Mexico’s undocumented migrants have a patron saint: Father Toribio Romo González, a parish priest who, in the late 1920s, delivered mass in a distillery outside the village of Tequila, at a time when religion had been banned outright by the Mexican government. After he was ratted out, Romo fled, but was eventually discovered by federales in his valley hideout, where they roused him from his sleep and shot him on the spot. His murder was never reported in the local papers, and church records on this particular case are hard to come by. But as Ted Genoways discovered while researching the history of Tequila and its eponymous drink, Romo’s murder remains a vivid, practically tactile legend.
“With a bit of asking around, you can find the physical spaces where these things happened—and very often find people who are connected to those places,” Genoways says. “I saw Romo’s hiding place, the bed where he was killed, with the daughter of the man who was hiding him. That seems like an impossible gap of time, but then you realize that something that happened ninety years ago didn’t happen all that long ago after all.”
Land grabs and blood feuds, ambushes and priests on the run: Few periods are as unhinged as the thirty-five years Genoways covers in his current work, a chronicle of the tequila industry that homes in on the period between the beginnings of the Mexican Revolution and World War II. Genoways says that the process of assembling Romo’s story was typical of the research for the book overall. Traditional sources have been spotty at best: Journalistic oppression, by both the government and powerful families, runs deep in Mexico, riddling newspapers with frustrating silences; and decades of political instability meant that official documents were either not kept or destroyed.
“Archives have still been a key part of the research—but it’s often a process of triangulation,” says Genoways. “You find one scrap of information in a newspaper, others in legal records and land records scattered around in various municipal and state archives. Together, they give you a picture of a particular disagreement, but it’s always slow going.”
Despite the challenges, Genoways says that hard-earned eureka moments have kept him going, though they’ve also made the book strikingly different from its original vision. What was first imagined as a 150-year chronicle of the tequila industry pegged to a handful of critical shortages of agave has been narrowed down to the first half of the twentieth century, mainly because of how well internecine family sagas layered over the larger events of the Mexican Revolution, Prohibition, and the Cristero War—a time when “everyone was armed to the teeth, and there was very little consequence for killing your enemies.”
“Some of these conflicts were about business,” he adds, “some were about land, about water, about who controlled supply routes or who had the best deal with the bottler. And as families intermarried, those issues became incredibly personal. That’s where the story becomes about much larger themes than just the tequila industry. Now it’s about everything from the forces of history to eternal themes of love and hatred and a lust for revenge. And to a great degree, the industry itself doesn’t talk about this period because it’s so violent and so complicated.”
How one gets from a sip of Cuervo’s top-shelf Reserva de la Familia to Shakespearean subplots is a matter of impulse and luck and indefatigable curiosity—beginning with the bottles themselves, which for Genoways became unlikely source material.
“At first the bottles were just intriguing for what their labels showed, in terms of marketing and the way a brand presented itself during a given period of time,” says Genoways. “But as I started assembling a chronology and trying to fill holes, the bottles sometimes become the only remaining evidence of certain periods. You’ll find markings that indicate what sort of government inspections were going on at that time, which division of the government was responsible for regulating the industry, who the trademark was held by, all sorts of things.”
“There’s a particular bottle of Cuervo,” Genoways continues, “that has two registration marks on it—one from the government of 1908 that was in power before the revolution and one from 1912 after the revolutionary government took power. Using that second date, I was able to track down the tax debates of the new government as they struggled with figuring out how to define what is or isn’t tequila. That discussion became central to making tequila a national spirit in the new era of Mexico.”
With enough antique bottles, Genoways says, he’s begun to assemble a kind of mosaic of an evolving industry. “Everything becomes potentially significant. What does it mean when you see that we’ve gone from a cork to a screw-top, or that the screw-top now has a piece of paper over it that indicates that the bottle hasn’t been tampered with? I was able put those tamperproof labels together with American newspaper articles that indicate that, during Prohibition, people were paying kids to collect empty tequila bottles along the border and filling them with wood alcohol and smuggling them across or selling them to tourists. So the objects themselves become stand-ins for the written record.”
All of which is to say that, for Genoways and any reader of his chronicle, a shot of tequila now comes with a backstory that carries echoes of the great Mexican family feuds of the 1920s but also speaks to the fraught zeitgeist of 2017. What connects those moments, more than just historical symmetries, is a sense memory that reaches across time.
“I have grown obsessed by the idea of ‘lost flavors.’ Terroir, after all, not only refers to the soil and weather in which the agave grew and the juice fermented but also the particular people and equipment and techniques deployed throughout the process. So you’re not only tasting a process but a particular moment in time.” This obsession explains a kitchen overrun with his collection of sealed antique bottles, but he’s also beguiled by how ineffable those lost flavors can be. “No matter how much we may try to keep it bottled and secreted away, time finds it. The tequila oxidizes and softens. The seal leaks or allows evaporation. If we don’t drink it, the essential spirit—somehow, some way—still leaves. As a culture, we’ve grown accustomed to capturing sight and sound. We watch old movies, listen to music on vinyl 45s, without much thought. But many tastes of times within living memory are permanently gone. I’m hoping to bear testament to those flavors but also to uncover the stories of how they were made and the wars that were fought over them.”
— Paul Reyes