Daniel Aguilar / Reuters A plantation worker chops up an agave cactus on a plantation in Arandas in the Mexican state of Jalisco, May 18, 2004.

The Spirit of Mexico

How Tequila Conquered North America

In a dusty field, under a high, hot sun, a man is working the land. He looks like a cowboy, wearing crisp blue jeans with a big-buckled belt, a clean white shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat curled up at each side. His mustache is epic: thick, black, and curved down around the corners of his mouth, framing it like a photograph. He doesn’t smile—or, if he does, the brim of his hat shadows it from sight. Squaring his hips and winding up like a batter, he grips the long rod of his primitive-looking instrument as he plunges its blade down into tough, fibrous flesh.

I am in an agave field in Jalisco, a state in central-western Mexico, surrounded by large spiky plants that look like aloes on steroids, the sun beating down like an audible presence. The instrument in question is called a coa de jima, a long-handled hoe designed specifically to harvest agave, the native succulent plant from which tequila is made. The coa, forged by a local blacksmith who specializes in the rustic tool, looks tarnished—antique, even—but it’s dangerously effective thanks to regular and careful whetting by its user. The rounded blade lops off several of the plant’s long, plump leaves as it sinks into the agave’s pale yellow heart: the pineapple-like core aptly called the piña. Each strike produces a satisfying thwack.

It’s hot. Inevitably, one’s thoughts turn to icy margaritas. But out here, in the agave fields in the heart of tequila country, there isn’t a frosted cocktail pitcher in sight. The work the man is doing is much harder than he makes it look. He is the latest in a long family line to do this for a living—that is, until his son or nephew gets inducted into the brotherhood of men who harvest agave for tequila production. It’s a highly skilled task, a job shrouded in lore, which for hundreds of years has been passed down from generation to generation.

HUMBLE BEGININGS

For many, the story of tequila does not begin amid the blue-green expanse of an agave field, under the unrelenting Mexican sun. For most of us, the story of tequila starts in a much different way. More often, one’s first introduction to the spirit was back when we first had the misfortune of being introduced to the hot, harsh liquid a great number of people have come to associate with tequila. One’s initial encounter with the spirit is rarely a pretty one, and it is only now beginning to recover from its longtime reputation as the firewater of our youth. A certain breed of drinker has discovered tequila’s potential as a complex and sophisticated sipping spirit, but the vast majority of people still associate it with salt, lime, bad decisions, and a nasty hangover. Yet what so many of us recall haplessly knocking back in those bad old days is not even true tequila. Or rather, it isn’t pure tequila, distilled from 100 percent agave, those big desert plants often mistaken for cacti.

For many years, only industrial-grade tequila was available north of the border. When American demand for the spirit exploded around the 1970s and 1980s, traditional production couldn’t keep up. Automated, large-volume methods were adopted to help meet the swelling foreign demand, which affected the quality of the final product. Most Americans didn’t know good tequila from bad, anyway, and weren’t exactly consuming it in the most enlightened way. Tequila in America was taken almost exclusively as a means to get drunk.

It didn’t help that tequila arrived in the United States saddled with several myths. The spirit was said to act unlike whiskey, gin, or any other form of alcohol. Instead, reminiscent of absinthe’s reputation, it was rumored to be a hallucinogen. Another popular myth was that the bottle contained a worm, and that this little critter held even more powerful psychotropic properties for any drinker brave enough to swallow it. For Americans, tequila quickly became a way to flirt with hedonism, to pretend to trip. Most people certainly did not sip it for its aromatics or subtle complexities. It was either mixed into sugary frozen cocktails or slammed with lime and salt—a ritual that became so synonymous with the spirit that, for a long time, the majority of Americans believed it to be the correct way to drink tequila. Today, as more and better tequila hits U.S. shelves, the lime-and-salt ritual is no longer necessary. You don’t want to anesthetize your tongue from a drink that is delicious. And you don’t want to swallow it in one shot either. You want to sip it slowly, to make it last.

Daniel Aguilar / Reuters A Mexican tequila worker checks the quality of tequila in Arandas in Mexican state of Jalisco, May 18, 2004.

 

WHAT IS TEQUILA?

Tequila gets its name from a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, whose name in turn may have had its origins in an ancient Aztec word for work or task: tequitl. Another theory is that it might be a corruption of the name of a local native tribe called the Ticuilas. Like its predecessor mezcal, tequila is distilled from the agave plant. But by law, the agave for tequila production must be a particular variety grown in a specific part of Mexico. The spirit is protected by an appellation of origin status, like cognac and champagne, which limits the ability of spirits manufacturers to use the name tequila for spirits made outside of the region. Tequila has to be made from a specific type of agave: blue Weber or agave tequilana. “Good” tequila—and this is a pretty sweeping generalization—is the kind made from 100 percent blue Weber agave. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States estimates that whereas sales of the spirit in the United States have nearly doubled in the past ten years, lower-purity mixto hasn’t kept up the pace with the most premium tequilas, which are growing at a rate of up to four times that of the tequila category as a whole. The 100 percent agave category still makes up less than half the volume of total tequila exports to the United States, but it’s clear that more and more Americans are seeking out better tequila—to the tune of, in 2013, more than 15 million gallons out of about 35 million gallons of all types of tequila brought into the United States.

