Viva Tequila! Via Mexico!
Tara A. Spears
Tequila is more than a party, it’s an important part of Mexican tradition. Long a source of national pride, the path of tequila is intrinsically intertwined in Mexican culture, economics, and history. The second largest employer in Mexico, the health and growth of the tequila industry affects many lives. From the lowly field worker to the manager of the distillery to the truck drivers and distributors, and all of the subsidiary businesses, the world consumption of tequila provides a living for many Mexicans.
In the past the jimadores had owned their own family agave farms but by the 21st century growing tequila plants is largely the domain of big agro-businesses. A jimador is a type of Mexican farmer who harvests agave plants, which have been traditionally harvested primarily for the production of mezcal and tequila. Twenty five years ago, before the expansion of global tequila sales, the Mexican government reported that more than 50,000 families (just the day laborers and farmers) are directly dependent on the agave-tequila production chain in the official tequila territory.
Since the first bottle was brewed, tequila has been one of the most Important and dynamic industries in Mexico. As the national government changed from foreign rule to independence, hacienda estates to private family farms, tequila production has evolved through the centuries. The tequila industry is proud of its importance in the national economy, but even more proud of being an entirely Mexican industry. This pride is reflected in the choice of bottle style and unique labels.
The traditional Mexican market for tequila has achieved a great expansion within recent years due to globalization. Currently the tequila industry generates more than 5 billion dollars a year to become the country’s second largest export. This huge expansion is not without pain as the tequila producers struggle to revise their theoretical and methodological framework to increase production. The smaller independent tequila families had to change the most in order to modernize. In the Agri-Food industry it seems to be a permanent disagreement between the farmers and the industrialists.
The land owners and field workers adhere to century’s old rural culture and those production traditions; whereas the global businesses are more concerned about the bottom line and rapid production. It’s obvious that a clash between the two segments occurs to meet globalization demands. The larger land holders are typically the first to implement new farming methods because they have the financial ability to obtain new equipment. This puts pressure on the smaller farmer to be competitive in marketing his harvest and in the case of tequila, production. In the last 50 years, the most radical changes have occurred in the smaller family tequila farms. Given the strong demand of the tequila market, the former family businesses are becoming corporate structures by switching to a constant production in their onsite distillery plants.
It’s not surprising that this revered national drink, tequila, is heavily regulated and controlled by the Mexican government. There is entire division of government to oversee tequila production! There are federal laws governing the farming, harvesting, distilling, distribution, and sale of tequila, with harsh fines and imprisonment for violators. First of all, it is specified where tequila can be grown: You can only grow agave for tequila within the territory protected by the designation of origin “Tequila” as indicated on the official government map. The official growing areas comprise 125 municipalities in the state of Jalisco, eight from Nayarit, seven from Guanajuato, 30 from Michoacán and 11 from Tamaulipas. I’m sure that a couple of agave plants in a home garden won’t bring the federales to your door; but planting a couple of acres without a license might.
Secondly, the government defines what makes tequila: According to the official Regulatory Council of Tequila, Consejo Regulador del Tequila, as defined in Mexican standard 006-Csfi- 2005, “tequila is obtained from the distillation of Mescal or blue agave sugars; the final product can contain 100% of this raw material or a proportion of not more than 49% of other sugars.” Each bottle is classified by the characteristics of its distillation and rectification process. Tequila is labeled as “blanco (white), joven u oro (young or gold), reposado (rested); añejo (aged); and extra-old (extraañejo).” The sales price reflects the type of processing and age. By 2006 Mexican tequila was being imported to 105 countries! That’s a huge reach from rural Nayarit.
History: a long history of tequila featured in ancient myths and legends that rooted it as a Mexican drink. The ancient codas describe drinking mescal. When the explorers arrived and were treated to this Mexican fire water, the conquistadores wanted more. Tequila was one of the main products Of Nueva Galicia since colonial times, and during the in the nineteenth century the gold rush in California favored this Mexican export brew.
But it was after the end of the Mexican Revolution when the government began to foster economic growth of this beverage industry by promoting tequila as National identity. The government encouraged including tequila in the arts- that literature, painting and especially the film industry show the ranch lifestyle of Jalisco (which is the main producer of tequila) as the representation of pre-modern Mexico. Since the 1940s Mexican films, songs and telenovelas, promote the tequila mystic through associating tequila with a good time. Another industry strategy is to develop tourism projects such as the tourist train Tequila Express from Guadalajara to the town of Tequila.
The Second World War was another determining factor in the increase of the demand for tequila. Many countries were faced with the scarcity of whiskey so the Mexicans provided tequila. In addition, in the 1950s in the United States, the tequila cocktail margarita became very popular: doubling the demand for tequila. Export growth increased yet again in 1994 with Mexico signing the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Although many sized economic units are part of the tequila industry, the explosion of demand for tequila caused the industry to be dominated by larger agricultural organizations. The production of tequila is dominated by four Mexican family owned agri businesses: Cuervo, Sauza, Herradura, and Cazadores.
While many small businesses still exist in this field, the small individual agave farms are likely to disappear if adverse conditions affect production or the global market decreases.
For centuries this weird looking plant has been a part of ordinary life in Mexico. Tequila is an attitude, tequila makes quiet people bold, best of all, tequila is Mexican. “Take life with a grain of salt and a slice of lemon and a shot of tequila.”