“Agave Spirits. The Past Present, and Future of Mezcals” is a book published in 2023 by W.W. Norton & Company and written by Gary Paul Nabhan and David Suro Piñera and illustrated by René Tapia.
Agave Spirits Is a book by an ethnobotanist, Gary Paul Nabhan and a restaurateur, David Suro Piñera.
One person passionately defending agaves in all their fantastic, splendid and extinction threatened complexity and and another person praising all the wonderful spirits which can be made by harvesting the agaves and processing them into a spirit. And while it certainly seems, that this is a description of two opposing forces, it is also the world of agave spirits. And perhaps the world in general – not everything that’s nice, makes sense.
Both authors are at very frontend of all things mezcal and agave culture and have been for many years, so listening while they talk is worth the while.
Agave Spirits is composed with 16 chapter spanning 2 parts.
- Part one: Mezcal’s Historic Legacy
- Part two: The Future of Human-Agave Symbiosis.
The first 9 chapters which comprises Part One, attempts to to describe the botanic facts of agaves and how, in general, agaves are cultured – to some extent – the history of agave and agave spirits. The second part is about the challenge posed by the popularity of mezcals and and a broad, forward looking perspective sustainability.
The first chapter is about sketching the framemwork which has made possible the commercial succes of tequila production and has made agave farming a very industrial enterprise.
The second chapter is about the agave plants themselves. How they propagate, grow and how they used to be farmed in a historical perspective.
Chapter three dives into the biodiversity discussion. It is a recurring theme throughout the book, that the formal regulations of spirits pose a danger to natural diversity of plants and animals.
Chapter 4 deals with the history of agave in precolumbian times. Precolumbian time is a lot more time than postcolumbian time, so the authors dig into archeological findings regarding agave consumption back ten thousand years. Recent years have seen a lot of interesting research done about agricultural practices in precolumbian mesoamerica. New technology, like lidar scanning, has shown the indigenous mayan, aztec, zapotec etc cultures have had a much wider and more varied agriculture than we have previously thought.
Chapter 5 is about terroir. A main quality of small batch mezcals from specific geographical areas and born out of local tradtions and locally grown agaves is just that. It is a specific product from specific circumstances and believing that the product can be reduced to the agave species from which it is produced, is naïve. Terroir is what makes it very difficult to scale agave farming and still retain the uniqueness of a locally grown product.
Chapter 6 is to the point with descriptions of tahonas and generally about how to process the cooked or baked agaves with tahonas or mallets
Chapter 7 is about fermentation and the many yeast strains, bactierias and chemistry and the complexity of holobionts.
I have to confess that holobionts were a new concept for me. Allow me to cite the Wikipedia article on the subject here: “A holobiont is an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it, which together form a discrete ecological unit through symbiosis, though there is controversy over this discreteness. The components of a holobiont are individual species or bionts, while the combined genome of all bionts is the hologenome.”
Describing the complex relationship between the different elements of the cooking, shredding and fermentation as a holobiont makes good sense if look at the organic elements rather than the mechanical process.
Chapter 8 is about distillation. We take a look at prehispanic distillation with an eye to agave cultivation. Were agaves cultivated in precolumbian cultures and were they cultivated for the production of spirits? While it is easy to conclude that surely agave spirits were made before the conquest, the scientific world demands proof. This chapter is a fine excursion into the scientific world about these discussions!
Chapter 9. Why the tequila denomination is a bad idea. Tequila production comes with some harsh words in this book. “Pandemic” is one such word. It’s a good chapter which quite tightly walks us through how the historical and institutional and govermental context made the enormous tequila production and export possible. And at what price.
The first nine chapters attempts to describe the basic facts about agaves and their uses for spirits production. They are good – if sometimes rather unfocused chapters. Strangely, there is very little information about cooking/baking of the agaves even though there is great variety in the types and shapes of horno de pierdras.
Chapter 10 is a great chapter. While there is written a lot of articles about mezcal production, it is difficult to find articles about the institutional framework which surrounds mezcal production. This chapter describes by example how some of the various instutions interfere and interact with actual mezcal production.
Chapter 11 is a super interesting description of how the very institution of the CRM tends to monopolize all expressions of agave distillates. The mere existence of an institution which has its own incentive to keep people employed and grow, tends to be harsh to small producers who want to stay outside of the mezcal DO.
Chapter 12 explores the relationship between bats and agaves and the efforts made to counter the destructive agricultural practices of most blue agave/espadin production. These are complex matters which reaches far beyound taking care of the bats. Educting the jimadores and ensuring livable wages are aspects of the same problems.
