Juiced from the blue agave, tequila is the liqor of choice for party-goers worldwide. Like Champagne whose authenticity depends on geography among other things, tequila only counts as such if produced in one of these five Mexican states: Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Guanajuanto and Jalisco. All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas.
There is nuance and poignance in tequila production and consumption, and of late, there is a readiness to turn a blind eye to its complexity all in the name of capitalism.
The liqor with hues ranging from clear to amber has become a popular product for Hollywood celebrities to slap a label on, and most of them do not have roots in Mexico. In February 2021, the internet was abuzz with news of Kendall Jenner launching her own tequila brand Drink 818. Jenner is not Mexican, and she and other members of her prolific Kardashian-Jenner family have consistently been accused of being “culture vultures”.
When Jenner debuted her batch on Instagram, the comments were far from forgiving. “Tequila production is traditionally a family business in Mexico. I think it’s disgusting that another rich white celeb is appropriating Mexican culture with the audacity to think you’re making it better than Mexicans,” read one comment. “Here we go, another foreigner coming to Mexico and exploiting little nameless local producers, by paying them 1% out of their real profit,” one comment read. “I wonder how much they are really going to make compared to the millions YOU will profit!!,” said another.
Tequila actually became the intellectual property of Mexico in 1974. This made “tequila” produced and sold in other countries illegal and made it necessary for it to be produced and aged only in certain regions of Mexico. Liquor.com even mentioned that a Tequila Regulatory Council was appointed to “ensure quality and promote the culture surrounding the spirit.”
Jenner is hardly the first celebrity to appropriate tequila. Hollywood heavyweights like George Clooney, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Nick Jonas, and even AC/DC have had their own tequila labels years prior to Jenner’s 818. But the backlash has been more pronounced in her case for multiple reasons: the prevalence of cancel culture in the current climate, the Kardashian-Jenner’s being repeat offenders of cultural appropriation, and some observers even pointed out gender as a cause.
Along with these reasons, tequila experts have highlighted Jenner’s ignorance towards tequila, even if the nature of her intentions are unknown. Her video shows her taking sips of tequila on the rocks in a lowball glass, much to the disappointment of tequila enthusiasts. It’s traditionally sipped slowly from a shot glass. But there are mistakes in branding too. In conversation with InStyle, Lucas Assis, an L.A.-based tequila expert and bartender took note of 818‘s labeling. “It’s not ‘blanco tequila,'” he said, referring to the bottle labels, “it’s ‘tequila blanco.’ She just misspelled the Spanish … they all say ‘reposado tequila,’ ‘añejo tequila.’ Tequila is the first word, and then it’s blanco.”
The article also noted an agave shortage that’s arising because of the pressure to produce more tequila at a faster pace, even though it cannot be proved that the celebrity tequila boom is responsible for this. So, in honor of National Tequila Day, here are some other tequila brands to try that do not bear the mark of Hollywood.
2. Casa Dragones: headed by Bertha González, the “first lady of tequila”.
3. La Gritona: created by Melly Barajas, with a production staff comprising local women.
4. Tequila Don Sueños: a premium brand run by a family who has been growing agave for more than four decades. The fields and factory are located in the “Golden Triangle” region in Los Altos (Highlands) of Jalisco.
5. Tanteo: produced out of the only distillery owned by a cooperative of local agave farmers.
Bulbul Rajagopal is a data and investigative reporter with a special interest in minority issues, soccer, and politics. Her extensive coverage in India and Los Angeles rewarded her with an affinity for crime reporting. During her downtime, Bulbul enjoys exploring her passion for food and its cultural impact amongst other things.