Divided Spirits tells the stories of tequila and mezcal, two of Mexico’s most iconic products. In doing so, the book illustrates how neoliberalism influences the production, branding, and regulation of local foods and drinks. It also challenges the strategy of relying on “alternative” markets to protect food cultures and rural livelihoods.
In recent years, as consumers increasingly demand to connect with the people and places that produce their food, the concept of terroir—the taste of place—has become more and more prominent. Tequila and mezcal are both protected by denominations of origin (DOs), legal designations that aim to guarantee a product’s authenticity based on its link to terroir. Advocates argue that the DOs expand market opportunities, protect cultural heritage, and ensure the reputation of Mexico’s national spirits. Yet this book shows how the institutions that are supposed to guard “the legacy of all Mexicans” often fail those who are most in need of protection: the small producers, agave farmers, and other workers who have been making tequila and mezcal for generations. The consequences—for the quality and taste of tequila and mezcal, and for communities throughout Mexico—are stark.
Divided Spirits suggests that we must move beyond market-based models if we want to safeguard local products and the people who make them. Instead, we need systems of production, consumption, and oversight that are more democratic, more inclusive, and more participatory. Lasting change is unlikely without the involvement of the state and a sustained commitment to addressing inequality and supporting rural development.
List of Illustrations
1. The Promise of Place
2. From the Fields to Your Glass
3. Whose Rules Rule? Creating and Defining Tequila Quality
4. The Heart of the Agave: Farming in Tequila Country
5. Making Mezcal in the Shadow of the Denomination of Origin
6. Hipsters, Hope, and the Future of Artisanal Mezcal
7. Looking Forward
Sarah Bowen is Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University.
"This is far from a breezy read, and that’s exactly the point. In today’s spirits landscape, where a new celebrity tequila brand seems to launch each month and mezcal has gone viral, it’s rare that we pause to consider the consequences of our adoration . . . . Offers an exhaustively researched, academic look at the forces that threaten these two great spirits that should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in protecting all that makes them great."—Punch
"There is not much published about the two iconic Mexican spirits, except for consumer books and tasting guides to different brands. Bowen's perspective is fresh and thought-provoking."—Fabio Parasecoli The Huffington Post
"Engaging . . . A top gift book for the beverage drinker."—Dean Tudor Gothic Epicures VinCuisine
"Sarah Bowen’s book is meticulously researched and delivers an important message about the limits of market mechanisms to reform the food system and deliver economic justice. Accessible to the casual reader as well as the seasoned food scholar, this work sets the bar for high-quality food scholarship." —Josée Johnston, author of Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape
"Sarah Bowen’s investigation of tequila and mezcal production in contemporary Mexico is masterful. She evocatively lays out the perils and possibilities of 'glocalization' as a strategy for protecting people, food, and drinks with a clear-eyed examination of the consequences of instituting denominations of origin and quality standards for tequila and mezcal. Although growing agave and making tequila and mezcal remain important for Mexicans, Bowen neither romanticizes nor dismisses the contradictions that emerge when agrarian and cultural ideals confront the complex power dynamics of a global political economic system. Divided Spirits
reveals the continued need to protect agrarian livelihoods, artisan food and drink, and cultural and biological diversity. Retaining control over whom and what determines quality is Bowen’s important and innovative call to arms, and we all should listen. Everyone must be involved in this fight—from small agave farmers in Oaxaca to bureaucrats in Mexico City to urban hipsters drinking smoky mezcal in a bar." —Amy Trubek, University of Vermont