Agave sadness: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

It's easier to gain popularity at home if you first become famous abroad

Mexican tequila was invented and elevated by foreigners. Having been in the state of Jalisco, the correspondent of “Around the World” understood what the braces are held on.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

Himador in the warrior's field

Thousands of blue agaves rise in even rows on the dry red earth on the slope of an extinct volcano with the appropriate name Tequila. In the midst of this man-made, but still postcard landscape, the team of Roberto Jimenez is working. Wearing jeans, boots, and wide-brimmed hats, the himadores as Agave pickers are called in Mexico -look like a group of dismounted cowboys.

This craft in Mexico is legendary and often family-owned, so several generations go into the field at the same time: young people with careless bristles, men in the prime of life with dashing mustaches, and old men crushed by years. Each in the hands of a koa is a stick with a rounded, sharply sharpened blade at the end.

Agaves look like giant aloes with a bluish tint. The tips of the leaves are prickly (the Indians made needles from them for ritual bloodletting), the bushes themselves are huge & nbsp; – up to a person's chest. Arrow-leaves stretch agaves to the blue sky of Jalisco, as if begging for mercy from the sun, which poured them with valuable juice, for which hundreds of millions of plants go to slaughter every year.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

But the hand of the himador is ruthless: swiftly wielding the koa, the pickers cut off the heavy leaves with a crunch. Their goal is a pineapple-like and therefore called “pineapple” core weighing 35-50 kilograms. Having uprooted it and put it on his shoulder, one of the workers throws me: “It's not for you to pick grapes.” The work is not easy, but looking at the work of professionals from the outside, it does not seem so: it takes no more than two minutes to harvest one plant.

“Look, two agaves grow side by side; one is already ripe, the other is not,” Roberto shows me. Agave generally resists productivity measures; it needs 7–10 years to mature, and experiments to speed up this period with fertilizers or irrigation did not lead to anything good. The quality of tequila from such plants suffered, and the fields paid with erosion.

“Agave evolved over thousands of years not to make tequila from it! This is a wonderful machine for converting the energy of the sun into carbohydrates, and there is no need to improve it,” says Roberto, prone to pathos.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

Agave is able to reproduce both sexually and vegetatively. This botanical feature has been tried commercially. As soon as the plant threw out the peduncle, it was quickly cut off in the hope that the nectar that was not used up to attract insects would remain in the core and give more sugar, and as a result of alcohol (up to seven liters of tequila are obtained from one agave). But you can’t outwit nature: agaves grown from shoots turned out to be genetically weaker, more often sick and rotted. Speaking of plant disease, Roberto used the word “tristesa”, literally “sadness”.

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Craft tricks

Producers do not have to be sad lately: the demand for tequila is growing. It is clear that more and more agaves are required, but only the area on which they can be planted is limited. 100% tequila can only be called a product of the processing of juice from the blue agave Agave tequilana of the Weber agave variety and grown only in the state of Jalisco and some municipalities of four more states: Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas.

The Sadness of the Agave: How Tequila Became a National Treasure of Mexico

The Declaration of Protected Designation of Origin (denominación de origen protegida) was legalized in 1974. And since 1978, the number NOM (Normas Oficial Mexicana), has been put on the bottleconfirming that the drink was produced in accordance with the rules set by the CRT (Consejo Regulator del Tequila) tequila oversight board.

CRT inspectors closely monitor that no piñas are involved, imported from other states, so that sugar is not added to the agave juice during fermentation or that the distillate is not diluted with alcohol from the side. Otherwise, such tequila is labeled mixto(mixed) and is allowed to be shipped in bulk and bottled outside of Mexico, but it must also contain no more than 49% impurities.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

“In the 1970s and 1980s, cheap mixto gave American lumpen an opportunity to quickly get drunk in zuzu,” Carlos Hernandez Ramos, a tequila maker, who I stopped at the La Cofradia hacienda, told me over dinner. Those who saturate this unpretentious market mixed alcohol from corn or cane into the drink in large proportions, which could not but affect the reputation of all tequila. The demand for quality tequila has forced producers not only to comply with the CRT requirements, but also to take on additional commitments to stand out.”

Having secured awards at fairs and rising in price along the way, good tequila quickly gathered a retinue of admirers both in the domestic and foreign markets.

From the sun to the heart

The rules for the production of the national Mexican drink are set by the CRT (Consejo Regulator del Tequila) Tequila Supervisory Board

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

1. Cleaning

The agave is harvested all year round, as it ripens. The plants cut off the leaves, after which they uproot the core of the piña, which sometimes reaches a weight of 75 kg.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

2. Firing

The core cut into several parts is sent to a brick kiln, where it is kept for 72 hours at a temperature of 60–85 degrees. The process of turning complex sugars into simple ones is faster in an autoclave, where steam processing is carried out.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

3. Pressing

After giving the heads a day to cool, sweet juice is squeezed out of them under heavy stone “millstones” tachons (when working in the old fashioned way) or mechanical crusher presses (most often).

