A New Tequila with a Splash of Appropriation

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Famous model and entrepreneur Kendall Jenner, like her older half-sister Kim Kardashian, has long been known to be a savvy businesswoman. She is not just a model, but a diverse entrepreneur who has started beauty lines, co-written novels alongside her sister, and even partnered with oral-care brands, in what might well be an effort to have a diverse but still thematically connected set of revenue streams.

Jenner’s most recent entrepreneurial venture took place earlier this year: the creation of a tequila brand named “818 Tequila”, after the California area code that Jenner calls home. Surprisingly to some, this particular venture has been met with backlash and accusations of cultural appropriation.

To understand the controversy that 818 Tequila and Kendall Jenner found themselves mired in last month, one needs to understand the concept of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is one of several terms that is often heard online but is very rarely given the proper context and explanation needed for the usage of the term to have the proper weight in conversation.

The most neutral definition, and one that is fairly common, is that cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture by members of another culture. This, on its face, is an innocuous thing that occurs all the time in an increasingly global world. However, depending on the precise context of the appropriation in question, it can become something negative or parasitic, especially if someone takes from another culture without properly crediting or contextualizing the elements they are taking. This is what critics claim happened with Kendall Jenner and 818 Tequila.

In an advertisement for 818 Tequila on Instagram, Kendall Jenner performed a taste-test of her tequila. She revealed a handful of bottles of her drink and one of them had the words “818 Blanco Tequila” written on them. This is not how the name would be written in Spanish. Instead, the proper name would be “Tequila Blanco,” as noted by Lucas Assis, a tequila expert consulted by Sam Reed and quoted in an article on InStyle earlier this year. The lack of research, as well as the lack of care, are both common elements of a negative form of cultural appropriation often panned by those who discuss it.

Equally important is the fact that this suggests that Kendall Jenner did not consult fluent Spanish speakers—including the family-owned farms in Jalisco that she touts on her website—in creating the branding for her product, which should strike even defenders of Jenner as odd since she chose to write the names in Spanish. This goes beyond understanding the significance of the aesthetics that Jenner chose in her ad campaign. This is about the simple respect shown in doing basic research when you decide to incorporate a foreign language into the marketing for your products or brands.

Observers of the brand have noticed more specific and alarming trends, some that go beyond the most obvious instances of cultural appropriation. One example of this occurred during a tequila taste-test that Jenner participated in, wherein she sipped the tequila “on the rocks” (served undiluted and with ice cubes), which is not a traditional practice for those interested in tasting tequila. Another issue was her particular vocabulary during the same taste test, which was later panned by tequila aficionados as implying she was not familiar with the lingo used by people familiar with tequila taste-testing.

Later ads showed Jenner riding a horse while dressed in a cowboy hat, a loose cotton shirt, and jeans, which is a look that many Latinx farming families, particularly Mexican ones, have come to be associated with. Jenner was then accused of utilizing what some have called a “chic migrant worker” look, and the criticism was so intense and common that ads featuring this picture have been taken off of Instagram.

In a twist that may surprise some readers, other celebrities have recently launched tequila brands as well. One prominent example of this is the tequila brand named “Teremana”, a very popular brand created by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which became immensely popular almost as soon as it was launched in 2020. Readers may question how it is that Kendall Jenner received criticisms that other celebrities have avoided and the answer is simple: the marketing done by other celebrity tequila entrepreneurs was done differently.

Using Teremana as an example, for instance, the names were correct in Spanish from the outset. A “Teremana Tequila Blanco” is written out in the way that a Spanish speaker would write it, hinting that someone fluent in Spanish—or at least in tequila—was consulted. This is due to the fact that, in English, you tend to put the adjective before the noun being described which is not how it is done in Spanish. These little things allow people to feel that someone from our community is involved, which makes a difference and helps explain why many people have praised Teremana’s tequila.

Amid all the criticism, there are reviews out there for 818 Tequila that aren’t negative. But there’s certainly a difference in the reception Teremana received compared to 818 Tequila.

When someone performs a negative sort of cultural appropriation, it will often be detected, even by people from other cultures, especially, for instance, with food. When people don’t do research but try to mimic recipes from other cultures or make cultural specialties, the food will be lacking a certain flavor from the original, especially when prepared by someone who truly cares about what they’re doing.

With businesses, this doesn’t mean that people from other cultures can’t make restaurants or food brands specializing in food from other parts of the world. It just means that you need to do research first and consult and hire people from the cultures whose foods you’re making. We all could learn from the different approaches taken by 818 Tequila and Teremana because they exhibit this reality perfectly.

As for why this matters for humanists, the reason is simple. In an increasingly interconnected world, many would argue that cultural appropriation is inevitable and thus, efforts should be made to do it positively and thoughtfully. This is especially important since cultural appropriation, when done negatively, is exploitative and is often tied to a desire for wealth. 818 is a prime example since Jenner jumped onto a trendy business practice by beginning a tequila brand and hoping to make it into a part of a burgeoning business empire.  Jenner appears not to have done significant research into Mexican culture or even the very grammar of the Spanish language, and it noticeably affected her tequila.

The practice of appropriating elements from one culture to another can be done tastefully and meaningfully, as shown by Teremana, and that can result in praise and the creation of something meaningful and positive. It’s a shame that that’s not what happened with 818 Tequila, and hopefully, in the months to come, we will see the brand evolve.