Claudia Prieto-Piastro reviews Sarah Bowen’s “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production,” which combines anthropological and historical methods to reveal the politics behind the increased popularity of tequila and mezcal production in Mexico.
Sarah Bowen’s Divided Spirits is an excellent ethnography that, by combining anthropological and historical methods, gives a clear picture of the politics of the production of tequila and mezcal in Mexico. The book focuses on the contemporary period to explain the changes and challenges that the dramatically increased popularity of both spirits present for producers. The author explores the different ways these spirits have been produced though time and how the Denomination of Origin (DO) policies affect all the actors involved in the manufacturing of these drinks. The book provides a detailed overview not only of mezcal and tequila production but of the way consumer culture, national and international markets, and protectionist policies affect the everyday life of farmers and the development of different regions in Mexico.
Divided Spirits will then be of interest to anyone studying artisanal production, industrialization, or the impact of global markets on local traditions. It is also an imperative read to understand how DO certification works in different contexts and how consumers shape the way food and drinks are produced. The book also presents a comprehensive bibliography and appendix, which are especially useful for those who wish to expand upon Bowen’s research about production, DO certification, and consumption of traditional goods.
The first chapter, “The Promise of Place,” explains the history of the Denomination of Origin label. Bowen emphasizes the success of DO in protecting traditional production methods in France, especially in the case of the manufacture of Comté cheese. DO certification is not as easily applied in developing countries like Mexico and presents major challenges for small producers. While the DO of Comté cheese protects the traditional methods of a small region of France, Bowen shows that in Mexico the DO benefits transnational companies like Sauza but leaves out small producers who do not have the resources to lobby the government directly, and therefore lose the right to call their products mezcal or tequila resulting in them becoming less valuable.
The second chapter, “From the Fields to Your Glass,” gives a detailed history of mezcal and tequila, which are both deeply embedded in Mexican culture and identity. Agave, the plant from which both drinks are distilled, has its origin in Mexico, where more than 150 species can be found. According to the author, native Mexicans drank a variety of fermented agave beverages, which were then named by Europeans in the sixteenth century as “mezcal wines.” From there, the complicated history of mezcal and tequila production and consumption continues. Bowen describes in detail the changes in this history and pays particular attention to times when agave was scarce and therefore, the situation of the producers more precarious. Today, the main producers of both spirits have moved away from traditional methods at the expense of the quality while still using images of tradition to attract consumers. Bowen points out that consumers “fetishize” the preservation of artisanal production methods for mezcal. This is an important part of her argument, as she focuses her attention on how consumers’ demands directly affect the wellbeing of Mexican field workers and small producers.
In the next chapter, “Whose Rules Rule,” Bowen explains the metamorphic change that tequila suffered since the 1990s thanks to what is known as “the tequila boom.” The cause for the growing popularity of tequila was its rebranding: a private and public effort. By the end of the decade, tequila was seen as a “quality product” that could compete with whiskey or cognac and not as a cheap drink reserved only for shots. One of the methods used by the Mexican government to promote tequila was the DO protection. However, Bowen shows that the production methods of multinational companies under the DO protection have had a negative impact not only on the taste of mezcal and tequila but also on the lives of Mexican campesinos (farmers). In the last few decades, for instance, these companies have stopped signing contracts that guarantee the future purchase of products from farmers, within a period of 6-7 years, which is the time that it takes an agave to grow and mature. Without such contracts, farmers opt to change their production or to not invest as much in agave. The same argument is also developed in the most thrilling chapter of the book, “The Heart of Agave,” where Bowen uses her own research conducted in Amatitlan—a small town dedicated to the harvest of agave azul from which tequila is made—to affirm that the consequences of the rise in tequila popularity have benefited industrial producers and exporters while decreasing the living conditions of small producers in the town.
The chapter “Making Mezcal in the shadow of Denomination of Origin,” shows how mezcal producers have both profited from DO certification and faced problems because of it. The main problem is tied to the geographical scope of the DO certification. According to Bowen, not all the regions that produce mezcal in Mexico were included in the certification due to some producers’ incapability to lobby for their protection. On the other hand, the small mezcal producers that are part of the regions with DO certification are better protected and have been able to maintain a better quality of life than their counterparts in the tequila industry. This chapter becomes central to the argument of Bowen, as it explains how the benefits of DO vary according, not only to the region they are implemented in, but also to regional policies and to the power producers have to negotiate.
Finally, in “Hipsters, Hope and the Future of Artisanal mescal,” the author analyzes the way consumers in Mexico and the United States shape the production of mezcal by supporting traditional and artisanal methods. The book concludes with Bowen’s reflections on the consumers’ responsibility to shape politics and implement the changes that are needed to create more democratic and inclusive modes of production. Here she insists that DO does not work to protect the environment and the people that produce tequila and mezcal in all cases and recommends that consumers research brands and choose ethically when selecting one of these drinks.
In summary, Bowen’s book presents a clear picture of the history of mezcal and tequila production and the current challenges that DO presents for small producers and field workers. The argument, however, would benefit from providing a roadmap to overcome the shortcomings of DO and proposing possible policies that would allow producers— especially small tequila producers—to improve their living conditions and the future of these traditional drinks.
Claudia Raquel Prieto-Piastro is a PhD student in her fourth year at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. She holds a MA degree in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies also from KCL and a BA in International Relations from El Colegio de Mexico. Her research combines anthropological and historical approaches and looks at the role of food in the construction of Israel’s national identity and her research interests focus on nationalism, culinary culture as well as culinary transmission and Jewish identity.