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A Heritage Plant for Our Time: Gary Nabhan Discusses His New Book on Agaves

Patagonia Regional Times / Jay Babcock

Patagonia resident, award-winning ethnobotanist and Native Seeds/Search co-founder Gary Nabhan has a new book out, the 40th (or so) in his long career.

Photo by Jay Babcock

Co-authored with Philadelphia restaurateur and agave advocate David Suro PineraAgave Spirits: The Past, Present and Future of Mezcals (W.W. Norton) is, like so much of Nabhan’s work, an inspiring, encyclopedic read about a complex and beguiling subject. It traces, in some detail, not just the 8,000-year history of the agave plant’s use by North Americans, but also its water-efficient life cycle; its mutually beneficial interaction with other plants and animals, including insects and nectar-feeding bats; how it gets made into an alcoholic distillate; and how it can help us deal with heat and drought – and fight diabetes.

Folk histories, scientific breakthroughs, misguided government interventions, disastrous industrial practices, marketing crazes, exhortations for a more equitable and sustainable system of making and delivering mezcal and other agave distillates … it’s all here, along with a cast that includes a 400-breasted Aztec agave goddess, indigenous cultivators and healers, heroic “plant barbers,” rebel female mezcal makers, an unlikely 1970s American agave scholar-prophet and the “Bat Man” of Mexico. It does this book a disservice to try and summarize it in a single paragraph; rest assured this is a bravura, capstone work from two giants in their field.

I met with Nabhan last month at his hillside home just outside Patagonia town limits to discuss the book’s genesis, its more startling contentions and its surprising relevance for our region’s ecology and economy. Here are some highlights from our hour-long talk.

PRT: How did this book come about?

Gary Nabhan: I already knew David Suro’s work on agaves and bats, and we knew a lot of the same friends. One year at the Agave Heritage Festival in Tucson, David said, “Gary, your book on tequila [2004’s Tequila!: A Natural and Cultural History, co-written with Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata] is read by thousands of bartenders – it’s sort of the baseline for what they should know. Would you be willing to do a book on mezcal, on all the agave spirits?” And I said, “I’d do that only if you were the co-author.” I couldn’t have done it without David. He knows so much more about parts of the industry that I think no American knows about. He was born in Mexico and is perfectly bi-national, bilingual. So he was sort of like a guide, not just a co-author.

I’m not a bat guy. I’m not a distiller. But I’ve interacted with all of those people for more than 40 years now. I had the benefit of working with the guy [botanist Howard Scott Gentry] who wrote the magnum opus on agaves in North America. And as I was looking at retirement, I said y’know, I gotta summarize that. I gotta show all these things that aren’t in print, that are part of the fabric of this large story that affects us both here directly in the United States and in Mexico. 

I think people, especially wine drinkers, will be shocked to hear you say that agave spirits are “the most nuanced spirits in the world.”

You’re gonna get all kinds of opinions. But in terms of what these beverage technology labs tell us in Mexico, there’s just nothing that compares to the number of fragrances and flavors that are pulled out by these diverse microbes in mezcals and 100% agave spirits. A single mezcal from Durango might have 30 to 70 kinds of yeasts and bacteria that pull out the flavor and fragrance notes. People can argue about what’s their favorite drink, and they may be dead on about that. But in terms of the most complexity, I think it’s hands down: mezcals are unparalleled. 

That said, I really hope that people who aren’t tequila and mezcal aficionados, or maybe just dislike alcohol because of the damage it’s done to someone in their family or something, don’t just give up on agaves. Because agaves are one of those crops that produce the kind of products that some people are calling “nutriceuticals” – they’re nutritious but they also have medicinal value. There’s inulins [prebiotics] in roasted agave hearts, agave syrup, and molasses, and mildly fermented beverages that are on the order of 1 to 3% alcohol, that are absolutely delicious and healthful. 

And I think because agaves use a sixth to a half of the water that most staple crops like corn do to produce the same amount of edible plants, then they make a lot of sense as agriculture crops on arid lands. 

There’s a growing number of wineries in Sonoita and Elgin. Would you argue for growing agaves instead of grapes? 

It’s not an either/or thing. You can do intercropping of grapes with century plants – what we call alley cropping or filter strip plantings. A lot of the land in Sonoita and Elgin, where the grapes are planted, is sloping – you could do ten yard patches of agave for soil erosion control on slopes, in addition to the grapes. 

This early 20th century mezcal was likely made here and distilled and bottled in Tucson.