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

4. Fermentation

After adding water, the juice is allowed to ferment in vats (working in the old fashion – 7-12 days; when using yeast and chemical additives – 2-3 days) and get a taste similar to young beer wort with an alcohol content of 5–7%.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

5. Distillation

The tequila must is distilled twice. The result is a distillate with an alcohol content of 55-60 degrees. Of the 30,000 liters of wort, 10,000 liters of distillate remain after the first distillation, and 2,500 liters after the second distillation. The distillate is diluted to the desired strength of 38–55 degrees.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

6. Bottling and aging

Of the five types of tequila, two – blanco (white) and joven (young) – are bottled immediately after distillation. Young tequila includes caramel additives, which gives it a golden hue, as well as one in which cane or corn sugar was added during fermentation or whose distillate was diluted with third-party alcohol.

Three types of tequila – reposado (rested) , añejo (old/aged) and extra añejo (super-old) – spent in white oak barrels from bourbon or sherry for at least two months, at least a year and at least three years, respectively.

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Spirit of “lo mexicano”

At the end of November, the National Tequila Fair is held throughout the state of Jalisco, especially violently – in the city of Santiago de Tequila, after which the drink was named. Celebrations reach their climax on December 12, on the day of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe: there is a charreada (Mexican rodeo), a parade, a beauty contest, cockfights, and fireworks at sunset. The sweetish smell of alcohol emanating from 18 breweries constantly hangs over the city.

There are more than 130 manufacturing companies all over Mexico, and they pump out about 300 million liters annually, three-quarters of which are exported, and during the holiday, the center of Santiago de Tequila turns into one big mariachi squash at every intersection, so the first sober ones start to come across only on the outskirts.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

The main attraction of the city is the Rogenya tequila factory, which (like the lion's share of the market) is owned by the descendants of Jose Antonio Cuervo, who received land from the Spanish king in 1758 with the right to grow agave on it for the production of tequila. On weekends, tourists (much more of them among them than foreign ones) come from Guadalajara on the Jose Cuervo Express train with folk songs and dances on board. Tequila ads feature the same imagery as Mexican tourist posters: groovy mariachis, plucky Mexican charros cowboys, and pompous señoritas in colorful dresses against the backdrop of smoking volcanoes or enchanting villages.

Mexicans who came to Tequila for a holiday treat tequila in different ways. “In the old days, if you wanted to look chevere (cool), you drank whiskey or cognac, and tequila pleased mainly el pueblo (hillbillies). In recent years, tequila has become chevere,” says Pedro from Veracruz in a suit with a tide.

And according to Carlos from Mexico City, “tequila  is what they drink mainly chalisquios ( inhabitants of Jalisco) and tapatios (inhabitants of Guadalajara)”. The nickname of the latter comes from the word tapatiotl, meaning three bags with ten cocoa beans each, the currency of the local Indians in pre-Columbian times.

24-year-old tapatio Leon believes that if only machos used to drink tequila, now everyone loves it. Pablo, who was born in Mexico and now lives in Washington, says that “when Chicanos (Mexican Americans) gather, they spend hours remembering their native places and drinking tequila; and necessarily for the birth of a child, a wedding and a funeral.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

Everyone agrees on one thing: there is no better personification of “lo mexicano” (Mexicanness) than tequila. As a white-bearded taxi driver in Guadalajara put it, “Tequila is a blend of our restraint and wildness, the fiesta of life and the willingness to accept the inevitable, as in the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday.”

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The Origins of the Inevitable

In the pre-Columbian era, the Toltecs and Aztecs looked at the agave as a material of wide application: the pulp was eaten, the leaves were dried to line roofs and weave clothes and mats. The Indians pressed the sweet juice and let it ferment. Thus was born the pulque drink – a weak white mash. The Indians of Mesoamerica believed that the agave goddess Mayahuel brought pulque to people, and endowed the brew with sacred properties, so it was not available to everyone. Today, pulque has become much more democratic, and it is poured in roadside stalls and in “pulqueria eateries”, often under the Indian name “octli”.

Agave sadness: how tequila became a national treasure in Mexico

There would probably be Mexicans with one pulque today, if the Spaniards had not conquered them. It was not comme il faut for the colonialists to drink the drinks of the natives; they began to burn the cores of the agaves, let the juice squeezed out of them ferment and distill it, bringing it to the level of a fortress befitting the machismo of the conquistadors. This is how mezcal appeared, occupying its strong niche in Mexican drinking culture. Today, mezcal, which is made from any type of agave, is driven in Mexico by thousands of manufacturers (mostly in the state of Oaxaca), and there is no single quality standard for it.

Mezcal, which was driven around Santiago de Tequila , became known as mezcal de Tequila. One of the local producers, Don Cenobio Sausa, discovered in the mid-1890s that the best mezcal came from blue agave and started making it. Soon others followed suit. This is how blue agave mezcal became tequila.

