The History of Tequila as it is the national spirit of Mexico, which happens to be only allowed to produce it. In Mexico, tequila has always enjoyed a place in history and at the table.
The U.S., on the other hand, has had more tumultuous relationship with the spirit. Over the years, tequila has gone from hangover to inducing shooter to craft cocktail ingredient to smooth sipper. Year after year, sales in the US have risen and the selection of high-end brands continues to grow.
The History of Tequila
Tequila, or the practice of making agave plant, dates back to 1000 years B.C., when the Aztecs used the sap of the agave plant (specifically the maguey) to ferment a drink known as pulque. So, this is not the place to be in the world of gods, but it is a godsend: Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey, and her husband Patecatl, the god of pulque itself.
While pulque has been around for millennia, it was not until the Aztec invasion by the Spanish in the early 1500s that anyone thought to distill an agave-based spirit. After establishing colonies, the Spanish government opened a trade route between Manila and Mexico.
They are exported to the United States, and are most importantly for our purposes, coconut brandy and the stills used to make it.
The brandy quickly grew in popularity, and soon the thirsty colonists were distilling their own version of the spirit made with agave instead of coconuts.
In the early 1600s, Don Pedro Sánchez of Tagle, “The Father of Tequila,” built the first large-scale distillery in what is now Tequila, Jalisco, producing “mezcal of Tequila” or what we now know as tequila.
It should be noted that for the first couple years, mezcal and tequila were arguably the same thing. It was not until Don Cenobio Sauza came into the picture in the 1870s that distinctions started to appear. He is credited with determining that blue agave was the best agave for tequila production.
Though that decision was not ratified in other countries, the other distillers in Sauza’s region followed his lead, preferring the blue agave plant to any other. Sauza was also one of the first distilleries to export tequila to the U.S.
Even though Sauza and Jose Cuervo were exporting into the US, tequila did not find a real American audience until Prohibition, when European spirits were unavailable and the domestic offerings were little better than tubing and moonshine. Thanks to bootleggers and Tijuana’s close proximity and plentiful bars, tequila found in American glasses.
In 1978, the Mexican government declared the term “tequila” their intellectual property, requiring it to be made only in certain parts of the country. The laws also made it illegal for other countries to produce and sell “tequila” as their own. To produce something that could be labeled as tequila, distillers were also included in the production standards, which included using only blue agave hearts.
How Is Tequila Made?
According to Mexican law, tequila must be made from blue Weber agave and at least 51 percent agave and no more than 49 percent sugar.
This product is produced in two types of tequila: 100 percent agave tequila and tequila mixto, which is made with agave and added sugar. Mixto tequila is made with both glucose and fructose sugars-often sugar cane and sometimes caramel coloring, glycerin and other flavorings. Suffice it to say, go for the 100 percent agave every time.
The blue Weber agave plant takes 8 to 12 years to grow, ripen and mature in order to produce the best nectar. After the plants are harvested by jimadores (agave farmers), the sharp outer leaves are cut off.
The agave hearts (gold pineapples) are slow-cooked for between 12 to 48 hours, depending on the type of oven, then they are often used in the kitchen.
At this point, if the producer is making a mix tequila, he or she mixes the juice with sugar. Next, the distiller mixes the pure agave juice or sugared juice with yeast and water, and leaves it to ferment in a vat. Then, the fermented liquid is distilled (usually twice) in a wide-bellied pot still and diluted. After that, it is a bottle or gold in oak barrels, depending on the desired style of tequila.
Where Is Tequila Made?
Under Mexican law, tequila must be made in a location certified by a Regulatory Council (CRT) in one of five Mexican states: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Most of the 150-plus distilleries that meet these requirements are located in Jalisco, which can be divided into two main production regions: the highlands and the lowlands.