A funny thing about writers block, sometimes the block is because there is a story begging to be written and until that is done, the other pieces have to wait. This is one of those moments.
Before heading off to Mexico, a strange yet very powerful indicator of how women in the alcohol industry are treated happened. A press release came across my desk regarding a new book being released about women in the agave sector and their stories, a great thing for sure as our stories so often go unwritten. Unfortunately it came with a title that seemed very tone deaf not only for the content inside the book, but also with so many women being so front and center when it comes to agave distillate production, education and building brands in the market. I wrote a thoughtful letter expressing disappointment with the title and why I thought it was problematic. What could have been a great dialogue about how to confront sexism in the industry was reduced to a shocking, ridiculous and intimidating response – a threat to sue me for slander and extortion. If you ever wonder why women don’t speak up, it is because of reactions like this.
I had no intention of writing further about this as I in no way wanted to dignify the exchange. But, it weighed heavily on my mind as I recently traveled through Oaxaca and San Luis Potosi, through various communities, seeing so many women at work, on so many different levels, as mezcaleras, bottlers, cooks, money handlers, bartenders, organizers and educators. As I have written before, women working in mezcal world is not some feminist statement but rather an economic fact of life.
From the origin story of mezcal, the aching, gorgeous and tragic story of Mayahuel, the goddess of fertility, and her lover Quetzalcoatl, there has always been an underlying feminine quality to Mezcal. That Mayahuel feeds pulque (the precursor to mezcal) to 400 rabbits from her breasts is reason alone to see the inherent femininity of mezcal. Fast forward to mezcal’s explosive growth these past several years and what you find are women in lead positions in every part of the mezcal category. What you generally have not found is the typical alcohol industry marketing ploy of using women as sex objects to sell the product. This is starting to change, sadly, as we see more brands resorting to Instagram ready images of scantily clad women holding bottles of mezcal in exotic locations, or to a bdsm themed booth display that takes the “booth babe” cliche to a whole new level. Suddenly we are being displayed as props or bystanders rather than partners in the category.
Clearly, the tits and ass form of marketing is not endemic to alcohol, but in an industry in which there is no denying the dangerous intersection of alcohol consumption, sexual assault and domestic violence, we need to move in a different direction. Falling back on imagery or words that are sexist tropes has no place in today’s world. I see too many women, myself included, contributing so much to the category, working too hard to create economic opportunities for their families and to chart their own course forward to sit back and say nothing.