Tequila's history and culture

As North America's first distilled drink, and its first commercially-produced alcohol, tequila's history is long and rich. Its roots reach back into pre-Hispanic times when the natives fermented sap from the local maguey plants into a drink called pulque. The history of tequila's development from the traditional beverage to the modern spirit parallel's the often turbulent, chaotic growth of Mexico herself - and is equally obscure to outsiders.

Mezcal wine – tequila's grandparent – was first produced only a few decades after the Conquest that brought the Spaniards to the New World in 1521. It was variously called mezcal brandy, agave wine, mezcal tequila and finally simply tequila – appropriately named after Tequila, a small town in a valley in Jalisco state, Mexico.

The word tequila itself is a mystery. It is said to be an ancient Nahuatl term. The Nahuatl were the original people who lived in the area. The word means means (depending on the authority) "the place of harvesting plants," "the place of wild herbs," "place where they cut," "the place of work" or even "the place of tricks." According to Jose Maria Muria, tequila comes form the Nahuatl words tequitl (work, duty, job or task) and tlan (place). Other sources say it means "the rock that cuts." Tequila Cascahuin says the word is a corruption of "tetilla" because the volcano looked like a small woman's breast. Other sources say it is a corruption of the name of the natives – Ticuilas or Tiquilos.  All of them are suitable. It is the name of the spirit, the name of the town and the name of the valley.

Maguey – another name for the agave plant from which tequila is distilled – is not a native term, but was imported from the Antilles (the first reference to the plant is in a book by Peter Martyr from 1533). The Nahuatl called the plant metl or mexcametl – from which the word mezcal is derived. For them it was a divine plant, worshipped as the earthly representation of the goddess Mayaheul, who had 400 breasts to feed her 400 children, the Centzon Totchtin. Other indigenous people had different names for the plant: it was carnaba or tocamba to the Purepecha; guada to the Otomi. The plant plays a much larger role than just being the source of an alcoholic drink. Its leaves are used for a hemp-like fibre that was used for mats, clothing, rope and paper. It was also the source of the nutrient and vitamin rich brew, pulque. The plant was aptly described as "el arbol de las maravillas" – the tree of marvels – in a 1596 history of the Indians of Central America.

The agave plant has been part of human culture almost since the continent was first colonized and is still used for its fibre. Human remains dating back 9,000 years show the early uses of agave for food and fibre (see www.ualberta.ca/~abeaudoi/stuff/dung/human.htm for a reference to agave pollen in ancient human dung). No remains record when humans learned to ferment the sap from the heart of the maguey into an alcoholic drink. Known as pulque in the earliest written records, it was already ancient when the Spaniard Conquistadors arrived. By 1520, they had exported it into the Old World.

Distillation of pulque – tequila's distant ancestor – into something stronger may have started by the Conquistadors as early as the 1520s. The Spanish were accustomed to drinking  alcoholic beverages with meals – in Europe water was a dangerous drink, unpurified and teeming with bacteria and parasites. Most people drank weak wine and beer with meals. In his first letter home, the Conquistador Cristobal de Oñate wrote to King Carlos V about sugar obtained from agave... "From these plants they make wine and sugar, which they also sell." In the 16th century, the Franciscan friar, Torbio de Benavente, wrote about the drink 'mexcalli.' Eager to maintain the market for Spanish products, in 1595, Phillip II banned the planting of new vineyards in Mexico.

Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira, the 'father of tequila,' established the very first tequila factory in his Hacienda Cuisillos, in 1600, cultivating the local agave for distillation (some sources indicate he was much later, in 1695 or even 1753 and as late as 1755, but this is incorrect – he arrived in Jalisco in 1600, and the early taxation of mezcal wines prove production began very early). In 1608, the governor of New Galicia imposed the first taxes on mezcal wine. By 1621, "wines of mezcal" were being regularly supplied to nearby Guadalajara and the first references to an "abundant" mezcal harvest appeared in local records. The first reliable reference to the spirit comes from this year, in the Description of New Galicia (Descripcion de la Nueva Galicia) by Domingo Lazaro de Arregui. In 1636, governor Don Juan Canseco y Quiñones authorized the distillation and manufacture of mezcal wines, which made it easier to collect taxes on production – taxes which increased significantly in the next decade as the government tried to generate funds for public works. In 1651, Spanish doctor Jeronimo Hernandez wrote that tequila (mezcal)  was used for medicinal purposes, including rheumatic cures by rubbing tequila on the affected parts of the body.

