Let's get something straight.
Shooting tequila with salt and lemon 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 honour those brave Mexican soldiers, try sipping the good stuff, either 100 per cent agave tequila or mezcal, she says. Unlike the "mixto" tequilas in your cheap 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
Martineau spoke with Executive Style 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: seven out of 10 liters of tequila produced are consumed abroad.
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 recognise 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 [lemon] 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.
How has the product itself changed?
Until the '50s, all tequila was 100 per cent 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 per cent agave tequila. It was probably a "mixto." The industry doesn't really like that word, but it's only 51 per cent 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 per cent agave tequila, to meet demand. Which is a good thing, most purists would agree.
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 per cent, but for the super-premium part of the category it's 652 per cent.
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 1700 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.
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.