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For Mexican families who have been producing mezcal and tequila for generations, the agave plant has always been more than just a plant. The documentary AGAVE: THE SPIRIT OF A NATION, with its stunning photography, follows several agave growers who make the popular spirits in the traditional way, and gives us a small glimpse into the considerable amounts of blood, sweat and tears that go into the production of this historically important, and now fashionable, beverage. The result is a beautiful meditation on the people and the land from which they live.

People here have been cultivating this plant for millennia

Farming it connects them to the land, to their history

Its fibers are coarse, its leaves sharp

It is a struggle to grow, an unlikely source of sustenance

Those who harvest it, the jimadores, use the same primitive tools their ancestors did

The ancients believed it was a gift from the gods, able to communicate the secrets of the soil, To express the soul of the land

Here in the highlands of Jalisco, it's very common that we love to do everything by ourselves

It's not very easy for us to delegate

It looks so easy when they are doing it, and they are very skilled, because they have years and years doing this kind of job, but it is hard

Actually Guillermo, the guy with the hat, he has been with us doing this for 42 years

He learned this, the art of being a jimador, from his father, from his uncles, all of his brothers

Like, Guillermo's sons, he was able now to pay them for college

So now they don't wanna be jimadores because now they have a degree, they went to college, and their kids do not want to come and do this very hard labor

That is why the challenge is to preserve the jimadores

The good question is where are we going to get jimadores for the next generation, and that I couldn't answer what's gonna happen

Thousands of feet above sea level, often in the harshest of conditions, the agave plant thrives

The plant typically needs between six and ten years to reach maturity, and it must be harvested by hand

More than 200 species of agave exist on this planet, and most are native to Mexico

Some are farmed, but many more grow wild throughout the countryside, and can take twenty, even thirty years to ripen

For centuries, mezcal has been a way of life

Farmers make the spirit for their families, their neighbors

Sold in local markets, in unlabeled containers

A part of every celebration

When a child is born, a loved one is buried, when a couple is married

As the saying goes: It was long believed that the Spanish brought distillation to Mexico

But recent archaeological evidence suggests that primitive stills were in use long before the conquistadors invaded

It flourished in places with an abundance of agave, like the states of Jalisco and Oaxaca

Under Spanish rule, mezcal was first banned, then heavily taxed but thirst for the spirit persisted

One village in Jalisco made such delicious Mezcal, that word of it spread far and wide

Before it was a drink, Tequila was a place

The mezcal from Tequila grew so famous, that it came to be known simply as: "Tequila" Unlike mezcal, which can be made from many different types of agave, tequila can be made from just one, the blue agave

Demand for tequila has grown quickly

Production practices were forced to industrialize

Stainless steel replaced brick ovens

Old stone mills were abandoned

The most traditional methods for making tequila, all but disappeared

Everybody would prefer brandies

It's a very Spanish thinking, probably, about fifty years ago

and tequila was perceived as something that you would consume if you had not enough money, to go and buy a bottle of brandy

That was, if I may say so, that was the Spanish influence

A lot also had to do with the Mexican movies, with the charro drinking out of the bottle, getting drunk and pulling the gun, and start fighting and all of that

That was kind of the image that the tequila would have

The more that the consumer started learning in the last thirty years, about 100 percent agave tequila

Hey, tequila is not only for shooting and getting drunk

Now, you can enjoy the taste, the flavor, the subtle nuances from one tequila to another tequila

The more that the people started understanding that, tequila became more and more and more popular

The more you know about something, the more that now you have the tools to appreciate that something

This originally was very poor land

Very few crops would grow here, so we are used to work hard in order to finally get something out of the soil

50 years ago we used to produce 8 months a year, And now it's all year round nonstop

The people the is already working with us is people, Third and fourth generation of the same families that started working With grandfather or great grandfather

It is an extended family that has been with us In good and bad times

I was studying agriculture, because I thought well My father he's the master distiller, He's a chemical engineer

He knows he's stuff on producing tequila

When I came back from college with my title I said: "Ok, I'm ready let's go to the fields" And he told me: "I'm glad that your back, because I'm sick and tired been sitting at an office" "And taking decisions and dealing with paperwork and doing all of this" "So now, you sit on my chair and do what I would do, and I'm going to the fields

” And I said: "Wait a minute

There's something wrong here

" "I know a little bit about drinking it, but nothing about producing tequila," "and of course, I don't know how to run a company," "and you want me from overnight to take your place here?” He said, "Well, I'll be close by, I'll be in the fields

So if you have any questions," "you can always go and ask me," "but yeah, that's your role