THE TEQUILA ECONOMY 

Once the cornerstone of life in many parts of Mexico, agave is now the chief commodity in the country’s thriving spirits industry. The fluctuating cost of agave can bring families and companies to the brink of financial ruin. Its widespread cultivation has botanists and other scientists lamenting the dangers of such an intense monoculture to Mexico’s rich biodiversity and scrambling to find solutions. And demand for it continues to rise alongside the explosive global demand for tequila. But tequila, a fundamentally Mexican product, is no longer controlled primarily by Mexicans. U.S. and European companies dominate the market, selling luxury tequila brands the average Mexican could never afford. 

And it all began with a plant. Granted, agave is a remarkable plant. Agave is a perennial succulent that can grow in a range of arid and semi-arid climates, from rocky, dry land to thick, brambly forest, from high, cool hillsides to hot, harsh valleys. There are more than 200 varieties known to exist around the world, but the vast majority of them are native to Mexico, and the kind used for making tequila, blue agave, can grow to be ten feet tall and just as wide. These are no easy plants to farm or harvest, not only because of their size but also due to their sharp-edged leaves. Each succulent leaf is lined with sharp thorns and grows a razor-sharp needle at the tip. For generations, Mexicans plucked the needles from the ends of the leaves of these elephantine plants to use for sewing their clothes, conducting ritual bloodletting ceremonies, even writing and drawing. The leaves themselves were dried and used to build thatch baskets, floor mats, clothing, and roofs for simple peasant homes.

The agave plant can be harvested only once it reaches maturity, which can take up to a decade or more. Then it dies. And because harvesting an agave kills the plant, a new agave must be planted in its place and tended for another six to ten years before it, too, can be used for tequila production. This is just one aspect of tequila’s story that illustrates why it’s so prized.

Martimiamo Irijalba a Oaxacan maguey harvester hacks the sharp leaves off one of the cacti to prepapre it for mezcal production in a field near Matatlan.

Martimiamo Irijalba a Oaxacan maguey harvester hacks the sharp leaves off one of the cacti to prepapre it for mezcal production in a field near Matatlan.

Like other global commodities, agave is at the mercy of the elements—a predicament more farmers are likely to face thanks to climate change. In 1997, it snowed in the highlands, killing large swaths of young agave plants. The weather, coupled with an epidemic of disease infecting nearly a quarter of all blue agave in tequila country that year, was disastrous. By 2000, it led to a nearly 1500 percent jump in the average price of piñas per kilogram. Large-scale growers deal with fluctuations in the agave market by planting more than they need, taking into account that a portion will be lost to pests and disease each year. But the compounded disasters at the turn of this century left growers and distillers scrambling. Many went out of business. Rumors began to spread of agave farmers from the tequila region sneaking off to Oaxaca, at the southern end of Mexico and decidedly outside the parameters of tequila country, to load up their trucks with local agaves to smuggle back into Jalisco and pass off as blue Weber. The agave species in question was espadín, native to the state of Oaxaca and widely used in the production of mezcal.

“This is a problem that goes back to 1991,” says Blanca Esther Salvador Martínez, a lawyer in Oaxaca who specializes in foreign trade and human rights law. “When the tequila makers are lacking in blue agave, they come to Oaxaca to buy espadín. When they started doing this, mezcal was not as popular as it is now. So there wasn’t a problem in terms of supply. Today, it’s different because mezcal sales are up both in Mexico and abroad,” she says.

The black market sale of espadín to tequila companies leaves fewer plants for the growing mezcal industry in Oaxaca. Although espadín is the main variety sought, wild agave varieties are at even greater risk. Some 15 varieties native to the state may be in danger of extinction thanks to overharvesting. Salvador and others hold tequila companies at least partly responsible. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in the country; agave farmers there cannot always be picky about whom they sell their plants to, especially when tequila companies are willing to pay top peso (at least by Oaxacan standards, which can be lower than the going rate in tequila country). But certain mezcaleros fear the toll that letting tequila companies in on their crops could take on the land and the local espadín. No one wants to see espadín suffer the way blue Weber agave has. There is also a threat to the local culture: most espadín farmers are mezcaleros, too. In Oaxaca, the old model of farmer-producer is still the norm. Mezcaleros who sell their agave might not have any left to produce their own mezcal—in many cases, the mezcal their family has made for generations. Never mind that it’s illegal for tequila companies to use Oaxacan agave for their product.

