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The Spirit of Tequila

The Spirit of Tequila by Joel Salcido. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press; 2017. Hardcover, 173 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59534-823-4. $29.95.

Tequila is the most iconic liquor from Mexico. Named for the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, the spirit is distilled from the hearts (caudices, referred to as piñas in Spanish because of their pineapple- or pinecone-like shape) of the blue Weber agave (Agave tequilana, Asparagaceae) native to mineral-rich volcanic soils in the hillsides and valleys of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Distilled since the 1600s, tequila is now one of the most popular liquors in the United States. The first three barrels of tequila imported to the United States were shipped by Sauza through El Paso, Texas, in 1873. Import rates from Mexico to the United States have risen to about 33.2 million proof gallons in 2016.

The name “tequila,” a type of alcohol called mescal, is now controlled by the Mexican government and refers to the distilled liquor made in or near the town of Tequila. Tequila is a protected name similar to “Bordeaux” for red wine or “Champagne” for white sparkling wine produced in the regions of the same names in France.

Unlike some of the books published in the past decade about tequila, this book contains no recipes and minimal text about the actual history of the plant, its ethnobotany, and the power of the plant and its alcoholic products. It is a superbly artistic book with beautifully compelling photography of the region surrounding Tequila, the agave plant, historic artisanal distilleries, and field workers (jimadores) and their field animals: images that speak to the heart and soul of the region and its people. The book includes almost 90 photos, taken with a medium-format camera.

Author/photographer Salcido grew up in this region, spending his teenage years in the border town of El Paso (my hometown) and returning to his native Mexico time and again to capture the essence of its places, people, plants, and pulque products. (Pulque — the traditional precursor of the distillate tequila — is the alcoholic beverage made by fermenting, as opposed to distilling, aguamiel, the sap extracted from the live maguey [A. americana] or agave plant.)

The photos are stunningly alive: a virtual journey to a part of Mexico’s heartland, where companies like Cuervo, Herradura, and Sauza have been producing tequila since 1758 (the year of the founding of Cuervo, the first company to begin the mass-distillation of tequila).

For tequila connoisseurs, ethnobotanists, herbalists, and others who may like to partake of a tequila shot or a margarita, this exceptional book is an artistically worthy addition to the documentation of an ancient cultural practice that produces one of the world’s unique beverages.

—Mark Blumenthal
ABC Founder and Executive Director
Austin, Texas