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