Two years ago, when Los Angeles businessman Alejandro Viecco visited the agave-fields surrounding the Mexican town of Tequila—where the eponymous liquor is made—he made a startling discovery. The process of making tequila, it turns out, can be as messy, smelly and disgusting as the aftermath of drinking too much of it.
“When you go to [the town of] Tequila, there’s this beautiful fresh spring water coming through the lava rock,” he says. “Then not that far away you have this waste that’s being dumped. It has hot alcohol content and it’s destroying everything in its path. If you looked at the creek, it was like running mud, and very pungent.”
This is tequila’s dirty little secret: For every liter of the liquor that distilleries produce, they throw away ten liters of hot, liquid waste (known as vinaza) and 5 to 6 kilograms of leftover, fibrous agave plant (bagasse). Government rules are supposed to govern the disposal of these leftovers, but an awful lot ends up dumped illegally. Enough that it’s created a major—and smelly—environmental problem in Jalisco, the Mexican state where all real tequila originates.
"The vinazas are acidic, they have an oil that makes the soil impermeable, and are hot when they are dumped. The acid is not recommended for agriculture; it should be neutralized. The oil makes the soil hard so it is useless for farming. And where the ground cracks, the vinaza filters into underground water sources," José Hernández, a researcher with the University of Guadalajara and member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, told development-oriented wire service Tierramérica.