A Taste of Place: ‘How the Gringos Stole Tequila’ by Chantal Martineau

How the Gringos Stole Tequila - Chantal Martineau
Agave field © Jesus Cervantes/Shutterstock

In How the Gringos Stole Tequila, one of the book's framing moments is when author Chantal Martineau talks of falling, for the second time, for the taste of place. At an industry showcasing of "several highland and valley tequilas side by side," she lit upon their discrete taste traits, flavorful markers of where the agave had grown; where and by whom its piña -- the desert plant’s sometimes beach-ball-size heart -- had been cooked and fermented; and how the ensuing spirit had been distilled. That day brought her back to a formative afternoon years earlier, at the Burgundy Wine School in Burgundy, France, where a lesson on the area's mythical geology amounted to the same thing as an exploration of its famous product’s flavors.

I, too, was at the Burgundy Wine School that day and while what linked me (also irrevocably, also for life) to that wine-and-earth alliance came from other moments of the trip, what secured my now years-long friendship with Martineau was a ride from a Burgundian winery to its vineyards that same week: To the delight of our host, she commandeered our three-person jeep and bore down along the limestone-rocky landscape very much as, he pointed out, the Allied liberators had triumphantly driven through the region just decades earlier. Here, I knew immediately, was a fellow food adventurer after my own heart.

Back home in New York, in the years to follow we’d charm our way into wholesale-only back rooms hung with traditionally cured meats that if not exactly illegal, were kept well below the USDA’s radar, and walk out triumphantly, swinging precious bags of wild boar cacciatorini and air-dried salami sealed with the protective white bloom brought on, Piedmonte-like, by the local Manhattan air. In the name of the perfect Saint Paddy’s Day dinner, we’d walk from a Brooklyn farmers’ market to a halal butcher to the city’s new high-end food shops in search of fresh blood, smiling at the look of horror in response each time we asked. (The answer was always no. Turns out that’s illegal in the States.) In her first home of Montreal, we’d hunt down the city’s fabled offerings of inventive game dishes and honest, land-driven wines, latent riches to be discovered in menu after menu. That she would later wander Mexico's cities and brave the country's drug cartel–ridden towns in search of tequila tales came as no surprise. Her book on that journey and the spirits it unearthed (see the giddiness-inducing 48-page guide to some of them in this book’s final pages) is finally here and I sat down with her to talk about them both.

Signature: I think it's safe to say that everything I know about tequila comes from reading your book. You talk about this in there, but by way of introduction: What first got you thinking beyond body shots of mixto (a tequila style, widely consumed, that is actually 51 percent agave, 49 percent other things like corn or sugarcane)?

Chantal Martineau: Like I mention in the book, my first experience with tequila was a typical one, involving shots, lime, and salt and a very bad hangover followed by years of abstinence. In the meantime, I became a wine lover and still am -- I'm drawn to wines that express what the French call terroir. The first time I had good tequila (a small-to-mid-size brand that makes it in old-fashioned ways that are traditional but that aren't used in the industry now because the industry has abandoned most of the old ways), I understood it could involve terroir too.

Seven out of ten liters of tequila are consumed abroad. In a nutshell, tequila was once one of the many mezcals produced around Mexico. Because it had this proximity to Guadalajara, the wealthy city built by the Spanish for the Spanish, and it had access to this market that other mezcals didn't have, it became commercialized early by the big families (Cuervo, Sauza...). It was introduced as the Mexican brandy in the late nineteenth century to Americans, who have since had a big influence on the drink. It used to be known as mezcal de Tequila then, the same way you could say champagne is sparkling wine from Champagne. Its popularity in Mexico has ebbed and flowed: During prohibition in the U.S., it became popular here, then in the forties and fifties it became a point of pride in Mexico featured in charro [Mexican cowboy] films, with nationalist flavor, and rebels. There's a lot of back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. with tequila's image. It's been long tied to Mexican identity but that relationship has changed over the years. You hear myths about it, "It'll fuck you up," "You get a different kind of high from it," and by the nineties it was a staple of spring break debauchery while in Mexico my generation's parents would never have served it at home.

