Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She visited the New Museum of Agave Intoxicants in December 2015. Enjoy!
In December 2015 I found myself in Mexico for a new research project. Although my work had nothing to do with intoxicants (the subject of my first book), I couldn’t resist stopping by the Museo del Mezcal y Tequila (Museum of Mescal and Tequila) one free afternoon.
In years of travel, I’ve visited many intoxicants museums. The Drug Elimination Museum of Yangon, Myanmar attempts to scare schoolchildren away from methamphetamine with graphic images of dying addicts and bloody battles between traffickers and government forces. In Thailand’s Golden Triangle, not one but two Opium Museums recount the history of the drug in Southeast Asia and China as a tale of Western oppression and spur to state-building. The Coca Museum in Cuzco, Peru seeks to replace the legal, mildly stimulating plant’s fatally tarnished image as the raw form of cocaine, with a more positive association with national culture. Free coca-filled chocolates round out the experience. (They taste terrible.)
The Museo del Mezcal y Tequila, which opened in 2010, is a different experience altogether. Like Mexico’s other famed agave museums in Cancún and Guadalajara, this institution might best be characterized as a promotional opportunity for the alcohol with the fastest-rising sales in the United States. Although tequila has long suffered from its association with shots, drunk college students, and intense hangovers, in the past decade it has followed vodka, whiskey and bourbon into the luxury sector. Reflecting increasing demand among consumers for artisanal comestibles, most growth has occurred in super-premium sales (that is, tequilas that cost more than $30 per bottle and consist of pure agave). Meanwhile, mescal, associated even more firmly with “authentic” local production, is also experiencing booming growth—in fact, many tequila brands today have begun to fear its competition.
Entry to the museum costs 50 MXN, or less than $3 at the current exchange rate. While hardly steep, the fee exceeds that of all except the most famous museums of Mexico City, likely in anticipation of a predominantly foreign visitor demographic. The building is a sleek green translucent structure three stories high. Its first floor is devoted to a gift shop (selling countless varieties of tequila, shot glasses, and the obligatory sombreros) and an upscale restaurant/bar. The third floor, an outdoor balcony, offers a view of Garibaldi Square. Formerly a notoriously seedy public space, the square is now a much vaunted tourist destination, revitalized by recent restoration projects in the central historical district. Today, over four thousand mariachis are registered with the city to play in the courtyard, though at the time of my trip only about a dozen were present.
In a nod to the museum’s location, panels on the history of mariachi, as well as a private banquet room, occupy half of the second floor. The remainder is devoted to the titular exhibit, consisting of three sections. Displayed along the right-hand wall are hundreds of mescal and tequila bottles, each with a unique shape and label. Many brand names—Grand Mayan, Aztecal, Agave de Cortes—evoke the proud history of Mexico. Also notable is the use of toponyms: tequila, usually distilled from blue Agave tequilana, is trademarked to a limited number of Mexican locales. Mescal, too, can only be made within the country.
To the left, the visitor learns about diverse means of production of mescal and tequila, from the cultivation of agave to cooking, milling, fermenting, distilling, bottling and marketing. In the center of the room, glass display cases present the historical background of agave alcohol from the earliest evidence of its discovery through the present day. The exhibit concludes by attributing the rising popularity of Mexican liquors to “the great diversity of cultures that produce these spirits and are part of our national legacy.” Luckily for the tourist, “there is a type of tequila for every taste.”
To demonstrate the point, the museum offers free samples (much like the popular and proliferating craft breweries in my home state of Colorado). A bartender in traditional costume offered me a half shot of each beverage, in addition to a shaker of salt and a bowl of lemon and lime slices. When I was done, she set down a menu with additional options, including a variety of shots for 19 MXN, or less just over a dollar each. (I have to admit that I enjoyed this part of the museum quite a bit.)
Setting aside this “experiential” research, however, I was left unsatisfied by the museum, particularly its almost total neglect of demand. Who drinks tequila and mescal in contemporary Mexico? When? Why? Curators rightly reject the stereotype of the “drunken Indian” associated with agave spirits since the era of Spanish conquest. Yet they implicitly substitute the equally problematic American or global “yuppie” as the target consumer of today. The exhibit also excludes information on social problems associated with consumption: drunkenness, alcoholism, etc. To a certain extent the avoidance of these topics is reflected by the academic literature. Whereas several recent works consider the role of alcohol in ancient, colonial and pre-revolutionary Mexico, scholarship on intoxicants south of the border in the more recent past has perhaps understandably tended to focus on the headline-grabbing War on Drugs.
The Museo del Mescal y Tequila is clearly designed to offer an experience that appeals to relatively wealthy tourists south of the border. Fully acknowledging my own positionality as one of these travelers, I nonetheless ask: will the rising agave industry empower Mexico vis-à-vis the United States, or will it simply reinforce existing power relations between the two countries? Inasmuch as artisanal production may support local economies, it does communities no service to overlook disruption, fragmentation and inequality as consequences of capitalist development in the intoxicants industry.