After the Conquest, the area around today's Jalisco state was originally called New Galicia by the Spanish conquerors. The community we now know as Tequila officially became a village in 1656. It was originally named after the current governor of New Galicia, La Torre Argus De Uloa y Chavez. The community of Arandas, in the highlands of Jalisco near Tequila, was founded in late 1721. Until 1821, Jalisco was under separate government from Mexico. Spanish names replaced native ones for many of its communities.

In the 1700s, mezcal wines became an important product for export because the town of Tequila lay on the route to the newly opened Pacific port of San Blas. Mezcal wines from the region developed a reputation for quality even in urban Mexico City. But in 1785, the production of all spirits, including mezcal wines and pulque, were  banned by the government of Charles III to favour and promote the importation of Spanish wines and liqueurs. Officially, production was halted but went underground until 1792 (possibly 1795), when King Ferdinand IV ascended the throne and lifted the ban. Prohibition may have led the native population to bake the agave underground – literally – a practice that continues today in mezcal production. Authorities eventually realized taxation, rather than prohibition, was the better means of control. The University of Guadalajara was paid for in part by taxes on mezcal wines. During the War of Independence, tequila declined in importance partly because the port of Acapulco supplanted San Blas as the major Pacific port. Tequila did not achieve its prominence again until after 1821 when Mexico attained independence, and Spanish products were harder to get.

The first licensed manufacturer was Jose Antonio Cuervo ("Joe Crow" of the Cuervo Montaño family), who got the rights to cultivate a parcel land from the King of Spain in 1758. He acquired this property – the hacienda Cofradia de las Animas – from Vicente de Saldivar, who was already running a small, private distillery on the land. In 1795, his son Jose Maria Cuervo got the first license to produce mezcal wine from the Crown and founded the first official Mexican distillery. His Casa Cuervo (or Taberna de Cuervo) proved very profitable. In 1812, Jose died and left his holdings to a son, Jose Ignacio, and a daughter Maria Magdalena. She married Vicente Albino Rojas - her dowry was the distillery. Vicente changed its name to 'La Rojeña' and increased production. 

By mid-century Curevo's fields had more than three million agave plants. He died before the railroads were built into the area and Jesus Flores took over the distillery. Cuervo was the first distiller to put tequila into bottles - pioneered by owner Flores - in the late 19th century when others were still using barrels. His first bottled tequila was sold in 1906. At the same time, he moved Cuervo to a new, larger site called La Constancia, to take advantage of the transportation network the new railroad offered. By 1880, Cuervo was selling 10,000 barrels of its tequila in Guadalajara alone. In 1900, after Flores had died, his widow married the administrator, Jose Cuervo Labastida, and soon the product became known as 'Jose Cuervo,' and the taberna returned to its original name. The plantations had four million plants growing. Today Cuervo – its plant is still called La Rojeña – is the largest manufacturer of tequila, with a huge export market. 

During the 19th century, it was common to name the tabernas, or distilleries, after their owners, adding 'eña' to the name: La Floreña, La Martineña, La Guarreña, La Gallardeña and La Quintaneña are examples. Later, the names would reflect values or convictions (La Preservancia: Perserverance) and La Constancia (Constancy).

In Mexico's War of Independence, in the early decades of the 19th century, tequila became a stock item among the soldiers on all sides of the conflict. During the next century, agave plants would be exported to Europe and her colonies as ornamental plants. In some places they would thrive in the local ecosystems. The war with the United States in the mid-to-late 1840s, also gave American soldiers exposure to tequila, but the distribution network did not allow it to grow.