Obviously growers would still need a ready market that they already know how to sell into. But they would have a lot of benefits from having another crop that has more stable yields than wine grapes. If they had a distilled spirit like agave in addition to the wine produced on the same land, they’d have a lot more economic security. And they could put the agaves on the most marginal land on their farm or ranch.

Ronnie Cummins, a Minnesota agrarian activist who passed away last week, founded a demonstration farm called Via Organica just outside San Miguel de Allende. And it’s the most gorgeous farm I’ve ever seen in my life. Agaves, prickly pear, mesquite – all these things that we’re underutilizing, he demonstrated that they have great economic and ecological value.

Agave production wouldn’t be a new thing here. It occurred in what is now Pima and Santa Cruz County prehistorically. Right where we’re sitting now was part of Mexico up to the 1840s. Mezcal was being made in this county and bottled and distilled up in Tucson by a guy named Julius Goldbaum through 1910. And he owned land just to the south of here, on the southern flanks of the Patagonia Mountains. We probably had a healthy industry here in the Patagonia area through the 1930s, because we have at least five different kinds of agave. And of course mezcal continued to be clandestinely produced here through Prohibition, and afterwards. I was out with an archaeology crew in the late 1970s in the Santa Ritas and we found a still there that looked like it hadn’t been used for 20-30 years, in a wash, in the same kind of location as the ones we see in Sonora.

Then there’s the Huachuca agave, which grows on the flanks of the Huachuca mountains. We always find them clustered in isolation, where there were Apache ceremonial camps. They’re almost a map of where early historic indigenous camps were for semi-nomadic people. They’d plant them around their ceremonial grounds and then come back. They’d make a seasonal route through here. 

That seems like that’s a lot of what your career has been about: recovering or reviving traditional uses of plants.

Really, it’s been about avoiding the extinction of relationships between plants and cultures. At first I was only involved in helping Native American friends keep extractive industries from intruding into sacred sites and gathering grounds on indigenous lands. And after we got that done, somebody said, “You environmentalists are really good at stopping things, but there’s still a lot of poverty here. What can you do to help our community not be so vulnerable to extractive economies?” And that’s really my work, and that’s what Borderlands Restoration is about too. There’s still plenty of environmentalists that help do the work of stopping things. But I can’t spend my energy on that anymore. I really need to help forge some innovations that will be long-term solutions.

The point is, even if the Santa Cruz Valley never becomes big agriculture like some parts of Cochise County or Pinal County, or Yuma, we’re going to have more people looking to farm here. They are going to be restrained in their water use because of climate change. We have to protect our most vulnerable wetlands and spring waters for wildlife and for sustainable future uses for the human population. But we also know we need to eat. And so what are we going to produce in the future that will have enough value added that farmers can start up and won’t go bankrupt? Crops like agave and prickly pear could be part of the answer.

I think we are going to see a lot more innovation in agriculture in Arizona soon than we’ve seen for well over a century. 

This area provides stopovers for the kinds of bats that are needed to pollinate agaves. They come through here on a 700-mile journey, which is just incredible to me. 

That’s another story in the book, that’s pertinent to this county, that I just love. The lesser long-nosed bats come up along the Sea of Cortez coast, all the way up into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Ajo, then they pivot east towards Saguaro National Park. And not much further north than Saguaro, they began to head back down to the Madrean highlands here to get to the agaves, from June through August. So we live in a key part of their “nectar corridor.” If agaves in southern Arizona were knocked out, it would be a missing link in the whole food chain for the bats. There are very few places so pivotal on their migratory corridor. So besides the new agave planting being done in our area by groups like Borderlands Restoration in cooperation with Bat Conservation International, we’ve also got the Department of Defense investing in agave restoration at Fort Huachuca. 

If someone has only ever had a mixto tequila or margarita, what would you say to them when you were about to serve them a cup of bacanora? 

100% agave spirits like bacanora are better than dilutions or sugary syrups! Bacanora is a really good sipping drink that doesn’t need to be diluted with a lot of sugar. I sometimes put a squirt of Mexican lime or Meyer’s lemon and just have it over ice. And it typically has a slightly smoky, kind of dreamy, alert to the nose right away that I find really lovely. But I think whether it’s in a straight cup or shot glass, with or without ice, that’s the first way to get to know it. Then play around with mixed drinks like Palomas and even things that are kind of like tequila-based mojitos. 

And I would say: Distrust any mescal or tequila label that has a name other than a Spanish surname on it. The traditional mezcaleros are the true saints of the industry, not celebrities like George Clooney, Michael Jordan and Kendall Jenner.


This article was first published at Patagonia Regional Times

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