QUALITY CONTROL

Yet, back in Jalisco, there is still plenty of agave being farmed. By the end of 2012, more than 260 million agave plants were growing in the tequila-producing region. It takes about 15 pounds of agave to make a liter of tequila, so the numbers translate into quite a bit of juice per plant. The exact number of plants growing at any given time can be precisely tracked using microchip-embedded cards issued to each farmer by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), the body that regulates tequila production in Mexico. The CRT regulates every aspect of tequila production, from the cultivation and harvest of agave to the labeling of tequila bottles, and makes the data it collects on the industry public via its website. As a sort of bipartisan consortium made up of private corporations and government agency representatives, the CRT’s staff is extremely proud of how regulated tequila is. It’s the most regulated spirit in the world, they like to say. And they may well be right: Inspectors from the CRT are sent out daily to monitor the farming and production of tequila. It’s a job that requires a lot of driving in a state where roads aren’t always the safest to travel. Thankfully, the CRT’s inspectors have so far managed to avoid being targeted in their white cars and pickup trucks with the agave insignia emblazoned on the side. They know which roads to avoid and follow a company policy of not taking any undue risks. Besides, I’ve been told half-jokingly, even drug cartels don’t want anyone to mess with their tequila.

The goal of tracking tequila’s production so closely is not only to control its quality but also to measure its growth and streamline the process of making it. The CRT’s mandate is to protect tequila. As in, to ensure that it’s made according to strict government standards. But the council is also supposed to be a resource for both agave growers and tequila distillers and must often act as a mediator between the two parties. But the CRT finds itself fighting fraud from field to glass, as it were. It sends agents into liquor stores, on both sides of the border, to pose as customers as a way of ferreting out fraudulently packaged spirits. Unfortunately, some of what finds its way onto store shelves is made from unidentified ingredients or hails from beyond the legally defined geography of tequila country. When products packaged as tequila don’t meet the legal labeling requirements, they are destroyed and the culprits prosecuted.

Mexican workers carry an agave cactus on a plantation in Arandas in the Mexican state of Jalisco, May 18, 2004.

Mexican workers carry an agave cactus on a plantation in Arandas in the Mexican state of Jalisco, May 18, 2004.

In order to protect tequila, of course, the CRT must also protect agave. The council conducts its own research into the health of the plant, but budget constraints preclude it from pursuing some of the more progressive approaches touted by scientists and agriculturalists. Martín Muñoz Sánchez, who heads up the CRT research lab, oversees studies on plantation soils, water sources, and how to improve agave’s chances against pests and disease. When asked whether or not he believes biodiversity could improve blue agave’s genetic robustness, he smiles. “It could,” he allows, peering at the hands folded neatly in his lap. “But this is not the line of research that the CRT has chosen. We don’t have a lot of information about agave. We need to invest money. At this moment, we are trying to work with the government in Mexico. We need their support. The thought is to combine natural selection and crossbreeding, to combine these two strategies to improve the genetic health of the plant.”

As our conversation unfolds, it becomes obvious that the CRT holds official positions on especially touchy matters, forcing its staff to remain tight-lipped in the face of tough questions. The health of tequila’s sole raw material is, indeed, a touchy subject. So is criticism of the tequila industry. Valenzuela and her colleagues have suggested a number of approaches to increase biodiversity in the agave fields that don’t involve expensive experimentation. Plantations that make use of cover crops, like green beans and peanuts planted between the rows of agave, almost always have lower rates of disease. As a more extreme measure, a change could be made to the rules that govern tequila production to allow for other varieties to be included in the distillate.

FROM FIELD TO BOTTLE

At the other end of tequila’s journey from field to glass are the people who pour shots and mix margaritas. Among the sort of serious bartenders who sometimes refer to themselves as mixologists and the growing community of cocktail enthusiasts who revere them, tequila is the darling of the moment. Mezcal, the mother of tequila, is not far behind: still a niche product, but gaining cultish popularity. Tequila and mezcal bars or tequilerías and mezcalerías are cropping up in cities around the country, while upscale Nuevo Latino restaurants—themselves a hot gastronomical trend nationwide—are putting just as much thought into curating their agave spirits lists as into designing their progressive Latin-influenced menus.

Tequila is now a $2 billion industry. It’s sold in at least 120 countries, with Germany, South Africa, Russia, and the United States as the biggest international markets. In fact, the United States swallows nearly 80 percent of global tequila exports—and roughly twice as much tequila as Mexicans themselves drink. But the lion’s share of what is available to Americans includes few independent or even Mexican-owned brands. Unearthing those small, rogue operations can feel like discovering treasure: troves of liquid silver and gold.

What fancy bottles and pink liquid don’t communicate is the powerful connection tequila can have to the place it’s made. There is whiskey from Scotland, Ireland, and America, and, yes, each is unique to its country of origin. But the differences between them have less to do with the raw ingredients used—namely, grains, which can grow anywhere—and more to do with how they’re manipulated. Specifically, whiskey has almost everything to do with how it’s aged. Likewise, there are brandies, rums, and gins made around the world according to local traditions. (And there is vodka from just about everywhere, made from just about everything, that is rarely distinct.) But there is only tequila, made of native agave, from Mexico.

So maybe this is where the story starts. 

The tequila industry has become an intricate organism with many interwoven and conflicting facets and players. With so many players in the tequila game, the industry has swelled. The growing demand for better tequila and, by extension, record amounts of agave, has had a range of repercussions in Mexico. These effects are also part of tequila’s story. It’s a story spanning many centuries, beginning with a family recipe for a fragrant liquid made from a desert flower that evolved into a mass-market product, then evolved again to become a luxury good.

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