The Basics Tips & Tricks

3 Agave-Centric Books Every Bartender Needs to Read

Learn about tequila, mezcal and more.

Agave bar books / Laura Sant

The best bartenders are also bookworms, constantly researching the latest tastes and trends. But with so many titles to choose from, it’s easy to wind up lost in a sea of stale prose and sloppy recipes. We’ve paged through the stack to give you the essential booze books to read this month.

Agave spirits are on a white-hot streak these days. Celebrities are popping out new tequila brands like they once branded perfume bottles, mezcal is growing in popularity, and let’s face it—everyone loves a good Margarita.

Two of the books below offer crash courses in tequila and mezcal, respectively. Frankly, each of these spirits deserves its own monograph. While they do intersect, it’s worth giving each space to explore the producers, agave varietals and history specific to each. Meanwhile, the two agave spirits collide in a new book about cocktails. In fact, as the book shows, the spirits often mix harmoniously in the same glass.

In addition to the titles below, there are a few others to consider adding to your library, ideally bookended by a couple of great bottles: “Spirits of Latin America,” by Leyenda’s Ivy Mix; “Finding Mezcal,” by Del Maguey pioneer Ron Cooper (and Chantal Martineau); the beautifully photographed “The Spirit of Tequila,” by Joel Salcido (with Chantal Martineau); and “Understanding Mezcal” by James Schroeder, for those who desire a deeper dive into agave varietals.

  • “How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit”

    How the Gringos Stole Tequila / Laura Sant

    Chantal Martineau (Chicago Review Press, $30)

    Check out the titles above, and you’ll spot that Martineau is also a co-author of two other agave-centric books; she’s a heavy-hitter in this category. For this one, published in 2015, Martineau spent several years immersing herself in the world of tequila, traveling to visit distillers and agave farmers in Mexico and interviewing academics on both sides of the border who have studied the spirit. This provocative book is no lightweight, addressing tequila’s ascent from frat-market shooter to luxury good, as well as the spirit’s social history and issues surrounding the sustainability of agave.

    Excerpt: “Once the cornerstone of life in many parts of Mexico, agave is now the chief commodity in the country’s thriving spirits industry. The fluctuating cost of agave can bring families and companies to the brink of financial ruin. Its widespread cultivation has botanists and other scientists lamenting the dangers of such an intense monoculture to Mexico’s rich biodiversity and scrambling to find solutions. And demand for it continues to rise alongside the explosive global demand for tequila. But tequila, a fundamentally Mexican product, is no longer controlled primarily by Mexicans. American and European companies dominate the market, selling luxury tequila brands the average Mexican could never afford. And it all began with a plant.”

  • “Mezcal: The History, Craft and Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit”

    Mezcal: The History, Craft and Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit / Laura Sant

    Emma Janzen (Voyageur Press, $27)

    This 2017 book straddles the line between engaging guide to mezcal and cocktail book, with beautiful photos taken by Janzen. It’s a useful educational resource, but what really brings the book to life is Janzen’s myriad interviews with the mescaleros, talking about the spirit’s heritage and production and telling their own personal and professional stories. 

    “Even if mezcal doesn’t run in one’s lineage, many Mexican natives see the growth as a great opportunity to make a living by reconnecting with their cultural heritage. That was the case for … the cousins who started Mezcal Tosba. Elisandro and Edgar Gonzales make mezcal in a mountainous village, San Crostóbal Lachirioag, about four hours north of Oaxaca City.… ‘I am proud of being indigenous to Mexico, and I’m not jumping into mezcal because it’s a trend. It was a dream,’ Elisandro says. ‘I was raised with rum. For us to make mezcal, it’s been really great.’”

  • “Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails: Mixed Drinks for the Golden Age of Agave”

    Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails / Laura Sant

    Robert Simonson (Ten Speed Press, $19)

    For those ready to move beyond standard-issue Margaritas, this new collection of more than 60 cocktail recipes will take you far. Simonson chronicles the rise of modern agave cocktails, such as the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and Mezcal Mule, then introduces an array of accessible, mostly bartender-sourced recipes. Some feature mezcal, some tequila, some both. The simplest may be Simonson’s own take on the Stinger—mezcal laced with a smidge of creme de menthe.

    Excerpt: “If someone asked me to concisely explain the sudden popularity of agave spirits in the 2010s, I’d say that mezcal is this generation’s single­ malt scotch.… It appeals as something authentic and artisanal, made by hand and in relatively small amounts. It is expensive and answers to the current definition of luxury goods. And it is rough and smoky and edgy on the tongue, full of uncompromising flavors that are translated by our brain as ‘real.’ [… However,] the big difference between single­ malt scotch and mezcal is that mezcal mixes.”