The Problem With Tequila: Mezcal May Be Endangered in Both Phoenix and Mexico

The Problem With Tequila: Mezcal May Be Endangered in Both Phoenix and Mexico
Teresa Villegas

The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now, featuring a series of essays that explore how our city's proximity to Mexico makes it better.

Before it was a plant, Agave or Agaue, as Greek mythology tells us, was a woman. Wild and drunken during a Dionysian rampage, she reveled late into the night and murdered her son when her wine-clouded vision made him appear as a monster.  She emerged from her stupor to find her son’s bloody decapitated head in her hand, repented, and withdrew into obscurity. 

This myth may have given  the man responsible for gifting Mexico’s magueys with the scientific genus of Agave a glimpse into the future chaos cheap bottles of agave’s most famous product, tequila, would cause among American college students. 

More likely, the name Agave was given for the high esteem in which plants of this species were held, with its root coming from the Greek word for noble or illustrious. Named simply metl in the native Nahuatl, commonly called maguey in spanish, agaves are representative of Mayahuel, the 400-breasted Aztec fertility goddess and mother of the gods collectively known as Centzon Totochtin, the 400 (usually drunk) rabbits. Take one wild guess at their source of intoxication.  

What does an Aztec goddess have to do with the American appetite for tequila? Has the spirit of this gift remained unchanged throughout the years since its inception? Do cities such as Phoenix, an area formerly part of Mexico and native territory to agave, more accurately understand tequila and Mexican culture? Anyone familiar with the restaurant scene in Phoenix will testify it is as likely to shell out unimaginative, stickily sweet tequila cocktails as any other city. Thankfully, this desert city possesses a group of individuals dedicated to the core to furthering the rise of and appreciation of mezcal. 

This is a story of the mestizaje, or blending, of cultures which occurred after the Spanish conquest, and the symbiotic mestizaje between Mexico and its northern neighbor.   

In pre-conquest times, Mayahuel was revered for gifting the knowledge to source food, medicine, fiber for fabrics and rope, needles, building materials, et cetera, from the agave — no part of it was wasted then or now. (Distilling giant Jose Cuervo is currently working with Ford Motor Company to explore the use of agave fibers in the production of bioplastic car parts.)

Return now to the past, when Mayahuel offered her most valuable gift: the knowledge to produce drink from agave. The piña, or heart, of the mature agave provided aguamiel: cut into at the crown and its walls scraped, the cavity would fill slowly over days with nutrient-rich sap. Aguamiel was in turn fermented to produce pulque, sweet and mildly intoxicating, considered the drink of the gods in Mesoamerica. It flowed freely during religious ceremonies and festivals, but was otherwise reserved for moderate consumption by the old, the sick, and pregnant and nursing women. If the modern reader is concerned at the thought of pregnant women consuming alcoholic beverages, it needs to be understood pulque contains approximately 4 percent alcohol, or the same as a 12-ounce bottle of Bud Light. Unlike Bud Light, its nutritional value far outweighs its alcohol content. 

The young and healthy were discouraged from guzzling this rather weak alcoholic beverage in excess, and public drunkenness was severely punished. A first offense of public intoxication in the Aztec empire brought a punishment of public shaming through shaving of the head. A second offense brought a much more dramatic punishment: their home razed to the ground, barred from holding a paying job, or even hanged until dead. The Spanish conquest brought the shameless Spanish attitude towards casual drunkenness along with it, making the Mesoamerican ideals of moderate alcohol consumption nearly impossible to maintain. The conquest also brought the methods to produce ferments of much higher strength than were known on the American continent at the time.  

Modern day consumption of pulque is a fraction of what it was in pre-conquest times. Highly perishable, even with refrigeration, it lasts only for days, leaving its consumption limited to a short distance from where it was produced. Canned versions of pasteurized pulque are available in the Mexican and American markets, but enjoy only limited success. Credit any success to nostalgia for a lost flavor of the past, or newbie curiosity, rather than taste of the product itself — a pale imitation of the real thing.

Year after year, the disappearance and death of pulque is foretold, yet it seems to survive on the pull of tradition alone. There is no other logical reason for the survival of a beverage lacking the marketability and quick intoxicating effects of easy-drinking Mexican beers and triple-distilled tequilas. 