Sit in my chair and do what I would do

" My brother is one of the most intelligent people in this world

He knows about everything and about numbers, about engineering

He's so smart

He is also, I've got to be honest with you, he's a little rough on the edges, because he is really tempermental

He gets upset really easily and I'm not saying this like a bad thing, because I think you need this kind of character in order to be the head of a company

You can't be soft all the time, or happy all the time

So I think every time he comes and looks at how the agaves is moving, how the ovens are loading, I think he's always thinking in that part, "How am I gonna grow?" "But without losing my people and without losing the quality

" Now we are having this big shortage of agave, and I think that's one of the most highest points of pressure, because you know that if we don't have agave, the rest of the production is dead

Agave shortages are not uncommon in the tequila industry

Increased demand for one hundred-percent-agave tequila, translates into a greater need for agave

The rise of agave prices in recent years has been relentless

Like all spirits, distilling tequila requires a vast amount of raw materials

It is no coincides that we use the word spirit

to refer to whiskey, or brandy, or tequila, or mezcal

To distill something is to reduce it to its most basic essence

To make tequila or mezcal, the agave must first be cooked

For tequila it is steamed

For mezcal, it is roasted underground

Then cooked agave is then crushed, extracting its sweet juices, which are then fermented

Yeast transforms sugar into alcohol

Next comes distillation

Typically in copper pot stills, but in certain villages, mezcal continues to be made in small clay pots

When the spirit of the agave is extracted, all the information it stores, transmitted over its lifetime, from the sun, soil, and water, is preserved

To drink it is to taste the land where it was made

A spirit's ideal compostion embodies the biological, environmental, cultural, even economic practices from the place it is made

And as consumers yearn for authenticity, Mezcal is an ideal structure

Mezcal is a story of economic triumph for Mexico

Exports have tripled over the past five years

Producing the spirit provides a way for communities across rural Mexico to earn a living from their traditions, but its popularity has also attracted foreign interests

Every major spirits company across the globe now wants its own brand of mezcal

And the disparity between the spirit's commercial success and the prosperity of the families who make it grows ever wider

And yet, the mezcal market is a fraction of tequila, a global business worth billions of dollars

Tequila's growth doesn't seem to be slowing

But the more the world demands the spirit, the greater the pressure on natural resources in the place where it is made

You want something modern, mechanized, and industrial, you can get it very easily in the market, but there's always someone that is looking for something a little bit different, al something that might have a soul, may have a heart

Those are the people that we are working for

We are not isolated in this planet

So her mom was killed, the employees from the fields brought her to me so I could take care of her

My dilemma's what to do with her because I wanted to release her, and now the vet tells me that she is getting used to the human people

Now she will be an easy prey for the hunters, if she's alone, so I dunno what to do with her here, just keep her in the garden… Or… Or what to do? We are focused on sustainability with the one philosophy in our head, which is not what kind of world are we leaving to our children, is what kind of children are we educating to leave into this world

What happens in the market is that eventually there's a crisis

The price goes up to the clouds and everybody gets excited about agave, even people that never had an agave plant in their life

Everybody starts planting agave at the same time

Seven years after that, guess what? There's more agave than what the industry can process

The price comes crashing down

Everybody says, “Oh, what a lousy business!" "I don't wanna hear about agave anymore in my life!” This cycle keeps repeating over and over, but it has been happening for 120 years, so what is really amazing or surprises me is that with such a long history, still, we don't get it

We don't learn

It is very common here that the people that plants agave, they keep on planting agave over and over, and over again in the same field, and they are exhausting the soil

They are extracting all of the nutrients

We have seen, we have been witnessed on how the agave gets, weaker and weaker, and more subject to diseases

So, for some people their philosophy is that time is money, let's get out of the soil and let's get out of the industry as much as possible, in the lowest possible time

For us, having five generations doing this growing agave, taking care of the land, it's a matter of we expect to have atleast another 5 or 10 generations behind us, that will keep on using the same land

So it is our duty to preserve that land for them

It's a matter of a philosophy, so we have to take care of it and educate our children, to be responsible for the future generations

Agave has been a cornerstone of the culture in Mexico for millennia

Pollinated by birds, bats, and insects, the plant has been a source of nutrition for humans for 11,000 years

Over the ages, people have roasted and eaten the plant's flesh, and dried the leaves to weave into clothing, bedding, and roofs for their homes

They used the fine needle at the tip of each spikey leaf for sewing garments and for bloodletting ceremonies

Agave was sacred to the Aztecs

They drank its fermented sap as a way to communicate with the gods

Today, agave fields dot the landscape

But researchers fear, as a vast monoculture, blue agave is at risk

A lack of biodiversity may have genetically compromised the plant

Farmers have noticed that their crop is more vulnerable in the face of pests and disease

