Do You Know Where Your Tequila Comes From?

Eduardo Ponce Guevara, ELP 2013, Mexico

Do you know where your tequila comes from? ¡Viva Mexico! is probably the thought that crosses the mind of many people when they drink a tequila shot or a margarita, the famous Mexican drink that causes so much happiness during talks, parties and dinners. Unfortunately, most people do not know that they are drinking just water, methanol, colorant, chemicals, and artificial flavors (which is probably why lemon is added to cover the horrible taste). This drink is far from the traditional tequila or to say it more properly, from the mezcal.

Mezcal is a traditional beverage obtained from distillation of the agave (a plant from the Agavaceae family, that has been produced mainly in Mexico for more than 500 years). More than 30 species are used to obtain mezcal. The process begins by cutting the leaves off of wild plants about 7-13 years old that are extremely rich in sugar. The heart or center of the plant is then smashed, fermented, and distilled to obtain the unique blend of flavors, aromas, and textures.

Since its origin, the drink rapidly became popular and many from the municipality of Tequila in the state of Guadalajara specialized in its production. However, due to its success, the government regulated their production and gave only a few licenses to a small group to produce it. After many years, only those groups controlled the production and named the drink as tequila. During the mid-1900s, tequila production became a huge national and international business. The groups that produced tequila became wealthier and became a political and economical force in the state and the country. Due to the huge demand for tequila, the producers dramatically increased and accelerated the production by adding fertilizer to the plants (comparable to added hormones in chickens) and adding other sugar and alcohols into the fermentation process.  Later, under marketing pressures, colorants and artificial flavors were added to reach more consumers who were looking for new products.

Within a short period, those few groups who controlled the tequila production were able to influence public policies to protect themselves against competition from traditional mezcales at regional and national level. In order to compete and survive, many traditional mescal producers followed the same industrial pathway as their predecessors. Such practices also influenced the alcohol, health, transportation, and exportation policies, and gradually eliminated small producers or forced them to sell their products at very low price. The mezcal industry was clearly divided into two paths: one that considers urgent industrialization of the drink, much like tequila and second, a rescue of a cultural and traditional drink in Mexico.


What is this all about?

Why I am going into this mezcal history? Even those who are considered conservationists consume products that destroy the fair and sustainable use of natural resources and benefit only a small group of people. This occurs because people do not know where the products they consume come from. Its not just about tequila, its about many industrialized food. The consumption of those items are damaging not only to our own bodies due to the dangerous chemicals, but also to the environment, a cultural heritage, and thousands of people in developing countries.

If we really want to conserve the planet and help people, it is extremely important to understand where all our products (food, clothes, cars, etc. are coming from). We should not try to save the environment in other countries when we are not even capable of being congruent with our own consumption. For instance, why try to solve energy, food, or water issues in “developing countries” when usually we leave the lights on in classrooms and at home, waste tons of food (even in green and organic restaurants), or waste water during baths or while watering our green gardens. I can´t stand that. The conservation and “saving the world” arguments would be more convincing if there is congruence in our own daily lives. A wise man once said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

The decision is ours. Next time you drink tequila, think twice before saying ¡Viva Mexico! Track the origins of the products that you consume and use only those which promote a fair and sustainable use of the natural resources. Many times it is difficult to find this information or find those kinds of products, especially when you realize that national policies do not permit the commercialization of them. But as consumers, we may make the difference. Support local producers to keep alive traditional systems and pressure the local government to help those that deserve the help.