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Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production (California Studies in Food and Culture) Paperback – October 1, 2015
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"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
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Among many things she goes into detail on denominations of origin (DO), what they mean, and what their potential value is. Then she dives into the history of mezcal and later tequila (which is a mezcal as many know). The sections on tequila are pretty much a take down of the big industrial tequila producers - how they abuse the farmers who grow the agave and exploit the DO to the point that it has really detached from its original intention. The interviews with the farmers and laborers gets a bit lengthy and tedious and her points could be made more succinctly, but it reflects an extensive amount of knowledge and she has a lot to communicate.
Having written a book on mezcal, I really enjoyed the mezcal section (surprise!) and it all rings true to me. She does a great job discussing the mezcal DO and the associated issues, including agave sustainability, the profound historical culture of mezcal, the economic issues for producers, the appalling attempts to change the DO in favor of the industrial producers, and many more things.
About the only thing I did not like is her ongoing reluctance to give the reader obvious information that you are inclined to ask as you are reading the book. For example, she has numerous quotes from the "artist" founder of Del Maguey, but fails to name him (it is Ron Cooper!). Why not tell us? Or she will give you someone's name and say he is "an owner of a high-end tequila brand", but does not tell me which brand? She talks about an agave spirits cocktail bar in NYC's East Village that was named cocktail bar of the year, but she does not give you the name of the bar (it's Mayahuel). There are numerous other examples of this style. Why Sarah, why??? I don't get it.
While those issues frustrated me, it did not bring down my overall experience. It is well written, well researched, has a pointed perspective, and full of information. I enjoyed it.