A Brief History of Tequila

June 24, 2012 by
Categories: Mexico

Here is a very interesting article I found on the History of Tequila from thepeoplesguidetomexico.com...

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.

TEQUILATequila is 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 an American domestic 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, or mezcal, 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 lacquer-ware. 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.)

Although all tequila is mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal labeled tequila must be 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.)

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