And like other farmers, tequila's agave growers have suffered great losses in bouts of extreme weather in recent years

Now we are at La Alteña, the destilería That was begun by my grandfather, And then my father, and now us

And, now here this is the section where the agave… There was not even the thought about making mixto tequila, mixing something else

It was just pure 100% agave

There have been moments that there was not enough agave, and the government decided that to allow some producers, to use less and less agave and substitute the agave for sugar cane

So that is the wrong direction to go

A hundred percent agave

We will have

We are proud to say

That we are making

The best tequila from this country

The people who make this Tequila says that there is no one another like this one

I'm the youngest in this family, so, maybe I didn't work here since the beginning

But some part of my growing, my childhood, belongs to these people and to this place

I studied architecture

I'm an architect

So I was working back in Guadalajara in this great firm

I was really happy

I was making, I was doing what I really enjoyed was designing and building, and I have to be honest

My brother Carlos invited me and asked me to give the family business a chance because I didn't know anything

So that was the main reason why I came here, because I wanted to give it a try

To know what my father built, and what my brother and my sisters were working

But I have to be honest, I thought that I was not going to like it

What I'm afraid is that because of the boom of Mezcal, Mezcal can be forced to start running

Start mechanizing everything and start using all of their resources with not a lot of future

So actually, what I think that Mezcal can learn from Tequila is not to make, the problems, mistakes, that we made in the past

I hope that I will never see a mezcal mixto with 49% sugar cane

I hope that they will avoid that

So I think that the Mezcal industry has to learn from our mistakes in tequila industry, Not to go in certain directions

I was in Guadalajara and then Jenny, my sister, called me saying, "You know what? "We're getting flooded

” I had to be there

I had to try to see how big is the damage

The rivers were all so overflowed that there was no way to get into the distillery

At that moment, most of the employees, were already at the distillery

They heard that we were getting flooded and without us calling them, everybody came in order to see what can I do to help

We couldn't stop the distillery

We had agave cooking in the ovens, and the boilers were not working

So it was a matter of we need to keep up and running now

It took about 36 hours

But with my sisters, with my kids, with me, all of us, there was not such a thing as the boss, and the employee

It was just us together

This is our home, this is our business

This is what we have to do

My grandfather thought it was a good idea to build the distillery, in the lowest part of the ranch, because the water would come by gravity

Nowadays… It was good at that time, but now that is the problem

We are the lowest part of the ranch, so all the water will concentrate here

And still people doesn't think on global warming

Well, ten years ago we had the first flood here in eighty years

Two years ago we had the second

This year we had the third, so it's more and more and more often

We had snow in 1997 for the first time in 130 years

We had snow in March last year

So, it's getting worse and worse and worse

Just another little stone on the road, that's it

The moment that you are leaving this world, you're taking nothing with you but your experience, what you lived

There's a new generation that comes pushing behind us, so what we try to do is just kind of train them and, prepare them for the future

Try to make them understand that this company, this field, these agave's, all of this is not theirs

They have to take care of them for the next generation, so they are the guards, they are the keepers

We are not here forever and therefore who wants to be the richest, dead guy at the cemetery

As long as you have decent way of living, as long as you can provide your family with all of their necessities, the rest is extra

My father wasn't sick, he was a healthy man, he was 76

That morning he went to the office to tell people what to do, but he couldn't make it through the door, he suddenly faint

We took him to the hospital and 20 minutes later he was dead

I actually never had a chance to speak with him about what I was to do with my life

I think that he must have been laughing about me, like you are not going to perform as an actual architect, you are gonna continue with my legacy, but you' never expect that your dad goes out and never comes back

I don't even begin to describe, how, how Carlos felt in that moment, because he was, now everything was on him, all the responsibilities, all the good and the bad decisions they worked together, they were like everywhere and every decision they made them, so, my father I think think he would be really proud to see, to see that all his work is continuing by that line

Some don't think of tequila as a cultural product

Perhaps we should

A spirit with sacred roots and rich history that can only be made here in Mexico

A robust industry that supports some seventy thousand families across the region

A symbol of Mexican identity, in all its complexity

The rise of the spirit in recent years has inspired certain producers to look back at ancestral traditions

Dusting off the tahona, embracing brick ovens, and returning to farming practices that replenish the soil and respect the landscape

It has sparked a movement toward more sustainable practices throughout the tequila industry

People here are looking to the future while heeding the past, striking a delicate balance between satisfying the market, While preserving heritage

This prehistoric plant, a living dinosaur

A vehicle for the secrets of the soil

Following generations of tradition

Transformed by fire

Distilled to its essence

To become a piece of our culture

And share with the world

Audio and subtitles


  • English


  • Spanish
  • English

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