Mexico’s tourist trade is surely partially responsible for pulque’s continuation. Visitors to the vast ancient city of Teotihuacan, 25 miles north of Mexico City, are taught of many products derived from the abundant agave growing in the surrounding valley; examples of rugs, papers and other handicrafts made locally from the plant’s fibers are on display. Three label-less bottles are produced, and tiny cups are passed around to the visitors in a specific order: sweet and clear aguamiel, milky and thick pulque, followed by the clear burn of a decidedly Mexican tequila not tailored to foreign tastes. 

It must be the combination of the high altitude of the place, the small-but-potent drink, and the steep climb up the Pyramid of the Sun which leaves the justifiably dumbfounded tourist with the impression of pulque being the first step to producing mezcal — though really, their thought is only of tequila.  

This assumption is hopelessly wrong. 

To produce mezcal, the pencas (leaves) of the agave are cut away, revealing the piña which is consequently extracted from the ground. Slowly fire-roasted for days in stone-lined pits, or dry-roasted in large stone ovens, the hard hearts soften enough to be crushed with stone wheels, extracting a sweet juice carrying the scent and flavor of the earth which nourished it and the fire which burned it. Fermented, then distilled in either clay or copper pots, the resulting clear liquid is complex, mineral-rich and smoke-infused. It warms the body from the inside out, as much from its flavor as from its strength. 

This is the way mezcal varieties have been made since approximately three decades after the Spanish conquest. Distilleries throughout Mexico follow these methods, though their resulting mezcal never leaves the country. Instead, it is informally packaged in recycled soda and water bottles and sold in nearby towns. The informality of these distilleries, being family-owned and unlicensed operations, means it is quite possible that the American public has never tasted Mexico’s best mezcal. If it must be qualified in some way, then this is the “authentic” Mexican mezcal tradition, not the latest ultra-premium reposado.   

Unfortunately for an unsuspecting public, this is not the way tequila, a victim of its own commercial success, is made. 

If the agave is the bountiful mother of all mezcals, it is a mother which spoiled one of her mestizo children, tequila, to the detriment of all others. This temperamental child, the national drink of Mexico, is an opportunist benefiting from the economic and physical ravages of war. Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain left a large gap to be filled by the interruption in importation of European spirits. The Mexican Revolution overthrew a government which brought modernity to Mexico, but was seen as a puppet to foreign powers. Tequila, and Jalisciense charro culture along with it, provided an easy symbol to latch onto for a country searching for a uniquely Mexican identity. Tequila overpowered raicilla, a mezcal it shares the state of Jalisco with, so completely that it is only now developing any form of following. Agave spirits such Sonora’s bacanora and Chihuahua’s sotol virtually disappeared from public consciousness, and tequila became Mexico’s primary spirit. 

A bottle of 100-percent blue agave tequila will include a convenient NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) registration number on the bottle. This number is a confirmation of adherence to tequila’s Denomination of Origin regulations, stringently restricting the geographic origin and source material for tequila, but not the production methods. 

To keep up with demand, as far back as the 1870s, large distillers switched from dry-roasting to the faster process of steaming the agave hearts. Without the caramelization resulting from roasting, the original flavor of tequila was changed. Newer changes are more subtle on the taste and the overall image of the end product. 

The NOM registration, unique to each distillery, leads invariably to a foreign holding company — usually American, very occasionally European. Herradura and El Jimador may still have origins in a picturesque 18th-century Jalisciense hacienda, but both are owned by the same supergiant that produces Korbel sparkling wine. Sauza, among the oldest names in tequila, has long been stepbrothers with Jim Beam. Don Julio moved to America in 1999, learned English, went British in 2014, and hasn’t looked back. This leaves the American consumer with a desire for real, Mexican-owned, 100-percent blue agave tequila reaching for a bottle of Jose Cuervo —  the last widely available large-scale manufacturer to fit the bill.  

