What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of tequila? If you said “late nights” or “bad decisions,” you’re not alone.
Thanks to its codified bar rituals (lick of salt, shot of tequila, squirt of lime) and affiliation with hedonistic pop-culture icons like Hunter S. Thompson (“We had tow bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid…and also a quart of tequila”), the distilled agave spirit has struggled to shake its sinister reputation.
But not everyone is willing to write it off as a throw-away spirit reserved for pancho-sporting bros—especially Chantal Martineau, the author of How The Gringos Stole Tequila, who spent five years traveling to the heart of Mexico’s tequila territory, Jalisco, and outlying areas.
“Wines can taste of their place, which the French call terroir. The first time I had a proper tequila tasting, it became evident that tequila could communicate that as well,” says the author. “The perception of tequila is beginning to change drastically.”
Martineau explains that seven out of ten liters of tequila are consumed abroad, while 80 percent of those exports are consumed by the U.S.—meaning not only do Americans drink much more tequila than Mexicans do, but we’ve also had a huge impact on how it’s perceived. “We reinvented how it should be consumed and developed our own traditions,” says Martineau.
While much of what we drink is considered mixto—a formula of tequila diluted with sugarcane and corn-based distillates—a new breed of informed bartenders and advocates is championing the merits of super-premium, 100-percent agave tequila (which has seen sales growth exceeding 400 percent in the last decade).
To shed light on this misunderstood drink—and discover how the American market impacted its development—we asked Martineau break down some of the prevailing myths about tequila.
The margarita is a Mexican tradition.
Martineau says: “The margarita is an American way of consuming tequila. In Mexico it’s usually taken neat, served with sangrita, which is a tomato- and fruit juice-based, non-alcoholic drink. Each is served in a tiny glass, but you don’t down them; you sip one after the other. The sangrita’s acidity and spice are meant to bring out the spice and acidity in the tequila. There are several myths about who invented the margarita. The story I like involves a bartender in Mexico who instead of making a daisy (which would have been made with either gin or cognac, lemon juice, and orange cordial), he substituted tequila. In the ‘70s a Dallas restaurateur came up with the frozen margarita machine, which he fashioned out of a soft-serve apparatus. It would go on to become a staple in the Tex-Mex culinary tradition.” (Photo: Facebook/Acapulco)
Aged tequila is better quality.
Martineau says: “Personally, I disagree. I gravitate towards blanco, which is unaged. It’s a purer expression of the tequila. When you are putting it in a barrel, it modifies its true essence. There’s this gung-ho zeal for aging spirits in the U.S., but aged tequila was really a recent invention to appeal to the U.S. market since it’s primarily a brown-spirits market. Some producers wanted to just add caramel, while others wanted to age it properly. Now reposado, which is slightly aged, makes up 80 percent of the tequila consumed in Mexico. Cuervo says their 1800 brand is an homage to the year they first started aging their tequila, but I don’t buy it. The first reposado came out in 1974; other brands had experimented with aging before that, but it wasn’t popular in Mexico until reposado emerged on to the market.” (Photo: Facebook/ Patrón Tequila)
Tequila can be made anywhere agave grows.
Martineau says: “Tequila has to be made in Mexico—more specifically, a delineated part of Mexico that is centered in the state of Jalisco in central Mexico. Agave grows in the U.S. too— there are actually more than 200 varieties that bloom in different climates around world, but the majority are native to Mexico. You can only make tequila out of blue Weber agave, and it has to grow in one of five states. There are blue agave spirits made outside of the area, but you can’t legally call it tequila; and frankly they’ll taste different. The soil and climate—similar to the concept of terroir—really affects the flavor of the final product. (Photo: Chantal Martineau)
Tequila is the national spirit in Mexico.
Martineau says: “That’s a myth given that mezcal has an even longer history, and more tequila is consumed by non-Mexicans than by Mexicans. There was time when mezcal would’ve been known as mezcal de Tequila, as in, mezcal from the town of Tequila. Over time, it became its own category due to several factors. First, the proximity to Guadalajara (a rich city adjacent to silver mines). It was a colonial city made by the Spanish for the Spanish, transforming into a major cultural and economic center in Mexico that provided a ready clientele for tequila-makers. Tequila’s popularity increased even more once it was introduced to the U.S. We think of it as the national spirit, but it’s only from one small part of Mexico. Mezcal is much older than tequila as we know it; it’s been made in Mexico for 500 years. There are certain researchers who have found evidence in the form of artifacts that suggests mezcal was being made in Mexico before the Spanish even arrived. And especially in places like Mexico City, where there is a trend to embrace pre-Hispanic culture, drinks like sotol, raicilla, and pulque are garnering more interest than ever before.” (Photo: Flickr/Christian Frausto Bernal)
All tequila tastes the same.
Martineau says: “Most people who get into tequila become quickly familiar with the Highlands and the Valley. These are two main regions in Jalisco. In the Highlands, the fields were planted there a 100 years after the Valley, so the soils are not as eroded. A lot of people think they produce better tequila. The Valley, on the other hand, has higher temperatures and more rainfall; it’s associated with a dryer style of tequila. The soils are kind of ash-colored; in Highlands, the soils are iron-rich and very red, which produces sweeter and fruitier tequilas. Because it’s cooler and dryer in the Highlands, the agave matures over a longer period. The piñas (the pineapple-like core of the agave plant), therefore, have a higher sugar level because they get bigger.” (Photo: Chantal Martineau)
You should drink tequila out of a shot glass.
Martineau says: “You get the best experience out of a white-wine glass, or anything where there’s enough room between the liquid and your face so you can pick up the aromatics. Tequila is all about aromatics if you want to really appreciate it. With a shot glass, there is nothing to help direct those aromas. Riedel is an Austrian stemware company that, with a team of tequila experts, came up with the official tequila glass. It looks like a short champagne flute and is great for directing those aromatics.” (Photo: Amazon)
Agave is a cactus.
Martineau says: “Agave, which is not a cactus but more closely related to asparagus, is an amazing plant that can take a decade to mature. Unlike grapes for wine production, once it’s harvested it dies, so farming it is very labor-intensive. The agave market fluctuates like that of gold or oil. Some of the sustainability issues facing the tequila industry are tied to the vast monoculture of blue agave. Generations ago, other agave varieties were included in tequila production, providing biodiversity to the crop. Mezcal offers more biodiversity and range in flavor, which is why many people who get into tequila end up gravitating toward mezcal.” (Photo: Chantal Martineau)