Hey, Gringos, You’re Doing Tequila Wrong

(Bloomberg) -- Let's get two things straight.

First, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. That's in September. Cinco de Mayo, though now mostly an excuse to throw back tequila shots and margaritas, is actually an homage to an 1862 battle in which Mexican troops defied the odds and beat Napoleon III's army. In doing so, they might just have saved the Union Army from facing the French as allies of the Confederates, and therefore helped the North win the U.S. Civil War. Another cause for celebration.

Second, shooting tequila with salt and lime is not the way to do it, says Chantal Martineau in How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico's Most Traditional Spirit. If you're looking to honor those brave Mexican soldiers, try sipping the good stuff, either 100% agave tequila or mezcal, she says. Unlike the "mixto" tequilas in your $5 margaritas, these drinks are made purely from the agave plant. In the case of tequila, blue agave, but for mezcal—the mother of tequila—any kind, often multiple kinds, of agave may be used. 

Tequila is more than just a home brew that found an international audience. Its story is one of craftsmanship turned corporatism. Now, advocates want to make sure that mezcal, finally emerging from tequila's long shadow, doesn't fall prey to the same forces.

In her new book, Martineau explores the history of agave beverages from the Aztecs' pulque—which one legend says was revealed to humanity with a divine lightning bolt to an agave—to the Cuervos mixto and, now, the mezcals showing up in bars across the country. 

Hey, Gringos, You’re Doing Tequila Wrong
Courtesy Chicago Review Press

Martineau spoke with Bloomberg about tequila, mezcal, history, asexual propagation, and the right way to enjoy the latest iterations of an ancient drink. Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for clarity and length. 

The name of your book is How The Gringos Stole Tequila. Briefly, how did they?

Gringos are getting a lot of tequila: 7 out of 10 liters of tequila produced are consumed abroad. Of those exports, the U.S. swallows about 80%.  The “original” gringos who stole tequila would have been the Spanish who came over with their big families. Before tequila was tequila, it was really just another mezcal, one made all around Mexico [probably beginning in the 16th century]. It was really those families that we still recognize today—the Cuervos, the Sauzas, and a couple of other big ones—who first took over tequila production and turned it into big business. Gringos invented that salt and lime ritual, and even tequila cocktails, from the lower-brow frozen margarita types to the really great craft cocktails we find today. 

Why has mezcal become the hipper alternative to tequila in the past several years?

Across the food and drink scene, we see this desire to return to the artisanal, the most handmade, authentic version. People have shifted from caviar-style snobbery to wanting carrots with dirt on them and to meet the farmer who grows them. Once it was discovered that, yes, tequila can be good, people maybe dug a little deeper. Maybe on their search for cool, small brands of tequila, they discovered mezcal. The way it’s made is the same way that it would have been made hundreds of years ago, with the agaves roasted underground and crushed by hand or with a very primitive stone mill. 

Hey, Gringos, You’re Doing Tequila Wrong
Photographer: Chantal Martineau/Courtesy Chicago Review Press

A magueyero harvests espadín.

How has the image of tequila changed in both Mexico and the U.S. over the past several decades?

The way gringos perceive tequila, use it, and demand it has always affected its perception and demand back home. The growth here in the U.S. had a huge impact on the renewed pride in tequila in Mexico. Over and over again I would hear, "Oh my parents, my grandparents, if ever we were going to have a big, fancy dinner, they would never serve tequila. My grandfather would be in the back, drinking it on the sly, because for guests and for show you always wanted to serve whiskey or cognac or something from Europe." 

In the U.S., it started with the Cuervos and Sauzas bringing tequila over for the first time in the mid- to late 19th century. They entered it in spirits competitions, usually under the name of Mexican whiskey or Mexican brandy, and it went well. It did come over with a lot of preconceived notions and even racist imagery and just completely fabricated myths, like that it had psychoactive properties.

Over time, the popularity ebbed and flowed. During Prohibition, a lot of tequila came over just like Canadian whiskey came over. Then, in the '50s, that annoying song [the Champs' "Tequila"] was a big hit, and again that boosted the popularity. In the '70s there was another big hit song, [Jimmy Buffett's] "Margaritaville," and by the '90s it had become this staple of spring break and frat parties. It’s not for another 20 years that we’re now seeing a tequila boom associated with high-end premium brands.

Hey, Gringos, You’re Doing Tequila Wrong
Photographer: Chantal Martineau/Courtesy Chicago Review Press

An horno loaded with agave.

How has the product itself changed?

Until the '50s, all tequila was 100% agave. But the growing demand for tequila and agave caused shortages, so the brands reduced the legal amount of agave that had to be included. Whatever the first and worst experience you’ve had with tequila that resulted in a hangover, that you had to take with salt and lime, was probably not with 100% agave tequila. It was probably a "mixto." The industry doesn’t really like that word, but it’s only 51% agave. The rest is from unnamed "other sugars" that could be derived from corn or sugarcane. There is still a lot of mixto made, but there is more 100% agave tequila, to meet demand. Which is a good thing, most purists would agree.