The first tequila boom was mixto and frat house. Now we're in a second boom which has also gotten people in Mexico interested. Mexican politicians and celebrities talk about it. It's a point of national pride once again. Mexicans’ own perception of it over the years has seemed to be really influenced by Americans’ perceptions of it.

SIG: How did traveling in Mexico help you tell this story?

CM: It was several trips, over five years. The first ones, I didn't know yet what I was going to do with all the information, but the travel is hugely important to any story you're telling about how something is consumed locally. I can't write about a wine region until I go, either. You have to go into the bars and see how people are consuming the product locally. You have to see the landscape to understand the terroir. In the highlands the land is red and in the valley [where "tequila was most likely first produced on a commercial basis"] it’s smoke-gray and you need to see that. You need to feel how the air is different in one place, how the climate is different. There's a sustainability issue to the story, too, and the vast monoculture of blue agave has become a problem: You have to look out and see the waves and waves of blue plants to see what that means. You have to go into the cantinas to taste what they’re serving because you can bet that what they're serving at your local bar in the States isn’t what they’re serving there. And then you have to have the local cocktail. In the town of Tequila there's this place called La Capilla [the oldest cantina in Tequila, in place since the 1930s], where the old bartender makes this drink called a batanga, which is basically tequila and Coke. It's not a life-changing experience but the fact that that’s what people drink there, you have to have all that local color to understand what people are doing there. And of course I visited the brands and the distillers. You show up a couple of times and people remember you and you're not such an outsider anymore and people start to open up to you and you start to understand what they're trying to tell you.

SIG: Your description of terroir brought tears to my eyes. It’s a complicated concept that I think about a lot myself and yours is maybe the truest explanation I’ve seen, both for how humble and how beautifully written it is. How did your search for Mexico’s national spirit help your understanding of terroir in general?

CM: I've always been drawn to wines that express this sense of place that we understand as terroir. It never occurred to me until I had my first terroir tequila experience that it could express a sense of place. When people talk about terroir, they talk about soils, climate...but here the human part became more clear to me. With mezcal there’s definitely all that but then there’s also this whole aspect with both geomorphic and ethnolinguistic variables at play: From one area to the other the agave will be called something different so it ends up looking and tasting and being different and it almost becomes a whole new thing from place to place. It’s almost hard to talk about without doing it in this esoteric touchy-feely way, but it’s what ties a product to not just a geographical place but to the people in that place, their ancestors. When you talk about wine, you talk about monks, which is as far as people go back, but when you're talking about agave, people have been consuming it for 11,000 years. You keep an eye on the plants for ten, twenty-five, thirty years -- you don't take care of them because nature’s doing that -- then you harvest them and you try to pull from them the purest form of what nature gave you with this plant.

SIG: You talk about how part of tequila’s most recent history concerns a meeting of the minds of "the most influential bartenders in the U.S. and the most influential professors in Mexico." Can you tell me more about this "cadre of academics studying agave spirits" and the Tequila Interchange Project?

CM: That definitely drove a lot of my research. When I went in search of tequila’s roots, I wasn't expecting to find this cadre. It's tied to a wide movement of young educated professionals who are reclaiming pride in their pre-Hispanic culture which is why in places like Mexico City, the cool bars are serving mezcal instead of tequila because it's seen as an uncorrupted agave spirit. Some of them came to this study because they were studying agave. One was studying henequen [agave], which was used in the textiles industry. It was considered green gold then, then when DuPont developed nylon, this industry completely died so it was a natural scholarship shift to tequila as another industry that uses agave, also, as a commoditized species.

