Given the historic levels of pain inflicted on many by events of the past year, the health benefits of Dry January might be outweighed by the palliative effects of toasting to new possibilities.

If that’s the case, Trinity University Press recommends exploring tequila, a traditional beverage that has long made its way north from the state of Jalisco in Mexico to become not only a ubiquitous drink in South Texas, but one prized across the United States and growing in popularity throughout the world.

Trinity’s Jan. 13 installment of its virtual Maverick Book Club focused on the popular liquor, with a fresh look at two books released in recent years: The Spirit of Tequila, a photographic monograph by Joel Salcido published in 2017; and How the Gringos Stole Tequila by Chantal Martineau first published in 2015 with a paperback edition released in 2019.

An intricate organism

Tequila and its cousin mezcal began as essentially the same thing, with origins obscured in the mists of ancient Mexico. Distillation of the agave plant, also called maguey, may have originated among Mesoamericans in 1500 in what would become western Mexico, or the process might have been introduced by Europeans during the era of the conquistadors 3,000 years later.

Martineau details the controversy in a chapter titled “The Mysteries of Distillation,” one of 11 chapters in her highly detailed exploration of the tequila phenomenon. Throughout the 200 pages of the book, many controversies are delved into, including how mezcal and tequila became distinct from each other, why tequila can only come from five states, and many ongoing debates about which process results in the best distillate.

While mezcal can be made in nine different Mexican states from other varieties of the agave plant, tequila can only be made from a majority of the blue Weber variety grown in specific regions.

Finer versions of tequila are made from 100 percent blue Weber agave, the distinctly blue-hued variety of agave tequiliana named for French botanist Frédéric Albert Constantin Weber. The content of blue Weber agave in other tequilas ranges from 51 to 100 percent, ratios which generally reflect the quality of the liquor.

During the Maverick Book Club presentation, Martineau joked that her first experience of tequila was similar to that of so many Americans. A “snot-nosed college kid experimenting with freedom and destruction,” she downed shot after shot of Cuervo Gold at a college party, dutifully licking salt off of her hand and biting a lime wedge as her throat burned.

Her appreciation of the spirit evolved thanks to a tequila tasting set up like a traditional wine tasting, with details on the soils, climates, and altitudes of agave crops grown for different tequila brands. Her curiosity piqued, she decided on multiple visits to Mexico to learn more.

How the Gringos Stole Tequila, Chantal Martineau Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University Press

As detailed in the book that grew out of her experiences, that education included a lot of fun, with the purer spirits she tasted imparting what she and many others swear is a stimulant effect unique to tequila among liquor, which is generally regarded as a depressant.

She also learned how the industry itself evolved, into today’s “intricate organism with many interwoven and conflicting facets and players,” from the popular but industrialized Cuervo brand to the more traditional and artisanal Herradura brand, both appreciated enough that Americans consume 80 percent of global tequila exports, three times as much as Mexicans drink, as Martineau notes.

The short answer to the provocative book title How the Gringos Stole Tequila might be one word: steam.

Martineau attributes growing industrialization, resulting in an agave monoculture, to a potentially fatal threat to tequila production and tradition. As in other parts of the world, the nineteenth century brought industrial processes to Mexico. Rather than the slower process of cooking agave hearts, called piñas, in pits, producers adopted steam ovens, which removed the distinctive smoky flavor from the liquor.

While the resulting smoother, sweeter flavors might have contributed to the growing popularity of tequila, it was robbed of its distinctive regional character, both Martineau and Salcido said.

Among her travels, Martineau discovered that mezcal is generally considered taboo in the regions that produce tequila due to pride in their native liquor, but one moment in the heart of tequila country revealed the family tree of both liquors.

“Javier Delgado Corona presides over La Capilla, the oldest cantina in Tequila,” she writes. The bar offers many varieties of tequila unavailable in the U.S., but Delgado surprised Martineau with a bottle of mezcal, a gift he’d received.

The two tasted it, and the nonagenarian Delgado exclaimed, “It reminds me of how tequila used to taste many years ago!”

Ancient and new

Salcido came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of eight and regards tequila as a mestizaje, or a coalescence of mixed origins that brings together ancient Aztec beliefs, indigenous Mexican traditions, and Spanish invention.

In 88 color and black-and-white photographs, Salcido depicts the industry of tequila as a meeting of nature and human ingenuity. Among several portraits are the jimadors that handle the rough work of harvesting agave plants and the piñas that will ultimately be turned into the blanco, reposado, and añejo varieties of tequila — young, aged one year, and aged at least three years, respectively – and the tequileros who distill the spirits with tools and processes used for centuries.

The Spirit of Tequila, Joel Salcido Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University Press

Salcido is foremost a photographer, and his images are as much studies of light, shadow, color, and composition, as they are informative depictions of a Mexican tradition. Tequila functions like the travelogue of an astonished wanderer discovering fields of spiky blue agave, dim cellars filled to their ceilings with oaken barrels, and fireworks-laden town festivals that celebrate the opening of those barrels and the resultant flow of this regionally-revered drink.

Like Martineau, Salcido’s interest in tequila was sparked by a tasting. However it was his prior fixation with bullfighting that got him talking with the host, who turned out not only to have a close friend that raised bulls, but was also a master distiller of one of Mexico’s most popular tequilas.

His initial visit to the producer’s distillery was intended to produce a photo essay on tequila production, but the project expanded into what became a 210-page book eventually published by Trinity.

Salcido became a tequila aficianado, and grew to understand how differences in the soil and climate of various regions can result in subtle differences in flavor. Agave plants need up to 10 years to grow to maturity before being harvested for production, he noted during the Maverick Book Club presentation, which gave him “a greater appreciation of the people that are so involved in cultivating these plants and producing the spirit.”

Your own taste test

The moderator of the book club discussion was Nathan Jarvis, who teaches in the hospitality program of the San Antonio branch of the University of Houston and invented a course on tequila and mezcal production.

Having sampled many brands of tequila and mezcal, Jarvis offered his recommendations for anyone seeking a local tasting adventure.

Drinkers who favor whisky and bourbon should try reposado or añejo tequilas, Jarvis said, which are aged in oak that imparts golden tones and vanilla and caramel flavors similar to other brown liquors.

Jarvis said that wine drinkers who enjoy noting differences in terroir, or the distinctive flavor qualities imparted by region, might enjoy Tequila Ocho, which produces several varieties from specific agave farms.

Those interested in exploring how processes affect the final product should try the Tequila Fortaleza brand, produced by a descendent of the famous Sauza tequila family who has gone back to traditional methods including the tahona, a heavy millstone of volcanic rock that grinds the piña rather than shreds it according to common industrial methods.

A go-to tequila for Jarvis is the Herradura brand, which uses open air fermentation which takes advantage of natural yeasts to produce distinctive flavors.

Jarvis recommends Alamo City Liquor, with five locations, for their extensive selections of tequila and mezcal, and said it’s advisable to ask questions of the staff, who can make recommendations.

With the pandemic still raging in mid-January, it might also be advisable to watch Jarvis, Salcido, and Martineau expound on the subject, then select a bottle or two of fine tequila and curl up with these books to explore the spirit of Mexico, no salt or lime wedge necessary.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...