Around the 1820s (possibly as early as 1805), Jose Castaneda founded La Antigua Cruz, which was acquired by Don Cenobio Sauza in 1873. Sauza changed the name to La Preservancia in 1888 – the name it still bears – and he started making mezcal wine. One legend says it was Don Cenobio who determined the blue agave was the best maguey for making tequila, in the 1870s, and the rest of the distillers followed his lead. Some say tequila was first exported to the USA in 1873, when Sauza sold three barrels to El Paso del Norte. Don Cenobio was also known for defending his plantation against bandits.  Before his death in 1906, he purchased 13 more distilleries and numerous fields of agave for his own use. Sauza today owns about 300 agave plantations and is the second largest tequila manufacturer. The family sold the company to the Spanish corporation, Pedro Domecq, in 1976.

Other distilleries were established during the 19th century, some of them flourishing, others closing. Tequila Herradura ("horseshoe") was founded in 1861 by Feliciano Romo. Its original distillery is now a company museum. Herradura became the first distillery to produce a reposado tequila and has always made only 100% agave tequilas. Vicente Orendain acquired a distillery from Jose Antonio Cuervo in the 1830s, later selling it to Sauza. Other distilleries founded around this time include the Destiladora de Occidente (1860s), Tequila Orendain (1870s and today the third largest exporter of mixto tequilas), Tequila San Matias (1886) and Tequila Viuda de Romero (1852; although it didn't get that name until 1873). El Centinela was established in 1904, the first distillery (fabrica or factory) in the highlands area.

In the 1880s, the rapid growth of the railroads across North America helped spread tequila further. Popularity and growth were aided by the relative stability during the 35-year rule of Porfirio Diaz (the 'Porfirato' period), during which the tequila industry stabilized and matured. By 1893, "mezcal brandy" was regularly exported into the USA and won an award at the Chicago World's Fair that year. Mexican spirits were exported to Europe in the 1870s. Meanwhile, distilleries in Jalisco were slowly switching from making aguardiente (from sugarcane) to tequila. Around this time, the product from Jalisco – mezcal of Tequila –  became known simply as 'tequila' in the same way as brandy made in a certain region of France became known as cognac. A reference to mezcal wine as 'tequila' was first recorded by the French traveller Ernest de Vigneaux, in 1854, but it was decades before it was in common use.

By the turn of the century, many companies had started selling tequila in bottles, instead of just barrels, a move that helped increase sales. The first wave of modernization began around this time, and the number of distilleries in Jalisco grew to almost 100, then dropped precipitously to only 32 by 1910 when the Diaz regime collapsed and the country was thrown into political and military turmoil.

Tequila gained national importance during the Revolution in the early part of this century, when it became a symbol of national pride and the passion for French products was replaced by patriotic fervour for Mexican goods. Tequila quickly became associated with the hard-riding rebels and gun-slinging heroes of the period from 1910-1920. During this time, tequila was also smuggled to American troops guarding the border, helping spread it to nearby US states. In the first novel about the Revolution, Mariano Azuela wrote of one character, "Rather than champagne, which sparkled in bubbles and dissolved in the light and the candles, Demetrio Macias preferred the clear tequila of Jalisco." Pancho Villa's real name, by the way, was Doroteo Arango – commemorated in Los Arango tequila – and his horse was Siete Leguas, now another tequila brand. 

Distillers conveniently 'forgot' that many of the revolutionary armies raided their plants and confiscated tequila for which the owners were never repaid. But many of the larger tabernas suffered in the aftermath when the government redistributed their land and gave away many acres of agave to the peasants. By 1929, the number of distillers was down to a mere eight to suffer through the Depression. The post-Revolutionary leaders like Victoriano Huerta eschewed tequila for French cognacs, but tequila managed to make a comeback through its popularity among the people.

Modern production techniques, including cultivated yeasts, were introduced in the late 1920s when peace returned and after the Depression, the industry expanded again. Prohibition in the USA later that decade boosted tequila's popularity when it was smuggled across the border. The decision to use non-agave sugars (usually cane sugars) in fermentation along with those from the agave was made in the 1930s, a fateful move that changed the industry and affected its reputation for decades. By 1964 distillers were allowed to use 30% other sugars, which soon climbed to 49%.The blander product, however, was more palatable to American tastes and helped boost export sales.

