A FEW MONTHS AGO, before I’d read How the Gringos Stole Tequila, a friend invited me to a pop-up bar in Historic Filipinotown for a tasting of “illegal mezcal.” So risqué. How could I refuse? The mezcal turned out to be spicy, inviting, and a little cloudy. But it was far from illegal. It was “Illegal.” That’s the brand name.
My friend and I got suckered by, and the brand played off of, one of the multitude of misconceptions, assumptions, and other-izing stereotypes surrounding America’s trendiest liquor. The first misconception is that mezcal and tequila are the same. As Martineau exhaustively describes, they are related, but only loosely. The worm is a gimmick. So is Cinco de Mayo. And so is much else of tequila culture.
Martineau begins with a protestation. She acknowledges that most American readers will know tequila primarily as the bite in your margarita, the shot in someone’s belly button, and, almost inevitably, the nightmare that precedes the worst hangover you’ve ever had. Martineau intimates that even she, a prolific food journalist, indulged in those spring break rites. Indeed, there may be no more juvenile drink than mass-market tequila. The nuances that mark the growing segment of “good” tequila are exhaustively described.
Among chapters covering culture, landscape, labor practices, copyrights, and government regulation, Martineau brings up ever more variables that separate the production (if not necessarily the flavor) of mediocre tequila from that which is truly artisanal and, we hope, delicious. The tequila-making process offers enough opportunities to employ authentic production methods to make any mixologist’s heart race.
Tequila derives from the Weber blue agave plant, a menacing relative of the Joshua tree and, more distantly, the asparagus. Its spikes, longer and thicker than an arm, radiate out from a central core that, once declawed, looks like a hypertrophied pineapple. Hence its name, the piña. The piña contains the fibers and sugars that are cooked down, fermented, and distilled to become tequila. Tequila’s three major subsets are blanco, reposado, and añejo, referring roughly to the amount of time they have aged and, in añejo’s case, whether they did so in wooden barrels that, like those that house bourbon, lend some of their color and flavor to the liquor (or “hooch” as Martineau gratingly refers to it on several occasions). She describes in tender detail the process of “gentl[y] pressing” a batch of wild piñas with a tahona and then baking it in a brick oven, and distilling it a single time for maximum character. Another more common technique involves shredding a pile of plantation-grown piñas, steaming them to death in a diffuser — “monstrous, tubular machines [that] loom large as locomotives ” — and mixing them with corn and god-knows-what-else.
Why is this grade-school recitation necessary? Because virtually none of the millions of people who consume an estimated $2.2 billion worth of tequila annually in the United States — up from less than $900 million in 2003 — have any idea what they are drinking. And tequila, by Martineau’s reckoning, is far more complex and varied than are its familiar compatriots. The brown goods — the whiskeys, bourbons, ryes — have their rules and their levels of quality. But they are also commodities. They get their sugars from grains, bought in bulk and blended largely how the distiller sees fit. They get much of their flavor not from their components but from their containers, oak casks and so forth. Vodka derives from potatoes, perhaps the most featureless of all the vegetables. Its highest calling is not flavor but purity. Hence, quintuple distilling.
(Here’s a fun fact: unlike every other spirit, tequila flips its heads and its tails, with ethanol coming out first and methanol following the drinkable middle in the process of distillation.)
Martineau argues convincingly that good tequila resembles wine more than it does its fellow liquors. She writes of agave plantations as if they are vineyards, with variations in climate, slope, soil, and moisture resulting in variations in the plants that are, in turn, discernible in the distilled product. She co-opts the precious French word terroir and applies it to her subject with no intended loss of dignity. She argues that “tequila and mezcal are arguably the most terroir-driven spirits out there: they’re made from an indigenous raw material that is native and unique to Mexico.” The entire production process takes place not merely within Mexico’s borders but also, sometimes, within spitting distance of the land that grew the agave. Once bottled, of course, 80 percent of commercialized tequila ends up in the United States.
Legally, tequila’s territory covers five states in central Mexico, the most important one being Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located. The tequila appellation is protected by law, requiring that anything calling itself tequila be grown in those states and, further, that it predominantly contain blue agave. Guadalajara, Mexico’s third-largest city, is the unofficial capital of the tequila region. A menacing bureaucracy called the Consejo Regulador del Tequila enforces rules governing the cultivation of agave and production of tequila, such that, “The spirit may very well be the most regulated in the world.” Some of those regulations have favored artisanal producers; others, not so much. To protect them, a mission that Martineau eagerly endorses, an independent watchdog group called the Tequila Interchange Project has recently arisen.
Tequila can be great, but it’s Bud Light compared to mezcal.
Mezcal (properly spelled with a z, not an s) is the surprise hero of How the Gringos Stole Tequila. Martineau describes it not only as a wonderful, complex liquor in its own right, but also as a piece of culture and craftsmanship. If tequila has terroir, mezcal has it in excess: “to taste tequila and mezcal side by side is to be struck by how wan tequila can be compared to the intensity and complexity of traditional mezcal.” Mezcal can come from any of 26 states where agave grows and from any number of its domesticated and wild varieties. The mezcal trade is, in some ways, the inverse of the tequila industry: Martineau reports that 150 or so distillers make the vast majority of Mexico’s 1600 tequila brands; by contrast, “More than nine thousand [mezcal] producers exist. Yet there are only a few hundred brands.” The Mexican government has, at times, tried to make it illegal (or semi-illegal) in order to support the big money of the tequila industry, but mezcal continues on, to Martineau’s delight. Indeed, it may outlive tequila. Biologists have concerns about over-reliance on the Weber blue, as they do with the Cavendish banana, lest a blight wipes out the entire crop.
