"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The best tequila I ever drank came to me in a plastic jug. I was young, 20 maybe, with a decidedly unrefined palate. I certainly didn’t think twice about drinking from the unmarked plastic jug that our friend Danny proffered to me. Hey, it was alcohol, right? But even with my unrefined tastes, the second that tequila touched my lips I understood it was something special. It was so smooth, limes would have been an insult.
Danny was just down from the mountains of Jalisco. The jug came straight from a little distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, which sits on a hill above rolling fields of agave — the domain of the ancient Cuervo and Sauza families, and home to hundreds of better distilleries. As Cinco de Mayo draws near, our thoughts drift to this tequila Valhalla and it seems an appropriate time to spill some ink on the drink beloved to sophisticates and sorority girls alike.
Tequila and her living ancestor mezcal are made from the hearts of the agave plant. If you drive through the Tequila region, row upon row of agaves flash by, like giant half-buried pineapples or colonies of sea anemones. Despite its sharp thorns and blue-green hue, the agave is closer in kin to the lily than the cactus. One hundred and six varieties of agave, or maguey, grow in Mexico, and the Mexican devotion to the plant is rooted in ancient history. The Olmecs referred to fermented agave as “a delight for the gods and priests,” and the Aztecs worshiped Mayahuel, goddess of maguey, who was followed everywhere by a cohort of 400 drunken rabbits. Her husband Patecatl was the god of pulque, a slimy yet highly nutritious drink with the alcohol content of a domestic American beer.
Essentially, the story of how tequila came to be is the story of how Mexico came to be. An Indio idea married to Spanish ambition, influenced by the East, popular in the West. It’s a story of highs and lows that shift depending on your perspective: Aztecs fermenting ague miel scooped from the hearts of agave, Don Cenobio Sauza defending his agave plantation against bandit attack, Frida Kahlo with her perfume bottle flask, Cuervo and Sauza bought out by international corporations, Señor Frog’s on a spring break Saturday night.
The Spanish initially built primitive mud stills to make agave wine, but if you nose around into the history of Tequila, you discover that distilled agave nectar didn’t really catch on until after 1565, when the Spanish government opened a trade route between Manila and Mexico. Spain’s real goal was to transport goods from its nascent colony in the Philippines back to the crown, and to that end Spanish officials devised a laborious route: ship from Manila to Acapulco, unload, cross Mexico by pack mule and ship out again at Veracruz to sail for Spain. Easier said than done. The route meant carving a mule trail through the jagged sierra (this became the famous Camino Real), as well as building immense galleons. (Incidentally, the galleons were built in Barra de Navidad, not far from where I drank the exemplary plastic jug of tequila.) When the flagship finally set sail from Barra de Navidad, this “China galleon” was the largest seafaring vessel of its time in the world. Their mission was perilous: carry a load of Mexican silver to the Philippines, trade the silver for luxury items from China, and then embark on the horrendous (three-month) return route to Mexico. Naturally, pirates took notice; over the years, the fleet drew fire from English and Dutch privateers, including Sir Frances Drake.
When China galleons docked at Acapulco, crews of Filipino sailors unloaded porcelain, silk, ivory, spices and lacquerware. The potters of the Mexican city of Puebla would take inspiration from the blue-and-white beauty of Chinese porcelain, Mexican jewelers would work the patterns in Chinese silk into their fine gold and silver filigree, and the Filipino sailors would change the culture of Mexico forever by bringing mangos, coconuts and portable stills.
The Filipino sailors who jumped ship to settle on the coast of Mexico hobnobbed with the common folk, sharing their delicious coconut brandy and its source — nifty portable stills. News traveled fast — all the way to the mountains of Nayarit, where it seems the Huichol Indians copied Filipino technology. They weren’t the only ones. Short on coconuts, inland Mexicans got creative with ingredients at hand. Agave, that mainstay of Mexican culture, was an obvious choice. With its smoky potency and lyrical burn, distilled agave wine was a hit. Within years, mezcal production boomed in the prime agave growing region in the mountains of Jalisco, and tavernas (taverns) sprang up to sell cuernitos (horns) of mezcal to the masses. In 1600, the Marquis of Altamira built the first big distillery near the town of Tequila in New Galicia (later Jalisco).
The 18th century saw the rise of Tequila’s Cuervo clan. The family started with a small taverna, but by 1880 residents of nearby Guadalajara were downing 10,000 barrels of Cuervo tequila a year. In 1891, the portly Francophile dictator Porfirio Diaz displayed his questionable taste by awarding Cuervo a gold medal for the excellence of its tequila. (Though to Diaz’s credit, this was a long time ago. It’s possible that Jose Cuervo was actually good back then.)
