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 pulgue. The history of tequila's development from the traditional beverage to the modern spirit parallel's the often turbulent, chaotic growth of Mexico.

Tequila's grandparent, Mezcal wine, was first produced only a few decades after the Conquest that brought the Spaniards to the New World in 1521. Throughout history it has been known by a variety of names until finally being named after Tequila, a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, where it is primarily produced.

Though the origins of the word tequila are a mystery, the agave plant has been part of human culture almost since the continent was first colonized. There are no records of when humans learned to ferment the sap from the heart of the maguey into an alcoholic drink. It was already ancient when the Spaniard Conquistadors arrived, and by 1520 they had exported it into the Old World.

Eager to maintain the market for Spanish products, in 1595 Phillip II banned the planting of new vineyards in Mexico. By 1600, however, Don Pedro Sances de Tagle, the father of tequila, established the very first tequila factory, cultivating local agave for distillation.

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 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.

In 1785, the production of all spirits, including mezcal wines and pulque, were banned by the government of Charles III to favor and promote the importation of Spanish wines and liqueurs. Officially, production was halted, but had really gone underground, In 1792, 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, who got the rights to cultivate a parcel land from the King of Spain in 1758. 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 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 Cuervo's fields had more than three million agave plants. After Cuervo's death, Jesus Flores took over the distillery, and pioneered the bottling of tequila. His first bottled tequila was sold in 1906. At the same time, he moved Cuervo to a new, larger site to take advantage of the transportation network the new railroad offered. 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. 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, tequila became a stock item among the soldiers on all sides of the conflict. 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, 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. 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.

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. Mexican spirits were also exported to Europe in the 1870s.

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.

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 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 fervor for Mexican goods. Tequila quickly became associated with the hard-riding rebels and gun-slinging heroes of the period from 1910-1920. (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.)

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 were introduced in the late 1920's, when peace returned, and after the Depression, the industry again expanded. 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 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.

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.

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. 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.

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. The Tequila Regulatory Council was founded in 1994 to oversee production, quality and standards in the industry.

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, and the rest are in the adjoining states. Currently, there are about 70 distilleries, with 15 more scheduled to open in the next several years. 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 with internal sales almost equaling exports by 1997.

The contents of this article are condensed from 'In Search of Blue Agave,' by Ian Chadwick.

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