During World War 2, tequila rose in popularity in the USA after spirits from Europe became hard to get. Production grew, the demand for tequila increased, and agave fields expanded 110 per cent between 1940 and 1950. In 1948, exports fell to an all-time low, while national consumption grew– thanks in great part to the positive portrayal of tequila as a macho drink of heroic rancheros in Mexican movies from the 1930s to 1950s. Despite the slump the increased demand during the war meant more money coming in, and in the 1950s many distilleries used their extra revenue to modernize and upgrade their facilities. Agricultural reform under President Lopez Mateos during this time saw 30 million acres of land parceled out to farmers – some of it going to maguey farmers across the nation. Sometime between 1930 and 1955, depending on which legend you believe, the margarita was born in Mexico or in a nearby state. This cocktail would become the most popular mixed drink in bars for the next four decades.

Efforts to regulate the industry also grew in this period, with two groups created between the two world wars, eventually evolving into today's regulatory organizations. In 1944, the Mexican government decided that any product called 'tequila' had to be made by distilling agave in the state of Jalisco. The first standards for tequila were laid out in 1947 and have been upgraded and revised ever since, most recently in 1995, when the requirement for agave content in tequila was increased from 51% to 60% (this report remains unconfirmed by this author).

"Tequila is Mexico," said Carmelita Roman, widow of the murdered producer Jesus Lopez Roman. "It's the only product that identifies us as a culture."

Popularity grew again in the 1960s along with increased consumption; and the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City helped worldwide exposure. But it wasn't until the growing population of American tourists and baby-boom visitors to Mexico started to discover the premium brands in the mid 1980s that tequila moved from a 'party' drink to snob appeal among the cocktail set. It reached high society in the 1980s - helped by the release of Chinaco, the first premium tequila sold in the USA, in 1983. The first set of regulations governing where tequila could be made were published in 1974, but amended in 1976 when the first NORMA was released.

In 1974, tequila gained international recognition and acceptance of tequila as a product originating only in Mexico – the AOC, or Appellation de Origin Controllee was published in 1977. Mezcal is now also protected by an AOC designation. However, it wasn't until 1996 that Mexico signed an international agreement for all countries to recognize tequila as a product from only a certain area in Mexico. The European Union signed a trade accord in 1997, recognizing Mexico as the sole producer of tequila. South Africa recently threatened to ignore this international agreement by allowing a distillery to open to manufacture a product called 'tequila.' In 1997, a South African firm in Graaff-Reinet announced it would open a 'tequila' plant in that country in 1998, using blue agave grown locally from Mexican stock that had invaded South African ecosystems. Although they planned to call it 'tequila, their product would have only 10% agave, the remainder will be other alcohols and sugars. Protests from the Mexican government finally deterred the plans of Reinet Distillers, and their product is to be named 'Spirit of Agave,' not tequila. Similar efforts to make tequila outside Mexico have been made in Japan and Spain. In response to this crisis, Mexican tequila manufacturers opened trade offices in Madrid and Washington to protect the use of the name tequila, and to promote the spirit in export markets.

In order to guarantee tequila's quality, the Normas Oficial Mexicana (NOM) was established in 1978 to regulate all of the agricultural, industrial and commercial processes related to tequila.

There are now only five regions where tequila can be legally made, most within the northwest part of the country and within 100 miles of Guadalajara. Most are within the state of Jalisco (including the communities of Tequila, Tepatitlan, Guadalajara, Amatitan, Arandas, Arenal, Capilla de Guadalupe, Zapotlanejo and Atotonilico), the rest are in the adjoining states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. The areas are all semi-arid with clay soils, mostly plateaus and highlands. In Jalisco's Tequila region, the fields crowd the slopes of two extinct volcanoes.

By 1980, there were 33 distilleries cultivating 30-35,000 hectares and employing 5,800 people to make tequila. That has grown to about 70 distilleries ; all but two are in Jalisco, the main outsider being Chinaco in far-away Tamaulipas on the Gulf coast. About 15 more distilleries are scheduled to open in the next year or two. More than 50,000 hectares of agave are under cultivation, and the workforce is around 38,000. There are more than 500 brands of tequila available today. Although the US has been the largest consumer for many years, Mexican consumption has grown apace and internal sales almost equalled exports by 1997 (exports: 84.35 million liters; national sales 72.19 million liters). The Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulado de Tequila, or CRT) was founded in 1994 to oversee production, quality and standards in the industry.


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