Those close to me know of my love of mezcal and agave spirits, so it was no surprise to find my inbox flooded last Thursday with messages like, “OMG, did you see this??? What do you think???” That morning, Kendall Jenner, of the Kardashian clan, used Instagram to unveil her own tequila brand called 818. “When will these clueless white celebrities ever learn?” was my immediate reaction. Did the world really need another vanity project from a rich, famous American? No. And I wasn’t the only one annoyed at Kendall’s project: she received swift backlash on social media for her most recent venture of cultural appropriation.
The Kardashian-Jenner family has built a $2 billion empire, largely through the appropriation of Black culture. Now, they’re aiming to make money off Mexican culture, too. They are, however, not the first celebrities to venture into agave spirits: George Clooney broke ground with Casamigos, followed by Adam Levine & Sammy Hagar, AC/DC, Toby Keith, Nick Jonas, and Aaron Paul & Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad”. All of these celebrities are equally culpable of ignoring the economic and environmental impact on the communities where agave spirits are produced.
Sandrine Han, an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the University of British Columbia, wrote that appropriation takes place when a dominant culture (in this case, white Americans) take traditions from another culture without thorough research, and ignores the cultural context from which the traditions spring. What distinguishes appropriation from appreciation is the intentionality behind the project. To many in the beverage industry, the lack of intentionality behind Kendall Jenner’s announcement is one of its biggest faults. It was practically casual.
“When every last part of your life is highly curated and polished, to not bring forth something that you worked on so hard in the same capacity makes a lot of people question why you are doing it to begin with,” remarks Pamela Wiznitzer, a beverage consultant. She adds, “When you are in that power position where you can have anything in the world, WHY do you need to take in the cultures of other people to monetize off of it?”
Kendall Jenner isn’t without her defenders. For all we know (they claim) she may be helping create jobs and bring prosperity to Jalisco, Mexico where her tequila is produced. I asked Sarah Bowen, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University and author of Divided Spirits, a book that explores the social impact of agave spirit production, how many jobs a celebrity agave spirit creates. The answer is, not many.
“Since celebrity labels are often produced by existing distilleries, they aren't likely to generate a lot of new jobs. If the labels lead to increased demand, they might create an additional job or two. But more importantly, what kind of jobs are we talking about? How much do they pay? Romantic images of tequila's heritage conceal the low wages and deplorable working conditions that farmworkers and jimadores (agave harvesters) suffer from.”
According to Khrys Maxwell, former agave educator for Tequila Fortaleza and current Director of Tequila & Agave Distillates at the Museum of Distilled Spirits Khrys Maxwell, the average daily wage for a distillery worker in Jalisco is around $20 a day ($4800/year), and as low as $10 a day for jimadores ($2400/year). In comparison, the average US distillery worker makes around $45K a year.
The environmental impact of tequila production is also completely absent from the romantic narratives of celebrity brands. “In an attempt to avoid the cycles of surplus and shortage that have long characterized the industry, the tequila companies have taken more control over cultivation of agave,” remarks Professor Bowen. “As the responsibility of growing the agave has shifted from small farmers to the tequila companies, traditional farming practices have been replaced by an increasingly mechanized and chemical-intensive cultivation system.”
Due to this mechanization, monocropping, or the practice of planting a single type of crop in a plot of land, is the standard in the tequila industry. According to Lily Foster, an American agroecologist based in Mexico, monocropping is one of the single most destructive forces in the world of ecology. It directly contributes to desertification, or the transformation of an environment into a desert. “It is wiping out native populations of plants which we desperately need in the future,” she says. “It is wiping out plants that have much more genetic information than the domesticated varieties that have only been chosen for the abstract, invented needs of the market.”
For a company looking to make large profits from producing a tequila or a mezcal, fast and cheap production is a priority. And that means they embrace cultivation practices that are actively harmful to the environment. Kendall Jenner’s 818 tequila is produced by Cofradia, a white label operation that produces 67 different brands. It is the second largest producer of tequila brands in the world, so it’s doubtful that they’re using sustainable, ethical production methods. We’re not sure of the wages paid at Cofradia, but if Jenner really wanted to make a difference, she could have invested in a small family ranch that uses traditional methods instead of partnering with a massive producer that is contributing to the desertification of Mexico.
That would have shown that Jenner (and the Kardashians by extension) isn’t just in it for the money. It would have projected an image that she actually wanted to celebrate Mexico and its culture. But instead, she named her tequila after the area code of the wealthy American suburb she grew up in, and flippantly announced it with an Instagram post.
Finally, I’d like to address a common criticism leveled at Kendall Jenner’s Instagram announcement, in which she is shown drinking tequila with ice. There is nothing particularly offensive about this (unless you are a hardcore tequila snob). Jenner has chosen, for whatever personal reason, to drink her tequila this way. In the mezcal world, we say that the best way to drink mezcal is whatever way you like it best. Personally, I prefer to drink my agave spirits with a slice of social justice and a dash of environmental conscience, but that’s just me. I really recommend you try it, it tastes so much better.
Hector Meza is a mezcalier and consultant based in Mexico City, Los Angeles and New York. You can find him nerding out about agave spirits on Clubhouse @devasandwich.