Review: “How the Gringos Stole Tequila”

A Mexican man in front of greenery.
“How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico's Most Traditional Spirit.”

If someone perusing a bookstore caught a glimpse of “How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico's Most Traditional Spirit” on a shelf, it may appear at first to be a book just about, well, tequila.

On some levels, it’s that simple—that simple and that complicated.

While the title of by Chantal Martineau’s new work points a bullseye squarely on Mexico’s most exported and internationally known spirit, pigeonholing it as simply a tome about tequila would be remiss. Instead, “How the Gringos Stole Tequila” is an homage to Mexico’s intricate, webby history with the agave plant, and the menagerie of potent elixirs produced by the succulent for centuries.

Tequila’s name might be on the cover, but make no mistake about it—agave is the book’s true star. There’s never a moment when Martineau doesn’t address the plant with reverence, and (dare I say it?) affection. The author time and again shines a light on the cultural, environmental and economic importance of a crop braided into the fiber of Mexican culture so deeply it would be almost impossible to unravel the two.

The book cover for How the Gringos Stole TequilaWith the journeyman pacing of a travelogue and an anthropologist’s eye, “How the Gringos Stole Tequila” does a fine job of curtseying to the full range of traditional Mexican distilled spirits that populate the country’s complex landscape of liquors, from sotol to raicilla. However, it’s the triumvirate of agave’s most critical products— tequila, mezcal and pulque (the fermented sap of the agave plant)—that are explored both as cultural touchstones and, in recent years, an ever-increasing means by which to preserve Mexican identity and heritage.

While the book is chock-full of fascinating historical tidbits (it was, in fact, Bing Crosby who brought the first pure tequila into the U.S.) and tongue-in-cheek glimpses into how tequila was long a bastardized drink north of the border, it’s the book’s manifesto about the modern geopolitical tug-o-war over agave spirits that will most readily inform—and alarm—readers.

Martineau’s well-balanced, boots-on-the-ground investigation into the current challenges faced by the agave spirit industry reveals hurdles at almost every turn, from grave environmental concerns to internationally-driven (largely American derived) economic woes. In spite of these difficulties, however, the author’s overall outlook for the once again burgeoning world of agave spirits is one of cautious optimism.

Through the work of organizations like the Tequila Interchange Project (aka TIP, a non-profit committed to the safeguarding of sustainable agave distilled spirits) and mezcal figureheads like Del Maguey’s Ron Cooper, the unflinching passion for the preservation of such a unique, singular foodway has helped to swaddle its comeback.

“How the Gringos Stole Tequila” also shines in its ability to paint compelling portraits of the individuals—from Guadalajara distillers to Mexican-American tequila activists—most committed to the cause. By sharing the stories of industry leaders like David Suro-Pinera, Martineau gives a human face and voice to the production of spirits as distinctive as the Mexican terroir where they are grown and produced.

“I used to be the little guy throwing stones at the big guys…bringing up topics that they should take into consideration,” David recalls. “It was very frustrating that no one was acknowledging important issues like the sustainability of the agave plantations or how the industry was affecting the lives of workers in tequila. So I decided to invite the most influential bartenders in the United States, and the most influential professors in Mexico and put them together.”

From this, TIP was born, and the “agave activist” revolution sparked.

The book will likely be easier to digest for someone who already possesses a baseline knowledge of agave spirits (or Mexican culture) than a casual drinker with an affinity for tossing back shots of Patron. Even for the most devoted student of the agave school, the sheer mass of information presented can feel sticky and dense at times. The issue is more form, however, than substance. Martineau’s ability to share with such great nuance makes it clear that for every sentence she pens, there’s at least a paragraph of backstory left unwritten.

For those who are thirsty after the book’s educational romp through the agave fields, Martineau has ensured readers won’t be left parched. The author has compiled a well-curated cheat sheet of 99 (100-percent agave, Mexico-made and diffuser-free) tequilas and agaves to seek out that are appropriate for both curious newcomers and serious collectors alike.

The author’s boozy bucket list appendix is—in small part—a way to show solidarity with Mexican producers by seeking out and sipping, “the truest and tastiest spirits of Mexico.”

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