During the first 200 years of our story, the line between mezcal and tequila was blurry. In the beginning, the name tequila mezcal was applied to mezcal grown in the Tequila region, but as time passed tequila became a beverage unto itself, distinguished by location (Jalisco and a few surrounding regions), production (notably, the steaming of the agave hearts) and choice of plant (blue).
Which brings me to Don Cenobio Sauza, who is notable for two accomplishments: He personally defended his agave plantation against a hoard of bandits, and he singled out the blue agave as the variety of agave most suited for tequila production. Though the Mexican government wouldn’t officially define acceptable tequila ingredients until much later on, distillers in the Tequila region followed Sauza’s lead. And as the drink became more refined, its popularity grew. By 1906 8 million gallons of tequila were produced a year in Jalisco, at least according to official figures.
In Mexico, every war has spurred tequila production. Tequila sales rose during the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821) and undoubtedly cuernitos of tequila were tossed back on May 5, 1862, when Mexicans celebrated the country’s first major victory against Napoleon’s occupying troops. Mexicans really began identifying with tequila during and after the 1910 revolution, which saw the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz and a subsequent surge in national pride. Not only did Mexicans drink more tequila during and after the revolution, but the romantic tales of hard-partying revolutionaries that drifted across the border enhanced the drink’s romantic mystique in the United States. (Ironically, Pancho Villa, a man closely associated with tequila in the popular imagination, disapproved of drinking.)
Although Americans had got their first good dose of tequila during the Mexican-American war (in response, we thoughtfully stole half of Mexico), the beverage really achieved notoriety during Prohibition. The stream of smugglers carrying the precious cargo from Mexico to Texas was so formidable that U.S. troops patrolled the border, seizing wagons of tequila and her cousin sotol. But for every big-time operation, there were a hundred small-time equivalents. For example, in 1920, the El Paso Herald (leeringly) reported :
Maria Munoz, a young and rather pretty Mexican girl was arrested by federal officers Saturday, charged with smuggling liquor which had been concealed in her stocking. The liquor, a quart bottle of tequila, it is alleged was placed in the stocking, which was pinned to her waist and allowed to swing down into spacious bloomers.
Meanwhile, Mexicans drank their way through America’s dry years. Not everyone was happy about the state of affairs. As revolutionary governor of the state of Sonora, Elias Calles made drinking a capital offense. Gov. Calles actually went so far as to order the execution of at least one village drunk, but he was widely ignored by the citizenry. In 1919, the Evening Herald, a newspaper in dry Klamath Falls, Ore., wistfully reported that liquor in Sonora had never been cheaper or more plentiful. Even during the state-mandated destruction of 600 bottles of tequila, which took place in front of the governor’s mansion, locals brought mugs to the ceremony and scooped enough tequila out of the gutters to get “riotously drunk.”
Sometime in the mid-20th century, the margarita was invented, and the Cuervo and Sauza families laughed all the way to the bank. A number of legends exist surrounding the drink, all of them reasonably plausible. One of the more widely spread stories is that Dallas socialite Margarita Sames invented the drink for jet-setting friends at her Acapulco vacation home on Christmas of 1948. But in “The Complete Book of Spirits,” Anthony Dias Blue points out that a 1945 Jose Cuervo ad ran under the tag line: “Margarita: It’s more than just a girl’s name.” I like this tag line. It eliminates a number of contenders from the margarita melee while making an important point. Over the years, the Mexican government has become increasingly protective of the tequila name. In 1974, the Mexican government declared the word “tequila” the intellectual property of Mexico, a move that makes it illegal for other countries to produce or sell anything labeled tequila. In addition to being made in Mexico, tequila must be aged in Mexico. Regulations for categorizing tequila (as silver, reposed, or añejo) are equally stringent. These days the country even has a private sector nonprofit organization called the Consejo Regulador de Tequila, which oversees all aspects of the industry, including monitoring agave growth, protecting peasant laborers, and fostering ancient tequila traditions.
Speaking of tequila traditions, if I can’t have mine from a plastic jug, I fall back on a recipe my friend Annie and I contrived while camped on a Jalisco beach years ago. Under the eaves of our palapa hut, we hit upon the perfect pastime to validate our absolute state of degenerate sloth: We’d write a book of drink recipes. After all, we had plenty of liquor and limes on hand. There was only one glitch. The only measuring device in camp was a half-cup. All the drinks we mixed that winter contained at least 4 ounces of liquor and our margaritas were no exception. Salud!
Note: I like to mix margaritas with a reposado (slightly aged) tequila because a tinge of smoke makes the drink more interesting. I realize the traditional margarita calls for triple sec, but I prefer this stripped-down version.
Margarita Tenacatita (Serves 2)
Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.More Felisa Rogers.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)