01 May, 2008

The Othering of agave-derived liquors

I've been thinking that what debaser is currently missing (what with Ezra Klein's recipes, Tyler Cowen's restaurant reviews, and bloggingchefs) is the aspect of culinary criticism and appreciation. In that vein, Eric Asimov (the Times' resident alcoholic beverage critic) has a great post on the underrappreciated-ness of tequila, and its much-maligned cousin, mezcal.

While Asimov clears up what exactly separates these two spirits (tequila is produced mainly in the state of Jalisco and with only one type of agave, the blue agave, while mezcal hails from the southern state of Oaxaca and is made from many kinds of agave) he is mainly pondering why tequila and mezcal get such a bad rap:

Most people are introduced to bad tequila and never really make the leap to 100 percent blue agave tequila, which has the sort of depth, purity and complexity that you won’t find in the less expensive mixto tequilas, the staple of frozen margaritas and the like...

There’s more to it than that, of course. We associate sophistication with European spirits – single malt, Cognac, and so on...But tequila, and to a lesser extent rum? Their association with the tropics and languid refreshment makes it difficult for many people to recognize how complex and interesting these spirits can be....

Ethnic bias, unconscious or not, plays a role, too. Just as we are conditioned to think of Chinese as an inexpensive cuisine, and hence miss out on great Chinese chefs who can make far more money in Asia or Australia than they can in the United States, so, too, do many people assume that tequila is simply a partying beverage, not capable of the heights that whiskeys reach.

From what I've observed, all of these factors come into play when hating on agave juice. Whenever I ask about the experience behind peoples' protestations that they can't abide tequila, what usually comes out is some iteration of the horror story that their first and only encounter consisted of ten shots of Durango on their 21st birthday. (Ben, my college roommate, could literally not suppress his gag reflex at even the smell of tequila. Until I trained him.)

And that's fair enough. But many people also get sick from pounding horrible whiskey on their birthdays, and yet are still able to differentiate between bad whiskey -- meant to be pounded, or mixed with coke, but either way likely to be evacuated at the end of the night -- and good whiskey, which is to be savored, slowly and straight. With tequila, it seems impossible for most people to make that distinction, impossible for them to imagine ever drinking it unless the flavor is completely overwhelmed with fruit and sugar.

That failure of imagination is, I think, largely based on the way we see spirits within divergent cultural contexts. We conceive of whiskey, as handed down by our European tradition, as essentially "high" art. Thus, when we drink shitty whiskey, we see ourselves as drinking a degraded form of "real" whiskey, and so the negative aspects are not as attributable to whiskey as a whole -- the "form" of whiskey, one might say. On the other hand, we conceive of tequila as essentially "low" -- cheap, harsh, from the third world -- and so bad tequila isn't departing from the ideal, it is embodying what we expect to be its basic attributes. That helps explain why most people only encounter pure tequila (margaritas being different) on ill-fated nights of binge drinking in the first place.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not knocking binge drinking or cheap liquor. Nor do I think that everyone would like tequila if they just tried enough of it. But it does seem that a good many people are needlessly missing out on the fact that a glass of decent, 100% agave tequila is delicious and rewarding in its own right and on its own terms, largely because of the negative associations that have been built up around it.


spencer said...

Tequila is very much in the space that beer was in, say 20 years ago. The beer market was dominated by giant brands marketing watered-down crap. Thus beer was the drink of the downtrodden as today tequila is the drink of crazy college kids. But things change--I envision micro-distilleries leading the way to a tequila revolution. I think a similar transformation occurred with California wine as well.

These are largely self-reinforcing equilibria. If people think that tequila is for shots, no one has an incentive to produce better tequilas on a large scale. Eventually a critical mass builds up and opinions and tastes change very rapidly.

"Taste" seems to me to be completely socially constructed. Nearly everyone seems to be able to enjoy nearly everything; it just depends on how it is presented and what other people think about it.

Elliot said...

I hope you're right regarding the tequila revolution, but I have two reasons why I think you may not be:

1) There are a couple big tequila brands that are stocked as basics in almost all bars (Cuervo, Sauza), but smaller, niche, artsy tequilas (the equivalent of micro-brews) have long been available on the American market for about the same price differential as the microbrew-budweiser differential. These are very decent (think 1800, Herradura) but still underappreciated, not to mention the much better brands you can get for an additional ten dollars or so.

2) Given that a very many tequila brands already exist, I don't think the expansion of micro-distilleries will have much effect, but even if it would, I'm not sure how much room there is to expand. To be tequila, you have to be based in a relatively small province of Mexico, where the art of tequila making has been going on for hundreds of years. How much of that market is left to expand into?

I think where tequila's image is changing is not in the move to micro-distilleries, but in the efforts of huge producers to re-market their brand as elite (I have noticed the extreme proliferation of Patron tequila advertisements lately). My point was not that there is no incentive to produce better tequilas on a large scale, but that those tequilas already exist, and are understood as such for clientel outside of the US -- but in the US people use those better tequilas for better magaritas rather than as a sipping drink in and of itself.

Cassady said...

This whole post and commentary turned out to be an incredibly astute and complex analysis. Bravo.

A lot of good points being made, although I shy from Spencer's comparison to the large beer producers. The issue there is complex in and of itself.

That beer had become the drink of college parties and poor students nation-wide is not under dispute, but rather the causes, fallout, and reality of the situation.

I don't think that the story began so much with the large companies brewing watered-down crap, as it did with public opinion of said crap. The major players today are where they are because they began with more capital and resources, at a time when no better alternative was available. When looking at mass production of a beverage such as beer, you of course must look at the materials involved.

A-B, Miller, and Coors began by brewing a more American take of the classic German lager styles, which have been brewed under the same purity laws since roughly the 1400's. Considering the cultural influence of the large-scale German immigration to America, that choice is not surprising--it was a taste of home for many people.

Every beer uses the same base ingredients: malted barley, yeast, water. I don't add hops to the list because not all beers use them, and interestingly, were not originally allowed in German beers.
*This is where I get opinionated*
The commercials circulating for Budweiser and Bud Light now are ridiculous. They tout their brewing process like they aren't doing the same thing that I do out of my kitchen sink. They claim that the American Style lager is "one of the most difficult beers to produce," as a badge of honor.

Friends, the brewing process is essentially the same. If you put water, yeast, and barley grains in a bucket outside during a warm stretch of summer, you'd probably get some sort of beer. Beer WANTS to happen. The only differences you'll really see are when brewers start casking, allowing wild yeasts in, or aging in whiskey or other liquor barrels.

Back to the point:

The big American companies brew a general *style* of beer, which can be appreciated and enjoyed in it's own right--much like real tequila. These American lagers are light, crisp, dry, and refreshing. That they are also cheap reflects not on the beer, but on the success and scale of the company. (Incidentally, even with the merger of SAB Coors and Miller, they're still not as big as Anheuser-Busch)

Spencer makes a point about the times as well. The rise of the major corporate breweries was largely at a time when other styles of beer were generally unknown to the public. Craft brewing saw an explosion in the mid-80's, resulting in the proliferation of small breweries and availability of a good selection of styles that we enjoy today.

Speaking of tastes, some beers may be more generally palatable than others, but I for one feel that I have grown in my appreciation and understanding of tastes and experiences, and can say that even the cheapest of beers are not crappy, they are exactly what they are meant to be, and when approached, like tequila, with an open mind and palate, they can be appreciated to their fullest. Someone bring me a Colt 45!