David Suro-Piñera [owner of Philadelphia’s Los Catrines Tequilas and born and raised in Guadalajara] who founded the Siembra Azul Tequila brand, started the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) because he was concerned over the ecological and cultural threat. Being a restaurateur, he knew that one place to change a person’s perception is through the place they consume the product, so he started an alliance between these scholars and bars and restaurants as a way for people to ask questions about the food and drink they're having.

TIP organizes trips for scholars and bartenders to explore more unknown parts of Mexico [where agave spirits are being produced]. The scholars tend to be impressed by how much the bartenders want to learn. I call some of them agave activists because they’ve become such disciples of this research, which ranges from ethnobotanical to anthropological to sociological. Often, whatever the bartenders have left to the side in order to become bartenders comes up again. For one guy, it was international conflict resolution. They seem to say, I'm not just serving drinks, I'm also dispensing information and I'm also involved in a bigger issue that affects people with lives in a country that has economic problems and maybe the little bit that I do can makes someone's life better. You can tell they're excited about being part of a grassroots program, about being the filter between what you see in ads and on TV and what’s really happening in the industry, in the distilleries, and in the fields.

SIG: In this story about tequila being shaped by mutually influential American and Mexican attitudes toward the spirit, I see also an ongoing relationship between tequila and mezcal. Can you elaborate on that, or correct it?

CM: Yes, you can say that tequila has more brands than producers and for mezcal the reverse is true: Only 8 states (but 9,000 producers) are represented by the mezcal appellation and the others are so small that they haven't even organized. Most traditional producers are so small-batch they would have trouble meeting ongoing demand on their own so a few tend to collaborate or be recruited under a single brand. Actually the biggest distiller in Mexico isn't a tequila distiller, it's a mezcal distillery, but the vast majority are tiny. So most people who make mezcal can't have their own brand, they have to contribute to another brand. There is a handful of tequila producers who see the growing interest in mezcal as influencing tequila, in the sense that they can be higher proof, rejecting the 80-proof [tequila] standard, which suggests that they are thinking about their product, thinking about its taste, not just adding the same amount of water that everyone adds. They’re thinking about terroir even if it's much more limited because you can only use one variety of agave. There is one [tequila] producer who is bottling according to the plots the plant came from, who is labeling it with its vintages.

SIG: Would you say that mezcal is the answer to tequila’s diversification/monocultural problem?

CM: Yes and no. There are certain members of the agave advocacy movement who say that there should be more than one type of agave allowed in tequila, that if you're going to allow sugar cane that might not even be from Mexico, why not allow Mexican agave, which was allowed many years ago. Before those rules were put in place, you would have had what in wine is called a field blend [of agave types].

But realistically I don't think the tequila industry would ever allow this because now you have "100 percent blue agave" right on the label, it's like a brand now. It's double-edged: On the one hand, yes it’s more authentic, it's closer to what tequila was. On the other hand, it's increased demand for tequila and for agave, which is incredibly volatile so it makes it very difficult for all the small farmers to compete. So you have competition between the big American-owned businesses now and it's really only the large agribusinesses that can compete with farming agave -- it takes seven years for the plant to reach maturity. The problem is exacerbated because there have been several major plagues, and certain researchers attribute these epidemics, in part, to lack of biodiversity. Other than adding agave varieties, I don’t know. It's tricky because the way most people see it now is how can the mezcal industry not become the tequila industry: The tequila industry is a cautionary tale like the monster stories they tell their kids at bedtime.

The mezcal appellation was originally designed based on the tequila appellation, twenty years later in 1994, mezcal got its own appellation. They've been discussing it so that first of all you wouldn't be allowed to have any mixto; they've discussed different tiers of mezcal: mezcal, artisanal, and ancestral. I think it's very important to these people to move away from the tequila model. It's the main difference between how the tequila appellation was designed and how mezcal was defined: to protect small producers of culturally significant products, to protect the people, to protect the land. The tequila application was made by one company, a big brand -- the smallest producers of mezcal are looking to avoid that.