When asked if she had any interest in producing her own boutique tequila, Phoenix-based chef Silvana Salcido Esparza put it simply: “Life is too short not to produce your own tequila. And when I do, it’s going to taste like agave cabrones.” To stand out in a field dominated by image over taste, she would be forced to resort to selling a good product. It’s a fitting attitude for the James Beard Award-nominated chef, who’s been serving the city of Phoenix Mexican cuisine and culture since 2002. Her newest restaurant, Barrio Café Gran Reserva, quickly earned a spot on various “Best Mexican Restaurants” lists. 

Esparza cites the use of secondhand American and European barrels during the aging process as further eroding the mezcal qualities of tequila. Unfortunately, it is these very alterations which produce more commercially desirable products that can retail at collectors-only prices. Gone are the mineral-burning flavors of red earth in which Agave tequilana flourish, replaced with an ultra-smooth, pale pink Bordeaux-barrel aged tequila. Can this be served the way Esparza enjoys tequila while dining out in Mexico, with “a bottle, some shot glasses, a load of limes, high-ball glasses filled with ice, and bottle of Squirt,” or must it be poured into a swan-necked decanter?   

The current trend of over-layered craft cocktails makes the actual flavor of the tequila used in them almost irrelevant. The enthusiast wants to believe what they’re drinking is authentically Mexican, even if they have never tasted it. To call this cultural appropriation is to give those drinks more value than is deserved. Call it instead a disconnect fed out of misunderstanding of the culture which created the original product. In Esparza’s opinion, “When you respect a culture, you taste food differently. That’s when you can really appreciate the complexity of a product of origin.”

Food and travel writer Christina Barrueta, also based in Phoenix, credits Eric Flatt, co-owner of Tonto Bar and Grill, and his personal enthusiasm for mezcal for helping spread its popularity in the Valley of the Sun. Located in Cave Creek, the cowboy-chic northern suburb of Phoenix, the bar offers bacanora margaritas on the regular menu, a rarity of a cocktail anywhere in the country. As Barrueta points out, it is “one of the few places to serve the traditional mezcal accompaniment of orange slices and sal de gusano.”

This points to the marked difference in the way tequila is understood in the two countries. Yana Volfson, beverage director for Enrique Olvera’s New York City and Mexico City restaurants, Cosme and Pujol, gives a simple explanation for this: The unfortunate reality of tequila — and mezcal in general — in Mexico is of it having been considered the poor man’s drink until fairly recently. Worse yet, it was the drink of the campesino, the poor peasant farmer. Along with cheap sugarcane aguardiente, it was embraced mainly by those not able to afford a more refined drink, such as brandy or cognac.  

High-end tequila may have been embraced by Mexico’s modern urban masses, but an unorthodox way of thinking of it has not. Interestingly enough, as Volfson indicates, it is precisely this traditional way of thinking about alcohol which has brought ingenuity to Mexico City’s bar scene. As cocktail culture is a new arrival in Mexico, the basic tools of the trade of the American bartender — specialty bitters, syrups, and tonics — are not easily available. Instead, each bar produces these flavoring agents to suit their needs. To taste a craft tequila cocktail in Mexico City is to taste innovation from scratch.     

When designing the cocktail program for Cosme, Volfson had to carefully consider the limited supply of bacanora and sotol before creating a cocktail with them, as well as current tastes in cocktails in New York City. With a cocktail list not 100 percent focused on agave, their absence is hardly noticed. Still, they are available by the glass for those seeking them.

In her selections, she’s concerned with the ethical questions involved in choosing a mezcal. Every bottle represents a long line of interests at times at odds with each other. The brand seeks to expand into new markets, increase the profile of the product, and appeal to new customers. 

The mezcalero is confronted with changes in tastes as well as creating a product with greater mass-market appeal. The farmer faces a wait of years before having a plant mature enough to harvest, seven to 12 in the case of blue agave. In the last two decades, blue agave farmers have been put through a wild ride of over-farming, over-abundance, disease-stricken plants, and dramatic increases and drops in the price per pound of their harvest. With another predicted shortage of blue agave in the second half of this decade, just as tequila is making headway in the vast Chinese market, prices for raw product are once again expected to rise. 

