixto” Tequilas are chock-full of caramel coloring and glycerin. But many don’t realize that, when it comes to additives, both the 100% agave category and the “mixto” category are allowed the same “natural” additives.

The Norm explicitly allows caramel color, oak extract, glycerin and “sugar-based syrup” to be added  to either category of Tequila. So then, if these are the permitted additives, where have all the obviously foreign flavors in blancos in recent years come from? The vanilla, coconut, cotton candy, marshmallow and tutti-fruity candy notes? (Note that vanilla and coconut aromas result naturally from oak aging. For the moment we’re talking only about blancos.)

It seems that over the years, some producers got rather cheeky with the “sugar-based syrup” allowance, and that is where they were adding other additives – to the syrup itself. After all, sophisticated, expensive additives created in laboratories are effective in such small amounts that the syrup to which they are added is still inarguably “sugar-based.” What’s more, since the Norm doesn’t specify the source or type of sugar, that opens the door for the addition of agave-sugar based syrup. Imagine that – adding agave syrup to a finished Tequila blanco!

If this doesn’t strike you as authentic or fair, you’re not alone. And there’s good news. As of February 2013, no blancos may contain additives, period. Yes, you read that right. No Tequila in the blanco / plata class may contain abocantes – the aforementioned additives. The “new” Norm states explicitly that only water may be added to blancos after distillation. (Blancos may still be rested in/on oak for up to 60 days.)

Like any regulatory document, the Norm is subject to interpretation, but it’s ultimately the CRT that determines exactly how it will be enforced. In 2013, I was party to a very interesting discussion with the CRT and a well-regarded producer who uses certain additives. He was reading the new text in a way that would have allowed for the continued use of additives in blancos. After a few weeks of back and forth and checking up and down the chain of command, we had a definitive answer. After February 2013, additives are not permitted in blancos. (There will inevitably be questions and cynicism about how well this is being enforced, but these are beyond the scope of this article.)

Here’s what I suggest: blind tastings of blanco Tequilas that you’ve previously believed to be using additives – using 2012 bottles and 2014 bottles. Feel free to share your results!

No changes were made regarding additives to the other four classes of Tequila. Also, “flavored Tequilas” are a completely separate category and must be labelled as such. 

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 Denton and Marilyn Smith 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 couple is a fascinating look back to the birth at the US tequila boom, from the mouths of those who brought it to light.

While Denton and Smith 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