I have many fond memories of my first meeting Sarah Bowen during the historic Ian Chadwick Blue Agave Forum tour of tequila distilleries in 2006.
She was a young student then, relentlessly recording every interview with master distillers and jimadores on a digital voice recorder, in flawless Spanish.
Who knew that ten years later she would be a wife, mother, and an Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University?
No doubt, she did.
Her years of intricate research into the tequila–and the now booming mezcal–industry led her in 2015 to publish Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal and the Politics of Production.
A vital voice that every potential Tequila Boss Lady should heed, here are Sarah’s responses to our handful of questions.
SB: I am a researcher, not a part of the tequila or mezcal industries, so I think that matters. I have thought a lot, however, about how being a woman mattered for my research.
For my book, I did over 100 interviews, and most of these were with men, who still hold most positions of power in the industry. I think that in some cases, being a woman gave me an advantage.
Many of the men I interviewed did not perceive me, a young woman and a student at the time, as a threat or even as someone with a lot of knowledge of the industry.
This meant they were often willing to share politically controversial perspectives or details about their companies that I don’t know they would have shared with someone they saw as more of a contemporary.
TA: How have you been able to change things within the Tequila/Mezcal Industries?
SB: In my book and in some of my other writing, I have tried to communicate the important issues facing the tequila and mezcal industries and show how consumers in the U.S. can advocate on behalf of small producers, farmers, and workers.
Consumers in the U.S. and Mexico helped defeat NOM 186 several years ago, and I hope we will be able to defeat NOM 199, the absurd proposal that would force many small mezcal producers to use the word “komil” to sell their spirits.
In a certain sense, I have more hope for the future of mezcal, in particular, than I have [tequila] in the ten years since I started studying these industries.
Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about issues related to sustainability, quality, and fairness in these industries, and I hope that I might have played some small part in that. But I also realize that it’s an uphill battle.
The rules that define tequila and mezcal have evolved in one direction for the last 60 years, and almost every decision has favored the big companies over small producers and workers. Changing that trajectory is difficult, but I think we’re starting to see some positive changes.
TA: What do you see as the future of women working within the Tequila/Mezcal Industries?
SB: I think that women are going to become more visible in the tequila and mezcal industries in the next few years.
Sarita Gaytán and Ana Valenzuela’s research on women in the tequila industry has shown that women are represented in increasingly diverse positions in the tequila industry: from tequila companies to the CRT.
For example, we see women like Graciela Angeles heading up Real Minero, one of the most interesting mezcal brands, and also being an influential and important voice about many current debates related to mezcal.
I think that these trends are going to continue, and that this is really important for the future of these industries.
TA: What facets of the Tequila/Mezcal Industries would you like to see change?
SB: We need more transparency about how profits are being distributed.
As I said above, savvy American consumers and bartenders are increasingly knowledgeable about the practices used to make their tequila and mezcal, and in the case of mezcal, about the type of agave that goes into it. I think this has had positive effects.
But consumers know very little about how the people who make tequila and mezcal are compensated.
We live far away from the communities where [mezcal] is being produced, and it’s easy to romanticize these producers and their traditions.
We need to ask questions about how their mezcal is being produced—and perhaps most importantly, about how the small producers, farmers, and workers are being paid.
We also need to question a mezcal Denomination of Origin [DO] that excludes so many people and regions with long histories of making mezcal.
The rules of the DO excludes many people by setting standards that are more appropriate for large, industrial producers. Even more egregiously, the geographical boundaries of the DO exclude people in many regions of Mexico where people have been making mezcal for multiple generations.
And NOM 199 threatens to make this even worse, by now making these people call their products “komil.”
TA: Is there anything you’d like to say to women who may be contemplating entering and working in the Tequila/Mezcal Industries in one form or another?
SB: I hope that they will continue, and I hope that they will support each other.
Diversifying the voices we hear from regarding the future of these industries–in terms of gender, but also in terms of geography, size, and ethnicity—is the best way to preserve the quality of tequila and mezcal and also support all of the people that make them.