It’s Time To Learn The Right Way To Drink (And Buy) Tequila

In the U.S., tequila is known for margarita drinks as big as your head, shots that are served with a slice of lime and salt, and the cinco de drink-o parties where revelers don sombreros. For American drinkers, the distilled spirit has long been synonymous with the word “party,” and consumption has been steadily increasing, with tequila volumes in the U.S. growing 180% since 2002, an average 6.2% per year. From 2019 to 2020 alone, tequila sales grew from 20.1 million to 23 million 9-liter cases. But there is so much more to this drink that consumers have to learn in order to truly appreciate its origins and taste. 
Because when we drink tequila, what we’re really drinking is the essence of a country. 
Tequila is made using blue tequilana weber agave — a plant that only grows in the western Mexican state of Jalisco and is just one of the 220 variations of agave that grow in Mexico. Its famous blue-tinged leaves extend outward from the base: straight, smooth, and ending in a sharp point, the image of the plant is an iconic expression of Mexicanness. Melly Barajas, master distiller of La Gritona tequila in the Jalisco highlands will tell you, tequila is Mexico, and just about the most Mexican spirit you can enjoy.  
The instantly recognizable plant appears on the label of George Clooney and Rande Gerber’s Casamigos Tequila brand. It’s also on Nick Jonas and John Varvatos’ Villa One Tequila. You’ll see it on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Teremana, too. As the hype for celebrity-owned tequila brands continues to swell, it’s imperative not only to re-learn how to drink tequila (spoiler: put away your salt and lime), but also to support tequila companies that view the plant, the jimadores, and the soil as celebrities in their own right.    
Eliana Murrillo’s father planted the first crop of his tequila distillery, Tequila Alquimia, in 1993 on land he inherited from his parents. When he tried to grow blue tequilana weber agave, the people of Agua Negra, a small town in Arandas, Jalisco, had their doubts, saying the agave wouldn’t be able to grow in what had historically been corn fields . But he was determined, and not only did the plant itself thrive, so did the community. 
“In our area, most young men go to Chicago, Illinois for work,” Murrillo laments to Refinery29 over Zoom. “That's not a safe journey. Many make [the journey] to be able to provide for their families back home, [but] it does keep families apart." The move to Chicago is due to certain cities in Mexico having sister cities in the U.S.. For example, people from Puebla typically move to New York, where there is already a network of people they know who can help them find work. But when Murillo’s family’s tequila company began taking off, locals had an opportunity to make a livelihood and remain home with their loved ones.
“We’re able to create jobs that keep people locally present, work with us on the ranch, and provide for their families,” she says.

Look at how that tequila clings to the side of the glass. If it’s high quality, it’s a little bit silkier, it'll stick and run more slowly, like a thin oil.

Eliana Murillo of Tequila Alquimia
Murillo’s dad was able to grow agave without chemicals and harmful pesticides, which contributes to the uncontrolled watershed, or vinazas, pollution. He even composted the leaves, which created a healthier soil, and thus a more high-quality product that only improves over time. “My dad is considered the pioneer in organic tequila,” Murrillo says. “Organic agriculture works.”
Big multinational companies, Barajas says, are selling a product, a beverage. But for Mexicans, the spirit is nothing short of their people’s essence in a bottle. It’s also a key source of livelihood.“So many Mexican families sustain themselves through agave,” says Barajas. “The tequila industry offers so much employment from the ground up. It really is a way of survival for Mexico.”
And yet, a history of ads and marketing in the United States fails to recognize that. 

Observe the tequila, feast first on it with your eyes, noting the color and viscosity.

Eliana Murillo of Tequila Alquimia
Tequila is a uniquely Mexican product, forged by Indigenous tradition and distillation practices introduced by the Spanish colonizers. But there’s more to this drink as it relates to national identity and its relationship to the U.S. that precedes celebrity tequila. Niki Nakazawa, founding partner of Neta Spirits, tells us the first permit to distill was deeded to Jose Antonio Cuervo in 1758. During the Mexican Revolution, the country embraced tequila: “[It became] an extension of this nation-building project and creating and establishing Mexicanness,” says Nakazawa. 
Over the next 200 days, tequila’s popularity and its sales grew. By 1906, eight million gallons of tequila were produced a year. Then, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Mexico suffered a peso crisis, which devalued the national coin, which led to a national subsidies to encourage tequila production for the benefit of not only Mexico, but the U.S., too, as ensured by the NAFTA trade agreement.
This U.S.-built relationship to tequila would serve as the stepping stool for all of the celebrity-endorsed brands that have launched since the trade agreement. “Celebrities can do this because it’s been built for this,” Nakazawa says. The danger is when celebrity agave spirits “divorce the product from the origin [and] evacuate territoriality of the product, so it’s just tequila,” or as some Americans consumers will call it, “George Clooney's tequila,” says Nakazawa. While many of these brands, including George Clooney’s — which is made in Mexico — credit their spirit’s Mexican origins on their websites, the faces of these American celebrities or the Californian area code printed on the bottle edges out a strong cultural DNA. But as much as it is painful to witness the erasure of the farmers who live and breathe agave, Mexico is complicit in the superficial relationship the U.S. has with tequila. 

