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A Brief History of Tequila

The history of tequila dates back to the 14th century, and the spirit has come a long way ever since.

Francisco Galarza

Vibrant blueish-green leaves and the skies of Guadalajara distilled down using an ancient recipe into a power punch and crystal clear spirit: This is the heritage of our most cherished, hangover inducing, alcoholic drink that dates all the way back to the 14th century called tequila.

The exact history of tequila started with the people of the Aztec, who made a fermented beverage from the agave plant. They called this beverage the Octli (which later came to be called Pulque). All this occurred way before the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s.

Consequently, Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, invaded Mexico in 1519 and conquered the Aztec Empire, claiming Mexico for Spain. The good news is, wrath wasn’t the only thing Hernan Cortes brought to Mexico.

He also brought with him a distilling procedure that the residents of Tequila (a town in the state of Jalisco, Mexico) quickly put into good use.

Tequila residents already knew that the blue agave plants with green leaves contained sugars that one could ferment, so when the Spaniards ran out of their whiskey, they decided to distill this agave drink and produced North America’s first native, refined spirit. 

Using the sugary sap from the blue agave plant, they created a new brandy with a unique taste, making sense of the best tequila cocktails for whiskey drinkers since the beginning of the drink's production.

For lots of years, the drink was only consumed locally, and most of it was only sold exclusively at local distilleries.

The Agave Plant

The agave plant was a significant part of life to the Aztec people in pre-Hispanic Mexico. The plant’s dense fibers were perfect for ropes, mats, and possibly wigs. It should serve as no surprise then that they had another use for the dense herb, i.e boozing around with the plant’s juice.

Pulque was their favorite drink, which was a milky-colored, fermented, yeasty, agave juice brew the natives had the skill and good sense to distill.

North American’s obsession with tequila began as a result of prohibition, and resurfaced again during World War II when European brandy became hard to come by. However, it was not until the year 1944 that the Mexican government decreed tequila could only be prepared in Jalisco, Mexico.

Of course, there have been upgrades and tweaks to the law regarding tequila production since then.

But like cognac and champagne, the drink remains a product of origin. This means tequila can only be prepared legally in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

The spirit is also protected through NAFTA in the United States and Canada, and has also been a PDO product in the constituent nations of the European Union.

In 2018, there are more than 100 distilleries in Mexico that make more than 900 different types of premium tequila (and approximately 2,000 new types have been registered with the Mexican government to date), much to the delight of spirit sippers and margarita lovers.

The Science Behind the Production and History of Tequila

Tequila’s recipe is surprisingly simple. All you need is yeast, water, an agave plant older then two years old, and several donkeys.

Skilled agave farmers (a Jimador) harvest the plant's heart (piña) from the middle of an enormous blue Weber agave plant that has reached the perfect stage for harvesting in its life cycle. This ability to note this skill is a rare, almost mysterious talent passed down from one generation to another.

The heart is then chopped out and smoothly steam-baked inside a brick oven for a couple of days (although, if you want a shorter cook time, you can steam-bake the piña in an industrial pressure cooker.) After a day or two, the piña will start to soften as its starch transforms into sugar.

Consequently, the steamed piña is cut into shreds like pulled pork, then crushed (usually on a stone wheel or by donkeys) in order to extract the juice, or aguamiel, which will then be poured into heated wooden tanks.

After this process, the nectar ferments for a couple of weeks, then it is distilled two or three times. The yeast found on the leaves of the herb is conventionally used to speed up the procedure.

To complete the procedure, water is added to the distilled spirits; after which, it is aged in vats or wooden tanks. Every producer’s distillation procedure (the vessel type used and aging period) is what gives tequila its unique aroma and flavor notes.

It takes approximately 15 to 25 days to make a perfectly white, crystal clear tequila.

On the other hand though, aging the beverage for two or more months produces a pale gold spirit, which draws in some of the hues and flavors of the cask it is being distilled in.

Aging the tequila for two months to a year creates rested (reposado) tequila, and longer then a year creates the most delicious type of tequila, known as extra añejo, or aged tequila.

As a beverage of origin, tequila is only made in five Mexican states, but nearly every drop of tequila you’ve ever drunk was created in the Mexican municipal of Jalisco, making a plane ticket there one of the best gifts for tequila lovers. Leading tequila manufacturers pride themselves on using 100 percent blue agave to create the spirit, even though the legal requirement is only 51 percent.

Some companies blend tequila with a natural spirit created from cane sugar, producing mixto tequilas; which are tequilas of the lowest quality.

Mezcal Versus Tequila

With the history of tequila in mind, do not confuse the spirit of tequila with mezcal wine. The production procedure of tequila is similar to mezcal; but unlike tequila, mezcal is created in eight Mexican municipalities. Another difference is that mezcal is made from agave piñas (and not necessarily blue Webers either), which are roasted in underground pits, giving them their renowned smoky, earthy tang.

Beginning of the End?

There is a twist in the story of mezcal and tequila, and it has to do with the agave plant from which they’re manufactured. There are roughly 200+ different types of agave (most of which are indigenous to Mexico), but only around 30 are used to make liquor. Worst yet, to reach ripeness, the plant has a decades-long maturation period.

This makes it hard to farm, and even tougher to anticipate just how much of the plant is needed to produce tequila in, let's say, 20 years' time. Add to this the fact that you’ll have to kill the agave plant to harvest it, and you can see how tequila is considered to be such an important cultural drink.

This implies that a tequila shortage could be on the horizon. The good news is though, there is plenty of ice and salt for the rims of your glasses. That means that, no matter how much you drink to forget this sad fact, will result in a delicious big batch cocktail made with tequila.

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