What Most Americans Don’t Know (But Should) About Tequila

While researching her doctoral thesis on denominations of origin in France, the United States and Mexico, Sarah Bowen discovered there was much she and other Americans don’t know about the stories and figures behind the history of tequila. Now an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University, Bowen chronicled her findings in the critically acclaimed book, “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production.” Bowen’s current academic endeavors continue to focus on the relationships between food consumption/production and socioeconomic inequalities. In this Voices in Food story, as told to Joanna O’Leary, Bowen speaks about the intersection of tequila, Latinx history, women and workers rights in the food industry.

On what most Americans don’t know about tequila

I think a lot people don’t realize that tequila is a mezcal. Mezcal was historically a generic term for a distilled agave spirit, like “beer” or “wine.” Mezcals have been produced throughout Mexico, using a variety of types of agave and specific methods, for hundreds of years. Tequila was originally just “mezcal de Tequila,” the mezcal from the area around the city of Tequila, but over time, its name was shortened to just tequila.

“What is problematic about [tequila’s success story] is that the benefits associated with this success have not trickled down to the communities, farmers and workers who make tequila.”

The reason tequila is so famous is not because it is the oldest or best mezcal, but because in the late 1800s, mezcal producers in Tequila expanded and industrialized more successfully than producers in other regions. They were among the first to start crushing agave with a tahona (a stone wheel), instead of by hand, and to cook the agave in masonry ovens and distill with column stills. And mezcal producers from Tequila were also the first to protect their name. Since 1974, tequila has been protected by a “denomination of origin,” which means that only producers in the Mexican state of Jalisco (the home of Tequila) and parts of four other states have the right to use the term “tequila.”

Tequila was originally just “mezcal de Tequila,” the mezcal from the area around the city of Tequila, but over time, its name was shortened to just tequila. 

On the roles of women in the tequila and mezcal industry

Women have always been involved in tequila and mezcal production, but unfortunately many of the “heroes” of the story are men. A lot of the names on the tequila bottles and in the front of people’s minds are men’s: Jose Cuervo, Cenobio Sauza. And you look at the people on the boards of the organizations that regulate and define the industry ― the Tequila Regulatory Council and the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry ― that’s a lot of men, too. I was attending many meetings and workshops and conferences where there were only a handful of women. So there are mostly men at the literal and figurative tables. Women are a central part of these industries, but they’ve historically been less visible, but I think this is changing. Some of the most powerful voices calling for change are women’s ― people like Graciela Ángeles of Mezcal Real Minero, for example. But there definitely needs to be further change in that direction.

On the obstacles to tequila getting the respect it deserves as a spirit

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the industry made a major effort to rebrand and redefine tequila: from a lowbrow, hangover-inducing liquor into a quality spirit, something smooth and sophisticated, enjoyed by people who are in turn willing to pay higher prices. And tequila has been a great success story; production volumes have more than tripled since the mid-1990s, and super premium tequilas are the fastest-growing segment.

A jimador works the agave field in Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.

A jimador works the agave field in Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.

But what is problematic about this “quality turn” in tequila is that the benefits associated with this success have not trickled down to the communities, farmers and workers who make tequila. Tequila quality has been defined in such a way, specifically on the age of the tequila, the barrels it was aged in, and sometimes the flavors that are added, that allows the distilleries to control it, while ignoring the things that make tequila unique, like its connection to a particular place and the essential practices that are representative of that place.

On the individuals hidden in the tequila labor chain

Definitely the farmers and farmworkers. Although tequila can only be made in one region and with one type of agave ― Agave tequilana Weber, or blue agave ― the region where the agave is grown is huge and includes an entire state and parts of four other states in Mexico. Over time, the tequila companies have reduced what little power the farmers have by contracting production and sourcing their agave from across the region so they can play them off of each other.

“If you go on a tequila distillery tour, there will often be a jimador, dressed in a pristine white uniform and sandals, to demonstrate how the agave is harvested. … But these romantic images hide the low wages, deplorable working conditions and chronic health problems they suffer from.”

Agave farming is also complicated because the plant takes six to eight years to mature after being planted, and the tequila industry has struggled with cycles of surplus and shortage for decades. If a field of agave matures during a period of shortage, a farmer could become rich overnight, but there were also long periods of surplus, when farmers were letting their agave rot in the fields because the prices were so low.

The jimadores, the people who harvest the agave in the fields, are even more vulnerable and less visible within the supply chain. If you go on a tequila distillery tour, there will often be a jimador, dressed in a pristine white uniform and sandals, to demonstrate how the agave is harvested. The tours emphasize how the jimadores have traditional knowledge that allows them to select only the best agave hearts, but these romantic images hide the low wages, deplorable working conditions and chronic health problems they suffer from. They are part of the image but not represented in the power structure, and make almost nothing. And because the work is so backbreaking, jimadors cannot work for very long and often suffer from major, expensive health problems. They are not protected.

Workers loads blue agave hearts into an oven for distillation to make tequila at a factory in Amatitán, Jalisco, Mexico on Sept. 7, 2017.

Workers loads blue agave hearts into an oven for distillation to make tequila at a factory in Amatitán, Jalisco, Mexico on Sept. 7, 2017.

On what’s next for the tequila industry

When I first was doing interviews for my book 10 or more years ago, a lot of people were focused on making mezcal the “next” tequila, and scaling up as quickly as possible. That has changed. Many people now advocate that the mezcal industry needs to preserve the links to particular communities and the specific production practices that make mezcal unique.

I think the conversation is starting to change in the tequila industry too. Almost no one talked about how the agave ― where it was grown, or the specific farming practices ― influenced the taste of tequila. But now, people are talking about the terroir of the agave ― the taste of place ― and some companies offer estate-grown tequilas, where the agave comes from a certain field. I don’t know if these changes are translating to more power for the agave farmers, though.

On the responsibilities of writing about the history of tequila as a non-Latinx person

The main argument of my book and of my work in general is that the regulations that define products need to be defined by people in the communities that produce them, so this is really the important question.

To some degree, I am speaking directly to other Americans in my book. The United States is the biggest importer of mezcal and tequila, by far, and U.S. consumers and bottlers are responsible for a lot of what is happening in these industries ― sometimes good, but mostly bad. So part of what I’m trying to do in my book is talk to American consumers, which includes both Latinx and non-Latinx people based in the U.S., about how our purchasing choices and priorities have power and how we have a responsibility to push for an industry that is both more sustainable and more equitable.

Especially as an outsider who is not Mexican or Latina, in writing my book I tried hard to hear from as many people as possible and try to capture many voices: those of farmers, bottlers and small producers all over Mexico. But I also want to be clear that I don’t think my book ― nor should other people think that my book ― is telling the story of tequila. There are several great histories of tequila in English, although to really know the story, you have to also read books and articles written by Mexican scholars, in Spanish.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.