History of TequilaThere are numerous books and dedicated websites that go into great detail tracing tequila back to its roots in time. Our short and abridged version will go through the key milestones from the beginnings to today.
Tequila traces its origins back at least two thousand years. Around the first century A.D., one or more of the Indian tribes that inhabited what is now central Mexico discovered that the juice of the agave plant, if left exposed to air, would ferment and turn into a milky, mildly alcoholic drink. News of this discovery spread throughout agave-growing areas. The Aztecs called this beverage octili poliqhui, a name that the Spaniards subsequently corrupted into pulque (POOL-kay).
In Aztec culture pulque drinking had religious significance. Consumption by the masses was limited to specific holidays when large tubs of pulque were set up in public squares. The ruling elite was not subject to the same restrictions, however, and drank pulque throughout the year-- a privilege shared by captive warriors just before they were sacrificed to the gods.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century, they soon began to drink pulque as well, but the low alcohol content (around 3% ABV) and earthy, vegetal taste made it less popular among the conquistadors than European-style beers and brandies. Early attempts to distill pulque were unsuccessful, as the resulting spirit was harsh and acrid. It was soon discovered, however, that cooking the agave pulp resulted in a sweeter juice which, when fermented, became known as Mezcal Wine. This "wine" was then distilled into the spirit that we know today as Mezcal.
Early Mezcal distilleries in the Spanish colony of Mexico operated in a manner similar to modern-day brewpubs. The distilling plant was usually small, and its production was consumed primarily in the distillery tavern (taberna). As the colony grew, the Mezcal wine industry followed apace and soon became an important source of tax revenue for the Spanish Crown. Periodic attempts by Spanish brandy producers to shut down the Mezcal industry were about as unsuccessful as similar efforts by English distillers to inhibit rum production in the British colonies of North America.
In 1656 the village of Tequila (named for the local Ticuilas Indians) was granted a charter by the governor of New Galicia. Tax records of the time show that Mezcal was already being produced in the area. This Mezcal, made from the local blue agave, established a reputation for having a superior taste, and barrels of the "Mezcal wine from Tequila" were soon being shipped to nearby Guadalajara and more distant cities such as the silver-mining boomtowns of San Luis Potosí and Aguascalientes.
The oldest of the still-existing distilleries in Tequila dates back to 1795, when the Spanish Crown granted a distiller’s license to a local padrone by the name of José Cuervo. In 1805 another distillery was established that would ultimately come under the control of the Sauza family. By the mid 1800s there were dozens of distilleries and millions of agave plants under cultivation around Tequila in what had become the state of Jalisco. Gradually, the locally-produced Mezcal came to be known as Tequila (just as the grape brandy from the Cognac region in France came to be known simply as Cognac).
Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. But until the 1870s it was a politically unstable country that experienced frequent changes in government, revolutions, and a disastrous war with the United States. Marauding bands of soldiers and guerillas extracted "revolutionary taxes" and "voluntary" contributions in kind from the tabernas and distilleries.
In 1876 a general named Porfirio Díaz, who was from the Mezcal-producing state of Oaxaca, came to power and ushered in a 35-year period of relative peace and stability known as the Porfiriato. It was during this period that the Tequila industry became firmly established. Modest exports of Tequila began to the United States and Europe, with Jose Cuervo shipping the first three barrels to El Paso, Texas in 1873. By 1910 the number of agave distilleries in the state of Jalisco had grown to almost 100.
The collapse of the Díaz regime in 1910 led to a decade-long period of revolution that inhibited the Tequila industry. The return of peace in the 1920s led to the expansion of Tequila production in Jalisco beyond the area around the town of Tequila, with growth being particularly noteworthy in the highlands around the village of Arandas. This period also saw the adoption of modern production techniques from the wine industry such as the use of cultivated yeast and microbiological sanitary practices.
To preserve the quality of tequila, the Tequila Regulatory Council or Consejo Regulador del Tequila
(CRT) was created in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, in 1994; the year in which it was became the organization charged with certifying conformity to the Mexican Official Standard of Tequila (NOM-006-SCFI-1994). A year later, the CRT was also accredited as the official verification unit. The CRT is a private non-profit organization with a worldwide scope that renders impartial decisions as to whether or not a product complies with the Standards.
Today, there are a little over 150 tequila distilleries which produce over 1300 brands. The list is relatively stable as new brands that are created replace brands that have ceased to be marketed.
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