How Tequila Went From Mexican Farms to American Frats

A tale of culture and capitalism

A worker checks the quality of tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco. (Daniel Aguilar / Reuters)

On a dazzling March day, Carlos Camarena walked out into his fields in the highlands of Jalisco in western Mexico. His team of a dozen or so workers included men of all ages, from handsome 20-somethings to weathered grandfathers. They wielded long-handled hoes called coas to slice thorny leaves off large, aloe-shaped plants, which grew in rows like craggy vineyards. As the leaves fell heavily to the burnt-orange soil, the plant’s heart revealed itself: a gargantuan pineapple-like mass called a piña—the part of agave that gets cooked and mashed, fermented and distilled into tequila.

A perennial succulent often mistaken for cactus, agave was deemed sacred by the Aztecs in pre-Columbian times. It was used for food and shelter, its flesh eaten and leaves dried and woven into clothing, floor mats, and thatch roofs. Long before agave was ever distilled, it was fermented into a kind of beer imbibed during religious ceremonies as a way to communicate with the gods. Distillation of agave dates to the 17th century; today, agave distillates, or mescals, are made in 26 of Mexico’s 31 states. Most producers today are small family operations distilling whatever agave grows wild in their part of the country and distributing it to their local community.

Distilled in and around the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, tequila was once just another mescal. But “mescal de Tequila,” as it was originally known, has come to outshine Mexico’s other agave spirits.

Today, tequila is a global industry worth more than a billion dollars; seven out of every 10 liters produced in Mexico are exported abroad. The biggest market is the United States, which swallows some 80 percent of exports. American celebrities like George Clooney and Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs back luxury brands of the drink, while cheaper versions help fuel spring-break debauchery. How did tequila achieve such success? And what does that success mean for the land and communities that produce the liquor?

The tequila industry owes its early success in part to geography. The large colonial city of Guadalajara offered nearby Tequila a big local market for its mescal that other varieties didn’t enjoy. Backed by wealthy Spanish-descended families, the liquor also found an export market when it was introduced to Americans at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Its popularity north of the border grew over the next century. During Prohibition, tequila was smuggled into the United States from Mexico; in the 1950s, it was the one-word refrain in a hit song by The Champs. By the time Jimmy Buffett was singing about “Wastin’ Away in Margaritaville” in the 1970s, tequila was widely consumed in the U.S.

Despite its historically hallowed status, agave––specifically blue Weber agave, the variety that must be used for tequila production––is also a commodity whose price fluctuates like that of oil or gold. It’s expensive, laborious, and time-consuming to farm. The plant takes on average seven years to reach maturity. Unlike grapes, which can be harvested annually for wine production, an agave plant dies when reaped, so another must be raised in its stead.

Blue agave in particular has been subject to a seemingly inescapable cycle of gluts and shortages over the last century. The last big crisis came at the turn of this century, when bad weather coupled with an outbreak of a fungal infection caused a devastating shortage in Mexico. The crop’s price per kilo jumped more than 1,000 percent on average between 1998 and 2000, crippling many small farmers and tequila producers. The landscape in tequila country is full of beautiful blue waves, but this vast monoculture reduces the plants’ ability to develop natural defenses against the spread of pests and disease. The plants all share the same weaknesses.

Patricia Colunga, an ethnobotanist at the Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán who, in her words, studies “the relationship between humans and plants,” told me that high demand for blue agave threatens to displace Mexico’s traditional agricultural systems, since large agribusinesses are better equipped to weather the volatile agave market. Colunga identified a triple threat to smaller producers: “uninformed consumers, a greedy spirits industry, and a Mexican government not committed to [preserving] our bio-cultural heritage.”

Given the challenges of farming agave, the tequila consumed in American bars and frat houses with a lick of salt, a wedge of lime, and a healthy dose of bravado was for decades almost exclusively mixto—51 percent agave distillate blended with other ingredients like sugar cane or corn. “Good” tequila tends to be made from 100 percent blue agave, but making nearly half a bottle of tequila from something other than agave allows companies to stretch their product at the expense of authenticity. (Not that authenticity is much of a sticking point—you don’t see the salt-and-lime practice in Mexico.)

But this means that the very commercial success of Mexico’s iconic drink has, to some extent, severed tequila from Mexico itself. “A large part of tequila comes from God-knows-where,” David Suro-Piñera, a Mexican-born restaurateur in Philadelphia, told me. Suro-Piñera owns his own small tequila brand, and is also the founder of the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP), an unlikely alliance of bartenders and scientists who study agave and tequila. “Corn and sugar cane from Cuba, from Venezuela, from Veracruz—and we call it tequila, that stuff? If we are so proud of the origin of tequila, we should not allow” outside ingredients. His organization acts as an industry watchdog and educator, escorting bartenders and scholars on trips to Mexico to witness firsthand how the spirit is made.

“Tequila is a victim of its own success rate right now,” said Phil Ward, the owner of an agave spirits bar in New York City and one of the founding members of TIP. “All that money [devoted to] billboards usually comes out of the quality.”

The agave plant is an investment, said Camarena, referring to the decade he waits for his piñas to reach maturity. We found respite from the unrelenting heat of the dusty fields in the cool shade of La Alteña, his nearly 80-year-old distillery. Here he showed me how the spirit is made. The agave is steamed in brick ovens and crushed using a mechanical shredder. The juices are then collected and fermented naturally in open wooden tanks, then distilled twice in copper pot stills.

Not all tequila distilleries resemble La Alteña. The biggest brands are manufactured in much larger facilities designed to produce far greater volumes. Much of the industry has stopped using brick ovens to cook agave, and the highest-capacity tequila factories now use diffusers: mammoth machines that process agave raw, using hot water and sulfuric acid to extract its sugars efficiently. Traditional production methods are disappearing, and new technologies have not only changed how the spirit is made, but also altered its flavors. Modern tequilas are milder, less agave-driven. According to many industry experts and self-proclaimed purists I interviewed, they cater to an American palate.

Such are the forces of capitalism. But the question of modernization is a thorny one when it comes to products like tequila, which is protected by law.

Legally, tequila must be made in a designated region of Mexico. The spirit is protected by a geographic indicator, an internationally recognized certification designed to ensure the authenticity of culturally significant products. In the case of other protected products, from champagne to cognac to Comté cheese, traditional production methods, some of them dating back hundreds of years, are mandatory. But by the time tequila achieved its geographic indicator, in 1974, the industry had already started replacing many of its oldest customs. As a result, stipulations about traditional cooking and crushing methods were never included in the regulations governing production. Tequila, in other words, is a spirit protected for its cultural significance, but its very culture is not what it was just a few decades ago.

Then again, perceptions of tequila have never been consistent in Mexico. A film genre that glamorized charros (Mexican cowboys) and their tequila-drinking ways in the 1940s and 1950s elevated the spirit among a certain cinema-going section of the Mexican population, while others saw the spirit as unsophisticated. But tequila’s reputation within Mexico has actually improved since the spirit has been embraced abroad—even as that very foreign demand and the mass production that comes with it, put strain on traditional tequila distilleries. Today, tequila is served in chic restaurants and lauded by celebrities and politicians, and the Tequila Trail in Jalisco is a highly publicized tourism destination.

Some Mexicans I spoke with admitted that it stings that Americans are the ones driving the consumption, and to some extent the perception, of agave spirits. I call it the Spanish conquest phenomenon,” said Silvia Philion, the co-owner of a mescal bar in Oaxaca. “We still seek validation by outsiders.”