Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History by Gary Paul Nabhan
rating: 3 of 5 stars
It was not a riveting book, but it was interesting in parts. I think readers may learn a thing or two about how tequila and mescal (remember, all tequila is a mescal, but not all mescal is tequila) are made and the very proud history of the product. This is written by botanists and agronomists, so the book does get a bit too technical at times in details about the different plants, cultivation, land, etc. For me, these were the slow parts, but I still learned something. The chapters dealing more with the lore, culture, and history were the ones that I found interesting.
Some notes for myself from the book:
The tequila hierarchy. I actually knew this before reading the book, but it is worth noting. You have tequila blanco (white/silver. This is the one that is not aged. The one you usually use for margaritas and cocktails), tequila oro (or joven. This one is colored by things like caramel or due to seasoning in oak barrels. This one is the popular one in the U.S., usually as a mixer or for shots), reposado( can have additives, but the main thing is it is "rested" in barrels for at least two months, but less than a year usually), and añejo (the extra-aged. It can have additives, but the deal is really in the aging from 12 months up).
Many tequilas are blended. Nothing wrong with that, but there is a clear difference. By law, if it is 100% blue agave (and this means no other sugars added), it has to be labeled as such. Therefore, that bottle of Cuervo, to pick a common example, is probably a blend of different agaves, and probably has additives (often sugars. By law, it has to be 51% agave). And boy, is there a diversity of agave plants. A lot of the reason that one type is used the most is pressure from the big companies for uniformity.
I found interesting how the image of tequila has changed to become more sophisticated. For a long time, Mexico did not really embrace tequila, as other than a cheap drink. Now, it is embracing it and seeing it as an element of national pride, but it was interesting to me because in large measure this was made possible by people outside of Mexico extolling the virtues of good tequila, then Mexicans abroad discovering this and telling their folks back home. "When you now give a Mexican an aged bottle of tequila, it is a prestigious present, reaffirming his identity" (74). As noted, that was not always the case.
On another little note, according to the book, Mexican connoisseurs tend to prefer white and reposado. Americans in the US prefer the oro. But the point at the end of the day is that tequila is not just for shots anymore. A good (premium) tequila is a pleasure to sip just as a good whiskey or cognac. A very premium tequila can set you back a thousand or two thousand bucks (and worth it if you can afford it, I suppose). You do have to note also that a lot of tequila's rise in popularity has been due to very good marketing techniques such as using artisans to make pretty bottles and labels in order to evoke certain images. The result of the growth in popularity, especially for the more premium brands, is that "tequilas have now displaced whiskeys as the most frequently consumed spirit in the United States" (81). Overall, read the labels, do some research if need be, then buy accordingly.
If you want to learn more about this spirit that seems to be overtaking the United States, this is a pretty good place to start.
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