It's ironic, because a lot of those brands that are especially aimed at the American palate end up being less agave-forward, more vodka-fied, really soft and delicate. Oftentimes that effect is achieved through cooking in an autoclave [a pressure cooker that can speed up the cooking process compared to traditional hornos, or ovens] or other modern technologies. As demand for tequila grew, production had to be automated, so you see new technologies, like the autoclaves. There’s even a machine as big as a train called a diffuser that processes agave raw and allows you to skip the whole cooking part of the process. 

Hey, Gringos, You’re Doing Tequila Wrong

Agave roasting in a conical pit.

What do you see as the most common misconceptions about tequila?

I still come across people all the time who tell me they can’t drink tequila because of that first time they had it and they got really drunk and it made them very sick. Or that tequila causes a certain kind of drunkenness. A lot of people still don’t know that it can be a sipping spirit that you can drink on its own, or that you might drink it with food and it shouldn’t be taken with salt and lime. 

We’ve watched consolidation and monopolies take hold in many parts of the food industry, from chicken to booze. What does that look like in the tequila industry?

Consolidation is really across the whole spirits industry. The big corporations, the Diageos and Pernod Ricards, are snapping up all the small brands across all categories and they have to have at least one tequila in their portfolio because it has grown so much, especially in the super-premium echelon. Since 2002, the tequila category as a whole has grown 106%, but for the super-premium part of the category it’s 652%.

The consolidation issue becomes a little thorny with tequila in particular because it’s an iconic Mexican spirit and very few of the big brands are still Mexican-owned. They’re American or European entities. Plus, the way the tequila industry is structured, there are only a little more than 150 distilleries that make tequila, mostly in Jalisco, but you have around 1,700 brands. So when a celebrity comes out with a new tequila brand, that might be the first time you see it, but chances are you’ve already had tequila from that distillery, just from a different brand.

Hey, Gringos, You’re Doing Tequila Wrong
Photographer: Chantal Martineau/Courtesy Chicago Review Press

A mezcalero verifies the proof of his spirit using a venencia.

When we think about monocultures, we often think of row crops like corn and soy. But tequila is also a product of monocultures. How did that happen, and what does it mean for the industry?

There are still producers today who are old enough to remember a time when tequila was made with up to a few dozen or more different varieties of agave. Today, legally, tequila must only be made from blue agave. What happened was those big families—the Cuervos, Sauzas, etc.—decided that they should focus on just one variety of agave and that was the blue agave. Not because it’s the best, though that’s often what we’re told today, but because agave is a very difficult plant to farm, and of all the varieties this one is the least difficult. It has high yields, is the most prolific.

The problem comes with how it’s farmed in the tequila industry. In a nutshell, agave can be propagated in one of two ways, sexually or asexually. Almost every single producer in tequila country propagates the plants asexually, which means that essentially the plants are becoming inbred, and over time the problem arises of a lack of biodiversity. So the plant is going to lose its genetic robustness and its ability to fight pests and disease. And then throw in climate change and extreme weather and all the general variables that every farmer has to deal with, multiply it by seven because it takes an average of seven years to reach maturity, and yeah, it’s a pretty risky endeavor farming agave.

Many products protected by appellations of origin are more lucrative for the people who make them. Why don't tequila producers benefit in the same way the people who make Colombian coffee or Comté cheese do?

Each appellation is self-governed, so each will devise the rules of how the product should be made. In most cases, the body that governs the appellation is made up of the people that make it, generally the farmers. In tequila, small brand owners complain that the people who run the appellation tend to be executives.

The way the regulations for tequila were designed, it was restricted geographically—although even that was expanded—and all the tests set for the finished product. But there were no rules to say how it should be made. There was nothing protecting cooking methods, traditional farming methods, traditional fermentation methods. There was also nothing to protect who could own tequila brands. And so, as demand grew, you had all these new technologies come in and all these foreign entities buying up whatever brands they want in most cases.

Hey, Gringos, You’re Doing Tequila Wrong
Prize agaves at El Día del Magueyero.
Photographer: Chantal Martineau/Courtesy Chicago Review Press

Back to the original question and the name of the book. Why do you say “stole”? What makes it an exploitation story?

That history is old and came before tequila ever was tequila, when the Spanish families came in and built haciendas and basically took over production. But it’s an issue because of this new booming category we have of mezcal. Everyone is very aware of what could go wrong, and even though they’re not necessarily getting everything right, they are taking great care to at least discuss and open the conversation up around the regulations on the denominations of origin and how to make sure it doesn’t become this mass-market product.

To contact the author of this story: Deena Shanker in New York at dshanker@bloomberg.net.