Although it is the quintessential Mexican spirit and the centrepiece of many a party, most tequila drinkers are not aware of the rich history of tequila. From its use during ancient religious rituals to victory celebrations of the ending of Napoleonic French occupation, it’s no wonder tequila means so much to the people of Mexico.
Most of us know that tequila is distilled exclusively from blue agave in certain states of Mexico and is usually enjoyed with salt and a wedge of lime; beyond that, its full history is perhaps a little vague. Did you know there are distant cousins of tequila to also consider, namely mezcal and sotol?
A Complete History Of Tequila
Let’s take a deep dive into the fascinating history of tequila and discover how the modern version of this fiery drink came about from centuries of cultural fusion, experimentation, and refinement. I have created sections on a year-range basis to keep the timeline easy on the eye.
0000 – 1499 AD
Tequila began as a slimy, sour, milky fermented drink with a fairly low alcohol content (for tequila) of around 4-12% ABV made from agave sap. The Olmec people, who dwelled in what is now Veracruz and Tabasco states and were the founders of civilization in Meso-America, used this early tequila in religious rituals.
They passed it on to successor civilizations, with stone wall decorations showing its use around 200 AD. Their most recent successors, the Aztecs, called it pulque and continued the religious rituals.
The Aztecs worshipped Mayahuel, goddess of agave, who gave birth to 400 drunken rabbit babies and had 400 breasts to feed them all! They also honoured her husband, Patecatl, the god of pulque.
Meanwhile, in the Old World, people had been experimenting with distillation since around 1200 BC. The Italians perfected the production of distilled alcoholic beverages by the 1300s (AD). By the 1400s, Europeans and Asians produced significant quantities of distilled drinks such as brandy.
1500 – 1599 AD
In 1519, the Spanish travelled to South America by sea, led by Hernán Cortés toppled the Aztec empire, bringing large portions of what is now Mexico under Spanish control.
The Spanish brought with them brandy, but when supplies ran low, they improvised stills out of mud and distilled agave to produce an early form of mezcal. All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas!
In 1565, the Spanish government opened a trade route from Manila to Acapulco for giant galleons to take Mexican silver to the Philippines and bring back porcelain, ivory, silk, and spices.
Spaniards brought the Filipino goods across Mexico by pack mules through the sierra (the origin of the famous Camino Real) and shipping them from Veracruz to sail for Spain. The fleets were attacked many times by pirates.
The Filipino sailors who came to Mexico brought mangoes, coconuts, and portable stills that they used to distil coconut brandy. The indigenous Mexicans soon copied the stills and began distilling agave with them.
Soon mezcal production took off in the mountains of Jalisco, a prime agave-growing region, and many people opened taverns to sell it.
1600 – 1699 AD
Sometime around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira, built the first large-scale distillery in the town of Tequila, Nueva Galicia (later Jalisco). By 1608, the governor of Nueva Galicia had begun taxing the marquis. Not much else is known of this period in the history of mezcal/tequila.
1700 – 1799 AD
In the 1700s, mezcal wines (as people called them then) became a vital export of Mexico, as the town of Tequila lay en route to the newly-opened Pacific port of San Blas. The Cuervo family began with a small tavern, and in 1758, Jose Antonio Cuervo started a distillery.
In 1785, Spain’s King Carlos III banned the production of all Mexican alcohol to promote the importation and sale of Spanish wines and brandies. Production of mezcal went underground – literally.
The native population began baking the agave hearts underground, a practice that continues in modern mezcal production (in contrast, tequila producers steam the agave).
When King Ferdinand IV ascended the throne in 1792, he lifted the ban in favour of taxing the production of Mexican spirits. In 1795, the Cuervo family branded their product “Jose Cuervo .” It has been the biggest brand in the tequila industry ever since.
1800 – 1899 AD
Tequila sales increased during the War of Independence from Spain (1810 to 1821), becoming a favourite with soldiers on all sides. Later, in the war with the United States in the 1840s, American soldiers first experienced tequila, but the distribution network was not yet in place to export it to the US.
Mexicans would have drunk tequila to celebrate their first significant victory against occupying Napoleonic French troops on May 5, 1862. This occasion became a massive celebration in the US as Cinco de Mayo.
In 1873, Don Cenobio Sauza led the Sauza family to leave working for the Cuervos and set up their own distillery. Sauza is to this day the second-biggest brand of tequila on the market. Don Cenobio also identified blue agave as the best for making tequila, giving birth to modern tequila as other regional distillers followed his lead.
Don Cenobio also defended his plantation against a horde of bandits, was municipal president of tequila from 1884 to 1885 and was the first to export tequila to the US.
In 1891, dictator Porfirio Diaz, who served seven terms as Mexico’s president, awarded Cuervo a gold medal for the quality of its tequila. In 1893, “mezcal brandy” won the Chicago World’s Fair award.
1900 – 1999 AD
As tequila became more refined and smooth, more people drank it. By 1906, the state of Jalisco produced 8 million gallons of tequila a year.
Then came the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz in 1910, in the Mexican Revolution, and national pride surged. Tequila drinking took off, and stories of hard-partying revolutionaries filtered back to people in the US, enhancing the drink’s mystique.
During the Prohibition era in the US, smugglers carried tequila (and related drink sotol) across the border, leading to US troops patrolling the border. Scofflaws drank tequila domestically or travelled to the more than 100 bars in the Mexican border city of Tijuana. It was decidedly better than bathtub gin or second-rate whiskey.
By 1936, Prohibition was over in the US, and you no longer had to go to Mexico to have a good time. But a journalist named James Graham and his wife went to Tijuana anyway, ending up in one of the surviving bars belonging to an Irishman named Madden, known in the area for his Tequila Daisy cocktail.
Although Madden said the drink was a lucky mistake, it would become famous as the Margarita (Spanish for daisy). In 1945 Jose Cuervo ran an ad with the tagline, “Margarita: It’s more than just a girl’s name.”
In 1974, the Mexican government declared the term “tequila” to be Mexican intellectual property, making it illegal for other countries to make or sell any product called tequila. They stated that tequila must be made in specific areas of Mexico (the state of Jalisco and certain municipalities in Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas) from blue agave and be aged in Mexico.
They also laid down regulations for classifying tequila as plata, reposado, or añejo, according to age) and established the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council). This private-sector NPO monitors agave growth, protects workers’ rights, and nurtures tequila traditions.
2000 – Present
In 2004, the Consejo Regulador de Tequila changed the regulations to allow flavoured tequila to be called tequila (except for 100% agave or premium tequila). In 2006, they introduced a new class of tequila called extra añejo, which must be aged for at least 3-years and is the ideal tequila for sipping.
In 2009, Phil Ward opened the bar Mayahuel to celebrate tequila and mezcal. Since then, other bars have spread across the US, including 400 Rabbits and Leyenda (legend). These bars have helped popularize modern-day tequila cocktails such as the Oaxacan Old-Fashioned.
In 2018, the Mexican government designated the third Saturday of March as National Tequila Day.
And finally, in more recent news… in 2022, Proximo Spirits relaunches its 1800 Tequila range.
There’s a lot more to tequila than appears on the surface, and this venerable spirit’s history is the history of Mexico itself. From humble beginnings, tequila has become a genuinely world-class spirit. As a new century continues, its future looks bright.
Recommended Book: Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History
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