Now, anyone who has read most of my writing here at Sweatpants & Coffee will know that, for me, only bourbon tastes like coming home. But tequila…well, tequila tastes like making home. See, while I spent my young’un years in Kentucky, I came of age and started building a chosen family in Texas, the birthplace of the margarita. I lived in Texas longer than I’ve lived in any other state and there is a part of me that will always call Texas home, just as there is a part of me that will always call Kentucky home: in fact, I have tattoos honoring each. Texas is where I met my husband and created a chosen family that still holds me upright on my worst days even though we have since scattered to all corners of the nation.
While tequila definitely has a special place in the flavor profile of Texas, it is distinctly Mexican. Like, by definition. Legitimate tequila, legally speaking, can only come from the state of Jalisco—and a few designated cities outside of the state—in central western Mexico. Distilled from the hearts of succulents known as blue agave or agave tequilana which are native to the Jaliscan Highlands, tequila is recognized by over forty countries as being a product exclusively produced in Mexico and that exclusivity is protected by a number of trade agreements, like NAFTA, or bilateral trade deals with individual nations; since 1997, the European Union has recognized it as a protected designation of origin.
Tequila, as we know it, was first distilled in the 1600s—a result of colonialism. The Spaniards brought mashing and distilling procedures that turned blue agave hearts into mezcal and, later, tequila. Distillation of the sugary hearts of agave tequilana had the twin results of replenishing the conquistadors’ booze supply and of helping to stamp out the indigenous drink, pulque, which the Spanish saw as “disgusting” and “corrupting.” Pulque, made from the sap of the blue agave, had been considered a drink of the gods and was important to indigenous ceremonies, so it’s almost certain that the Spaniards’ disgust was as much about their disdain for the indigenous communities in Mexico as it was about anything else, hence their branding it a “corrupting influence.” Pulque is now seeing a resurgence, which is awesome! And as pulque has surged in popularity within Mexico and in communities of Mexican expats, tequila’s popularity has exploded around the world—tequila sales in the United States grew sixty-five percent between 2005 and 2015.
Speaking of colonialism and international sales of tequila, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the role Prohibition played in more broadly introducing tequila to US markets. Much like Canadian whiskey was smuggled across the northern border, tequila was popular among bootleggers along the southern border. Colonialism and increasing globalization have had a tremendous impact on the tequila industry, which hasn’t been a universally good thing. Because of increased demand, most small agave farms have folded during years when the succulents were ravaged by disease or inclement weather; large corporate outfits that have a better chance of withstanding the rough years have swooped into the place once occupied by family farms. The biodiversity of the Jaliscan Highlands has declined as a blue agave monoculture has grown to meet the growing global demands for tequila; that monoculture also means that the plants have a reduced chance of developing ways to survive pests and disease.
Now, I certainly don’t want to bum anyone out in a piece about something as amazing as tequila; I’m just saying that the phrase “drink responsibly” doesn’t just apply to not drinking and driving—though, it definitely does apply to that, too (seriously, don’t drink and drive). So, whether you decide to celebrate National Tequila Day with a paloma or a margarita, a shot with salt and lime or straight, do so with a better appreciation for the history of tequila, the work that goes into it, and the area from which it comes. And, please, definitely drink it with respect for the people and culture from which it comes.
Hell, yeah! Let’s do some shots!
Yeah, I’m a bad influence.