Martineau briefly discusses pulque, a milkier version of mezcal that was drunk by the Aztecs and has recently resurged among fashionable youth of Mexico City (otherwise known as D.F., as she needlessly explains). She doesn’t dwell on it other than to point out how subcultures in Mexico align themselves according to their chosen form of agave. It’s all the better, since pulque sounds disgusting. Nonetheless, it carries a certain “subversive image […] as anti-colonial protest or preservationist activism.”
Like many of Martineau’s other subplots, the relationship between tequila and mezcal comes up early and weaves through many chapters such that it’s hard to tell which one she’s really writing about and which one we’re supposed to root for. In truth, we’re supposed to root for everything short of Jose Cuervo Gold — which, at 51 percent blue agave, barely meets the legal qualifications. Tequilas come in hundreds of labels (though different labels often come from the same distilleries), and mezcales come in thousands more. She writes mostly approvingly of Patrón, the first premium tequila. Casa Dragones, not so much. Founded by MTV founder Bob Pittman and sold for upward of $250 a bottle, Casa Dragones uses a diffuser and trades more on its expensive crystal bottle than on its drinkability. But it does have celebrity endorsements. They date back at least to Bing Crosby’s discovery of Herradura. Diddy, Clooney, and Oprah have followed his lead.
Martineau also explains the origins of the United States’s favorite tequila cocktail. In the first half of the 20th century, a cloying and now unfashionable class of cocktails called “daisies” appropriated the major liquors. The concoction — citrus juice plus citrus liqueur — found its apotheosis in tequila, which was bracing and inconsistent enough to require cloying accompaniment. “Daisy” is “margarita” in English. In the 1970s, Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez found inspiration in a Slurpee machine. For these reasons, Martineau writes, “(though) tequila must be made in Mexico […] much of its image is crafted in the United States.”
As her provocative — if not fully realized — title implies, Martineau is also getting at the politics of tequila. As long as agaves grow in Jalisco, American can never fully “steal” tequila. Even so, that amber liquor holds up a pretty clear mirror to the United States’s attitude toward its neighbor to the south, which is beloved as much as it is mocked. Or, perhaps, beloved because it is mocked.
Throughout her culinary account of tequila, Martineau weaves a story of the relationship between the two cultures. Her parallels to wine are apt. Americans celebrate French wine in part because it connotes sophistication. Americans drink tequila in part because it connotes rebelliousness. It’s the highbrow rebelliousness of the bandito and “Illegal Mezcal,” and it’s the lowbrow rebelliousness — and casual racism — of sombreros, burros, and spring break. Martineau implies that, as the United States does with Mexico as a whole, so do Americans largely have their way with tequila — as both a drink and an image.
It’s a wonder that Americans love tequila so much and yet stand by in relative silence as the country itself remains impoverished, corrupt, and ravaged by the war on drugs. It’s amazing that Americans welcome their drink by the case while demonizing human beings who make the exact same journey. “Racialization got narrated through the language of tequila so that tequila became closely associated with Mexican backwardness and criminality,” writes Martineau, quoting Marie Sarita Gaytán. “Mexicans themselves took up the crude stereotype and turned it into a symbol of strength. Tequila came to be associated with the image of the rebellious charro […] A Mexican cowboy.” In other words, Americans like to take their Mexico with a chaser of toughness and machismo. Mexicans like to give it to them.
Martineau brings up the politics of tequila deliberately and earnestly, but they don’t overshadow her discussion of the drink itself. Her approach makes for some disjointed reading and some frustrating innuendo. She sometimes veers into a provocative topic but doesn’t give it her all. She jumps around, raising an idea in one chapter only to explore it fully in another chapter named for that very idea. Invariably, that chapter too veers off into other directions. In short, the book could be tighter, but, to Martineau’s credit, all the right elements are there, and all the major — and minor — questions are answered. While the average frat boy probably wouldn’t get through How the Gringos Stole Tequila, anyone else looking to understand the United States’s favorite outlaw liquor will come away with strong understanding of what it is we’re actually drinking.
Martineau does everything she can to describe the indescribable and convey her reverence not only for the flavor of the agave liquors but also for the culture that produces it. It’s difficult — and downright perplexing — to read it without the benefit of a tasting menu. “After all this talk of tequila and mezcal, you’re probably thirsty,” she writes, sympathetically. Regardless of one’s politics, How the Gringos Stole Tequila is a cruel book to read without a good pour in hand for anyone who likes a good drink. Fortunately, Martineau includes a list of her 99 favorite tequilas, with all of the provenance that you’d need to make a choice that is ethical, flavorful, and, ideally, legal. Just hold the lime. And keep those midriffs covered.
Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning and Development Report and former editor of The Planning Report.