Tequila History | For Tequila Lovers

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The History and Culture of Tequila

FROM ANCIENT PULQUE TO TODAY'S HIP SIP
Content Courtesy of Ian Chadwick of IanChadwick.com.

Tequila Agave Roasting Pit
Agave cactus roasting pit for making Tequila - charcoal heated stones placed on top of Agave

As North America's first distilled drink, and its first commercially-produced alcohol, 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 beer-like drink called pulque, also made from the agave.

People sometimes speak of tequila's 400-year history. This is somewhat misleading. Before the introduction of above-ground, steam-heated ovens, the product was really a mezcal. Tequila's history should be dated from the late 19th century when those ovens came into use. But no one can deny that tequila's mezcal ancestry goes much further back, and it is that genealogy we trace.

The history of tequila's development from the traditional beverage to the modern spirit parallel's the often turbulent, chaotic growth of Mexico herself - and is equally obscure and complicated to outsiders. There are family ties that weave through the industry, internecine fights and squabbles that have led to breakaway family members establishing their own company in competition with the rest of the family. There are old families with generations of roots in Jalisco, and upstarts who arrived to challenge them within the last few decades. There are those who are passionate about their products and vehement about quality with little regard for money, and others who simply seem to do it as a business.

The Florentine Codex of 1580.
The Florentine Codex of 1580: One of the Earliest Known Mentions of Agave as a Food of the Aztecs

Mezcal wine - tequila's grandparent - was first produced only a few decades after the Conquest that brought the Spaniards to the New World in 1521. No one has ever come up with an exact date, but it was likely around 1535. It was variously called mezcal brandy, agave wine, mezcal tequila and finally, after a couple of centuries,  one variety was simply called tequila - appropriately named after Tequila, a small town in a valley west of Guadalajara, in Jalisco state, Mexico.

The word tequila itself is a mystery. It is said to be an ancient Nahuatl term. The Nahuatl were the original people who lived in the area. The word means means (depending on the authority) "the place of harvesting plants," "the place of wild herbs," "place where they cut," "the place of work" or even "the place of tricks." According to Jose Maria Muria, tequila comes form the Nahuatl words tequitl (work, duty, job or task) and tlan (place).

Other sources say it means "the rock that cuts," most likely a reference to the volcanic obsidian that is common in the area. Obsidian was important for natives in making arrowheads, axes, cutting and scraping tools. It litters many fields and has even been incorporated into sidewalks in the town.

Tequila Cascahuin says the word is a corruption of "tetilla" because the volcano looked like a woman's small breast (somewhat dubious if you've seen the volcano).

Other sources say it is a corruption of the name of the natives - Ticuilas or Tiquilos. All of them are suitable. It is the name of the spirit, the name of the town and the name of the valley.

Maguey - another name for the agave plant from which tequila is distilled - is not a native term, but the name was imported from the Antilles (the first reference to the plant is in a book by Peter Martyr from 1533). The agave is mentioned as a food of the Aztecs and natives in the Florentine Codex of 1580.

The Nahuatl called the plant metl or mexcametl - from which the word mezcal is derived. For them it was a divine plant, worshipped as the earthly representation of the goddess Mayaheul, who had 400 breasts to feed her 400 children, the Centzon Totchtin.  Other indigenous people had different names for the plant: it was carnaba or tocamba to the Purepecha; guada to the Otomi.

The agave plant plays a much larger role than just being the source of an alcoholic drink. Its leaves are harvested for a hemp-like fibre that was used for mats, clothing, rope and paper. It was also the source of the nutrient and vitamin rich brew, pulque. The plant was aptly described as "el arbol de las maravillas" - the tree of marvels - in a 1596 history of the Indians of Central America.

The agave plant has been part of human culture almost since the continent was first colonized and is still used for its fibre. Human remains dating back at least 9,000 years (some ethnobotanists say 11,000) show the early uses of agave for food and fibre. No remains record when humans learned to ferment the sap from the heart of the maguey into an alcoholic drink, but it is at least 1,000 years old. Known as pulque in the earliest written records, it was already ancient when the Spaniard Conquistadors arrived. By 1520, they had exported it into the Old World.