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11 june 2015

I don't like tequila. Though I've never been sick on the stuff, and in fact I've never had more than a couple of shots and a margarita or two in my entire drinking life. I just can't get past the initial taste – less taste than smell, and less smell (I'm pretty hyposmic) than a kind of sinus-opening medicinal blast. Menthol and camphor are two notes that cognoscenti detect in high-end tequilas; but who wants to drink liquefied Blistex?

Ian Williams's global history of tequila, for Reaktion Books, doesn't meditate much on the sensory experience of tequila-drinking. "Peppery tingle" is about as close as Williams comes to characterizing the uniqueness of the liquor. But the absence of palatal reverie in Tequila is compensated by keen exposition of the social and environmental contexts for its production and consumption.

I learned a great deal from Tequila, including the difference between tequila and mescal. It's a bit like the difference between Cognac and brandy: in each case, the former is a type of the latter, the most famous and prestigious type, and so prestigious that it cuts loose from its generic origins to become something wondrous and unique. Like Cognac, Tequila is a place and, in the 21st century, a regulated denomination of liquor.

But mescal, tequila proper, and other Mexican liquors I'd never heard of till I read this book are all made from the agave, a hardy succulent of arid southern North America that grows in abundance right outside my window as I write. Williams paints a fascinating picture of both traditional and innovative practices for turning this slow-maturing plant into the national spirits of Mexico.

Like most of their distilled relatives, tequila and mescal have had a wildly variable history in terms of their place on the socioeconomic scale. Both, at times – tequila in Jalisco, mescal in Oaxaca – have been the powerless rural man's moonshine of choice. Both, though tequila more energetically of late, have been top-shelf drinks for the connoisseur, commanding high prices on the export market. Like brandy, that export market has been enmeshed in webs of international commerce, so that tequila production is a balance between fairly ancient local traditions and the global commodity market.

But as Williams notes, tequila and mescal have one factor in their favor that brandy, whiskey, vodka, and rum don't: the "feedstock" of the stuff is a temperamental plant that can't readily be grown elsewhere. Tequila depends for its identity on the qualities that make me dislike it. You can make vodka from agave, and some lighter brands of tequila come close to vodka in their neutrality. But the stuff that fans covet is sharply and uniquely associated with a single cloned species of agave that grows in a single terroir in Jalisco. And now, thanks to trade agreements, that local identity is international law.

Tequila makers thus don't have to fear counterfeiters, or the growth of alternative tequila industries in India or China. But they have had trouble selling on the Asian market because Chinese law, in particular, forbids the import of spirits with unacceptably high levels of methanol. I don't know if you can really taste methanol in tequila, but that may be another element of its unique profile: good old-fashioned Prohibition-defying, nervous-system assaulting wood alcohol. No, I kid, I think. There isn't enough methanol in a bottle of tequila to make you nearsighted, let alone blind. Though I now have one more reason to avoid it, just to be careful.

There aren't any worms in those bottles, either, though they hang out in some mescal bottles, and Williams cites the common Oaxacan practice of adding powdered or crumbled gusanos to mescal as a flavor treat. One man's caterpillar is another man's cocktail olive.

Most of the recipes in the back of Tequila are for cocktails, though there are a couple for tequila-based salsas. I won't try the cocktail recipes, being as averse to mixed drinks as I am to agave liquor. But I used to mix what I heard were acceptable margaritas: and my formula is exactly Williams's: three parts tequila to two parts just-squeezed lime juice to one part Cointreau. I'd shake it with ice, strain and pour. Another nice one, variously named, is just three parts tequila to two of orange juice and one of lemon juice, prepared like a margarita. The simpler the better with these things, though I'd rather I make them and you drink them.

Williams, Ian. Tequila: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.