There’s a lot of aromas to pick up on — a lot of peach, yerba buena, lime — things that if you were taking it as shot, you’d never notice.

Melly Barajas of La Gritona Tequila
“Mexico itself has permitted the complete entrance of multinationals into the tequila space,” explains Nakazawa. “Tequila [labels] are owned by multinational corporations, and mostly by Americans.”
Beginning in the early 1960s, tequila was marketed in the U.S. as a product whose flavor should be masked in margaritas with lime wedges, or drunk quickly as shots. A string of 60’s Jose Cuervo ads, the earliest ads cataloged, show tequila marketed with a margarita cocktail recipe consumed by beautiful white women. It’s a pattern that repeated itself throughout the decades, placing white features on a Mexican product. Tequila was presented as a mere ingredient to a popular cocktail, not a spirit to enjoy on its own, as is done in Mexico. For Americans, it was a beverage for “busting loose,” as a 1982 Jose Cuervo ad put it, featuring a white guy on a beach holding a pitcher of margaritas and surrounded by white women in bikinis. In fact, as Patrick A. Reed notes in their Alcohol Professor piece, even the star ingredient of tequila itself, blue agave, was divorced from the marketing, saying they “only found one [ad] dated prior to 1974 that lists any agave-derived product.” 
A 1975 piece in Texas Monthly underscores the effects marketing and mass producing tequila had on consumers. The author Gregory Cutris writes, “Tequila was thought of as some sort of Mexican cactus juice, probably dangerous, whose intoxicating effects were legend but whose other rumored effects were said to include everything from a convulsed stomach to hallucino­genic visions.”

Allow yourself to experience the texture of tequila against your tongue and down your throat, slowly illuminating a warmth inside of you. Don’t brace yourself for something painful.

Eliana Murillo of Tequila Alquimia
Tequila advertisements haven't changed all that much. Kendall Jenner, the latest celebrity with a tequila brand, appears in YouTube videos downing shots of her 818 Tequila with her sister Kylie Jenner and in an Instagram image wearing long braids, which some pointed out was resemblant of the culturally significant Mexican hairstyle while promoting her line of tequila. It seems highlighting the culture, or the very real Mexican people behind tequila, were never a part of the marketing strategy for tequila in the United States to begin with. It’s as if tequila needed a white face or a celebrity with millions of followers attached to it in order for it to be drinkable or desirable. 
Even the culture around drinking tequila is directly linked to a history of troubling American marketing. “The perception that you shoot them back, that you drink them with salt and lime, was all marketing strategy encouraged by tequila companies to mask the burn [of low-quality tequila],” Murrillo explains. 
But drowning the taste in sugar and salt is anything but necessary. One of the reasons tequilas burn more than other spirits is because some are made improperly, according to Murillo. By law, a bottle only needs to be 51% tequila to be sold as tequila, which means the other 49% can include ingredients like artificial sweeteners, additives, and dyes to imitate barrel-aging –– things that aren’t tequila. This blend is what’s referred to as tequila mixto, or “mixed” tequila, which is cheaper for production but can be harsher for consumption. That’s why experts suggest finding 100% agave tequila for a better drinking experience.
To appreciate tequila, a customer should consider not only a bottle’s ingredients, but how it’s made and who is producing it. “It can sometimes feel very abstract when you're paying $5 more or $5 less,” Nakazawa says about the higher prices that quality agave spirits command. “But it, in fact, does impact people's lives in real ways. It's important to remember that a couple dollars will actually sustain others’ lives. It's important to be connected to that in an everyday way.” 
Because it’s the jimadores during harvest, the distillers, the generations of families on this soil, and the beautiful tequilana blue weber agaves that can take up to a decade to fully mature, that are the true stars of the spirit. It’s on consumers to re-learn to drink tequila and see through disingenuous marketing to honor the true craft that is tequila.
For 21 and over readers, check out some Mexican-owned tequila brands, below :
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