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.”