Tequila Nation: Mexico Reckons With Its Complicated Spirit : The Salt Some of tequila's oldest traditions are fast being erased as international spirit conglomerates take over family businesses. And tequila makers are worried about their impact on the environment.

Tequila Nation: Mexico Reckons With Its Complicated Spirit

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It's time for another installment of Hidden Kitchens. Today we go to the Mexican town of Tequila and the region that produces the legendary namesake spirits.


Shouldn't a different song be playing? Anyway, any bottle of tequila must be made from the Weber blues species of agave, grown and distilled in that region. Field after field of agave gives this land a blued hue, defining its economy and traditions.

MONTAGNE: The Kitchen Sisters, producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, travel to Mexico and share this story, which they call Tequila Chamber of Commerce.


GABRIELLA CONERO: This is the main entrance to Tequila - Tequila town. My name is Gabriella Conero (PH) National Chamber for the tequila industry. In this row, you can find a lot of distilleries. This is Tequila Tres Mujeres, Hacienda de Oro. Herradura is right there. And this way you can see the Sauza factory.

GUILLERMO ERICKSON SAUZA: My name is Guillermo Erickson Sauza. And we're in the town of Tequila, around the northwest slope of the Volcan de Tequila. It's an old, expired volcano. And I'm the fifth generation to make tequila in my family. Now, at our little distillery here, La Fortaleza, we only make 100 percent agave tequila. Cenobio Sauza, my tararabuelo - great-great-grandfather - got to this town in 1850's, when he was a 16-year-old boy. At the time, it was kind of a boom town. There was a lot of people setting up tequila distilleries. Previously, it was illegal to make distilled spirits in Mexico to keep competition away from the spirits that were produced in Spain. Cenobio started the brand of Tequila Sauza in 1873. It was the first to export tequila into the United States. Tequila was like the cement workers', bricklayers' drink. It wasn't for the upper classes. We used to go to a wedding and you would see all brandy bottles on the tables. There was never any tequila bottles. About 1946, my grandfather, Javier, took over and slowly made Tequila Sauza what it was, the product of Mexico. Unfortunately, he sold Tequila Sauza when I was about 20 years old in 1976. We were all stunned. All of a sudden he just sold out. I found him reading the newspaper. And I said, (Spanish spoken) Daddy Javier, why did you sell the distillery, you know? And he pulled his paper to one side and he said, (Spanish spoken) because I wanted to. This is a very tough business. Fortunately, we kept this little old distillery. We were able to put it back together and get it making tequila in the traditional way. We brought out a brand called Fortaleza. It means fortitude.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish).

ROGELIO NAVARRO: Guadalajara is the Silicon Valley for Mexico in so many ways. Tequila industry produces a lot of jobs and a lot of money. It's not only tequila. It's also what it means to go out to the tequila country. It's becoming an experience. It doesn't necessarily mean alcohol. It also means culture, folkloric dancing, mariachi music, food. My name is Rogelio Navarro. I live in Guadalajara. I'm a video journalist. Tequila industry is a very huge part of the future of Mexico. But the biggest tequila companies are not Mexican anymore. They are internationally owned. And now that the Tequila Chamber of Commerce just sent first package of tequila to China. They are expected to sell more and more millions of liters of tequila in China.


FELIX: (Singing in Spanish).

FELIX: (Spanish spoken).

ROVENO SERVES: Felix is el Jimador. Jima means to harvest a agave.

FELIX: (Spanish spoken).

SERVES: He's been doing this for the last 16 years. His daddy was the one who taught him to be a Jimador.

FELIX: (Spanish spoken).

SERVES: The Jimador use this tool, which is called coa - it's very sharp - to harvest the agave. He's shaving all of the penca away from the agave. Penca - it's the agave leaf. They are very spiky. They are a lot of spines and thorns. It's like a protection for the heart of the agave. My name is Roveno Serves (PH), global brand ambassador Casa Herradura.


JIM REEVES: (Singing) I'm just getting back Juarez, Mexico. And I'll tell you something I want you to know. My forehead is aching. It throbs and it twirls from drinking tequila and teasing the girls.

DAVID SURO: I got a business. It's a casino business. You have to be able to predict what the consumption of your spirits going to be in the market eight years ahead. My name is David Suro, president of the Tequila Interchange Project and also the president of Siembra Azul Tequila. The tequila industry - the regulations allow us to use only one type of agave - the agave tequilana Weber blue variety. A hundred percent of the reproduction of agave is done now through cloning the plants.


CARLOS CAMARENA: The summer gets hotter and hotter every year. Traditionally for the blue agave, it took eight to 10 years to grow and mature. And now we are looking at the agaves maturing 5, 6, 7-years-old. Less sugar content because the plant is forced to grow and mature faster. And everybody's talking about it - Calentamiento global - global warming. We are, right now, at La Altena Distillery. This is one day's harvest. We process about 20 tons of agave per day. Seven ovens very slowly cook the agave - fermenting in wooden vats - the way that all tequilas were 100 years ago. So we generate organic compost and leave it so Mother Nature do its own thing.

CARMEN VILLAREAL: Tequilera means a woman that works in the industry and produces tequila. My name is Carmen Villareal. I am the general director of Tequilas San Matias. In our pre-Columbian history, Mayahuel was a goddess, the agave goddess for fertility. Our agaves can have 10 or 12 babies. I like to relate that history with our history now - to grow well is for our country with fertility and productivity.


MONTAGNE: This story was produced for the Kitchen Sisters in collaboration with Nathan Dalton. It was mixed by Jim McKee. You can visit the agave fields around Tequila at npr.org. This is NPR News.

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