The city of San Francisco may normally be at the forefront of culinary trends (think expensive artisanal toast, coffee with a higher pedigree than an award-winning show dog, and uni everything), but at Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara’s first U.S. restaurant, Cala, no one is asking for the sotol and bacanora available from the bar. 

Again, the lack of large-volume availability keeps Marsilio Gabuardi, Cala’s bar manager, from developing a cocktail around these mezcals. When the national trend is focused on the expensive craft cocktail, a virtually unknown spirit becomes nearly invisible unless someone shines the spotlight on it. Bon Appétit magazine branded bacanora as tequila’s friendlier cousin back in July 2015. San Francisco clearly didn’t get that memo. Interestingly enough, bacanora and sotol may not make a ripple in the Bay Area’s current fads, but pulque produced in Oakland by a single Mexican octogenarian has been making its way into sold-out pop-ups around the city. 

Back in Phoenix, both Barrueta and Esparza are encouraged by the growing popularity of still-obscure mezcal varieties in Phoenix, though the latter with the same degree of caution as Cosme’s Volfson, concerned they will gain enough ground to drive them into irresponsible overproduction. Southern Mexican mezcal is dangerously close to this point, having been adopted as the American continent’s answer to expensive peat-heavy Islay Scotch. 

Longtime Phoenix-area bartender and current “spirit guide” at CaskWerks Distilling Co. in Tempe Travis Nass calls the comparison “about as good as you can get. But … it seems kind of sad to reduce them both to being smoky.” With a touch of a romanticism, he describes mezcal as “a campfire in the high desert.” The smoke may be a starting point with the salted taste of hot sand and crackling, flowing flames pushed about by the dry desert wind, but as in a campfire, the smoke vanishes while the heat lingers. 

It was Nass who introduced Barrueta to bacanora during his stints at Rancho Pinot, chef Chrysa Robertson’s classic Southwest-inspired Scottsdale restaurant. At Lon’s at the Hermosa, he piqued her interest in sotol with an herbaceous aloe-spiked cocktail. She was hardly the only one to be steered in the direction of these liquors. Nass is not a man to simply mix a cocktail — he is a guide. 

It was a long journey that took mezcal from being the drink of the campesino to American obsession. The transfer of ownership of its means of production, from Mexican to American hands, is unfortunate but irrelevant in this journey. The responsibility for sustaining all aspects of mezcal production, at the artisanal and industrial level, lies firmly in Mexican soil. 

This responsibility needs to take a less muddled form than the recently passed NOM 199, a law restricting the use of the name mezcal to Denomination of Origin-protected varieties. All others must be called aguardiente de agave. This Mexican law affecting Mexican-made products, a law pushed for by the giants of the tequila and beer industries, created a maelstrom of backlash from American mezcal enthusiasts. 

From the beginning, the law was unclear as to whom or what it protected, with the exception of the very products making their way to American consumers — the 100-percent blue agave tequila and the small-batch Oaxacan mezcal distilled from wild harvested espadin agave. Op-eds and blog posts were dedicated to analyzing Mexican constitutional law, decrying the destruction of Mexican tradition, urging mezcal lovers everywhere to mobilize in opposition. 

Why the concern? “Mezcal is booming because of its authenticity and diversity, because it is directly linked to centuries-old traditions. The consumer craves that connection,” wrote Max Garrone, one of NOM 199’s detractors, on the mezcalistas.com website. He goes on to say the law is “the theft of native knowledge and tradition for the benefit of big business.” Of course it is — American big business and the American consumer. 

Unintentionally, by removing the name of mezcal from non-Denomination of Origin distillates, the law may protect them from foreign exploitation by maintaining their obscurity and regional character. 

The law is unnecessary, useless, and a symptom of the unfortunate reality of Mexico. To this day, Mexico is like a colony with a foreign power firmly in control of its harvests. Unless this reality changes, unless the opportunity to help promote the sustainable and Mexican-owned growth of sotol, bacanora, and raicilla arises, those bottles will hold nothing more than the imitation of tradition. The opportunity is still there. 

Minerva Orduño Rincón was born in the state of Sonora, in northern Mexico. She is an occasional Arizona resident, chef, and food writer. She’s writing her first cookbook, on Mexican food for kids.


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