Chapter 13 . The entire book builds on the vision that climate change will make the world a drier and warmer place. And this is where the ethnobotanist comes in with suggestions for using agaves as good crops for the times to come. This chapter is absolutely a bonus to the book, because it focuses on agriculture and goes into good depth about the consequences of climate change for farming. The thesis the authors put forward, is that taking a different, slower and more sustainable and local approach to farming, we can avoid some of the destructive elements of large scale, water intensive crops.
Chapter 14 are essentially two articles about visiting Maestros del Mezcal and talking with Maestra Sósima Olivera Aguilar. Maestros del Mezcal is an organization in Mexico composed of hundreds of producers in various regions, within all the Mexican states that make Mezcal. The other part of the chapter is about a visit to Real Minero and an interview with Graciela Ángela Carreño.
Chapter 15 is an excellent chapter which deals with the economic conditions of the farm workers and the use of pesticides. I believe this is the first time I have read such a comprehensive and well written article about this “shadow side” to the agave economy.
The last, the sixteenth chapter, is about helping and educating bartenders. While it is a nice story it also has some of the most annoying traits of this book. No real explanations as to when we are in Jalisco and why and who the persons telling the story are.
So… is this a good book?
Agave Spirits is part debate book and part text book. That is a delicate balance and one which often requires a good editor. And I have to admit, that I believe the editor may have been occupied with other stuff when this book was written. Fact is, there is, quite simply, too much text which does not explain or elucidate anything but is merely repeating again and again that mezcal is great. Which is no lie, fortunately, but still… once or twice IS enough!
Another – and much worse – issue is the lack of precision. It’s good to have friends and kind to quote your friends, but if – any- reader is to judge the depth of your friends knowledge, you have to provide context. Footnotes, explanations, whatever! Merely making quotes as “The late Tony Burgess, a prophetic texan” like in chapter 2, is not enough. WHO is Tony Burgess and what kind of prophet is he?.. The entire first half of chapter 14 talks about “Maestras Mezcaleras” without one single time explaining what it is and who Sosima Olivera is! …And why even have a bibliography if you don’t bother providing footnotes or actual precise references to specific works?..
Numbers, numbers, numbers…
The Mezcal Manifesto refers to “more than 62 agaves being used in mezcal production”. The books own “comprehensive index” in Appendix 2 of agaves used, has 43. In chapter three it is “33 major agave species used across Mexico”. In chapter 9 it is “42 species in the agave family being used to make mezcal in twenty-four mexican states” “Mezcal Reviews” – the site for reviews of mezcals, has 25 agave species listed.
There is always room for nature, uncertainty and reality of life, but there still is quite a jump from 33 to 43 to 62. Wikipedia lists 270 species of agave. This book claims that 215 species are facing “cataclysmic collapse”. It’s enough to make you dizzy and reach for the bottle!
The thing is… if you merely pull numbers out of a hat and never bothers to explain what the numbers refer to – they are just that. Numbers with no meaning.
Can you have your cake and eat it too?..
If you REALLY care about the agaves, you should perhaps not buy and drink mezcal! And perhaps the Mexican government should put the plug in and create quotas on mezcal production and limit exports. Nothing odd or strange about that suggestion. If we can have quotas on whales and other wildlife, why not agaves? This is the thinking that DOES spring to mind, but if one has a little patience, the suggestions Agave Spirits puts forward are probably better.
The Epilogue in Agave Spirits is quite radical when it comes to describing the problems and suggest solutions
This book comes with a The Ten Point action plan. It strives to work with the entire agave supply chain and make it possible gain better control of the complex relations between agave production, nature conservation, social conditions, regulations and mezcal consumption.
Agave Spirits has three appendixes.
- The Mezcal Manifesto – described above.
- A state by state comprehensive index that cross lists common names in spanish and indigeneous languages with latin, scientific, names.
- A list of agave species that are NOT being over harvested and can be bought without a guilty conscience.
- Plants and Animals used in Cured or Infused Agave distillates, in pechugas or in seasoned salts.
- A glossary of all things mezcal
The book is illustrated by the mexican artist and designer, René Tapia. The drawings are fine. Spindly, transparant and stylish. The have the same look and feel as the drawings in the book “Agaves of Continental North America”. My only complaint here might be, that the illustrations might have helped make the descriptions of for instance a the propation of agave more precise. Rather than trying to describe an agave bulbil – show it!
And finally… should you BUY this book?
Yes, absolutely! While it is a, sometimes, confusing and rambling book, it IS also a very interesting book, which is not afraid to wander off in many directions. This can sometimes be frustrating, but overall I believe it is a good thing, which essentially, just is a mirror image of a confusing world.
Buy the book from the publisher here: https://wwnorton.com/books/9780393867107