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Circus with horses

The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 moved tequila closer to the place of the national denominator. From the emotional family drink of the masses, tequila turned into a patriotic drink, for which the bourgeoisie even had to abandon the usual French cognac. The further the revolution went into the past, the more often the leader of the revolutionaries, Pancho Villa, hung with machine-gun belts, began to appear on tequila advertisements. From the name of his horse, Seven Leagues, they made the name of the brand. At the same time, few people in Mexico know today that the revolutionary hero himself did not take alcohol in his mouth.

Grust-agavy: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

Finally, cinema played a significant role in turning tequila into a nationwide drink. The protagonist of the Mexican westerns “comedy ranchera” is a sentimental cowboy whose constant weakness for tequila in an artistic setting turned into a virtue.

“Mexican women still have to deal with this archetype of the romantic gentleman. Maybe tequila contributed to the social equation of the city and the countryside, but not men and women, – ironically manager Angelica from the Jalisco tourist office. – It is believed that women prefer tequila in cocktails, but I only drink it derecho (in pure (el tequila) to feminine (la tequilita), with the concept of tequila as a male drink.

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< h2>To a foreign land for recognition

At the tequila fair, my head is spinning not from what I have drunk, but from what I have heard: I learned about the insidious traitors selling secrets of production, and about years of legal squabbles between tequilleros, and about additives that dishonor the noble drink. “Don’t be fooled by their luxurious bottle, it’s full of chemistry,” – a competitor was exposed to me in a prestigious brand store. “The most famous brands have long been bought by overseas corporations,” whispered in the bar “for connoisseurs.” “You didn’t hear from me that good tequila can’t be afforded by the average Mexican,” begged in one of the tequila museums.

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

In recent years, celebrities such as actor Dwayne Johnson, singer Justin Timberlake and musician Carlos Santana have either launched their own brands of tequila or joined existing ones. George Clooney, in partnership with Randy Gerber, who is married to Cindy Crawford, created their brand in just five years and sold it to a British conglomerate for almost a billion dollars. And about the pure gold labels that raise the cost of a bottle to $ 30,000, I often heard in Tequila. Such marketing moves are aimed at foreign consumers who find it difficult to understand one and a half thousand brands of the drink.

The locals know their tequila. Bartender Ricardo from Puerto Vallarta told how a group of Mexicans arrived at one of the all-inclusive hotels, where Americans and Canadians usually lodge, on Easter, and they all turned up their noses at the tequila that was on the menu. “They raised a storm right in the bar: they say, we will not drink this floor cleaner, give us real tequila. And we told them: okay, okay, now we’ll find it, but only foreign guests don’t need to talk about it.”

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

Behind the frilly bottles and foreign celebrities, it's not immediately obvious how tequila is tied to the land of Mexico. Rum, vodka and whiskey are made in dozens of countries, from different ingredients and in different ways everywhere. But blue agave tequila can only be from a certain region, like cognac and champagne.

The Mexican Chamber of Tequila Producers loudly calls it “regalo de Mexico para el mundo” – “Mexico's gift to the world.” The government is promoting the idea of ​​a national drink. However, as the guide at the tequila museum noted, “as tequila gains momentum in the world, in the eyes of many Mexicans, pulque and mezcal fade into the background as too indio (Indian) or corriente (for ordinary ones), despite the fact that these drinks could claim to be the national symbols of Mexico.”

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

“The attitude towards tequila among Mexicans is ambiguous,” explains the elderly curator of the Mundo Cuervo Museum. like my parents. Paradoxically, it was only the interest in premium tequila abroad and the attention given to it by the “beautiful and famous” in the US that made it significant in the eyes of most Mexicans.”

Associations with the revolutionary exploits of Pancho Villa, with sentimental drunk charros and with nostalgia for patriarchal Mexico, which previously formed the image of tequila, have given way to global trends that set the ball on the international market. Which in no way detracts from the merits of noble aged tequila, which does not need to be eaten with lime, transferred to a cocktail or knocked over in one gulp, but it is pleasant to savor in small sips, sorting through the images of warm Mexico in your imagination.

State Jalisco, Mexico

The sadness of the agave: how tequila became the national treasure of Mexico

Area of ​​the state of Jalisco 78,588 km² (7th in Mexico)
Population 8,350,000 people (4th)
Population density 110 people/km²

Area of ​​Mexico 1,972,550 km² (13th in the world)
Population ~ 129,875,000 people (10th place)
Population density 61 inhabitants/km²

SIGHTS Wall paintings by José Orozco in Guadalajara, Tapalpa mountain village, pyramid complex Guachimontones.
TRADITIONAL DISHES birria – marinated lamb or goat stew; posole – thick corn soup with pork and avocado.
TRADITIONAL DRINK tequila; raisilla – agave moonshine; tejuino – a cold drink made from fermented corn.
SOUVENIRS agave honey; beaded jewelry made by the Huichol Indians.

DISTANCE from Moscow to Guadalajara ~ 10,750 km (from 16 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIME strong> behind Moscow by 8 hours in summer, by 9 hours in winter
VISA electronic permit
CURRENCY Mexican peso (100 MXN ~ 5.86 USD)


Material published in Vokrug Sveta No. 5, May 2019, partially updated in July 2023

Alexey Dmitriev

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