Did you know that tequila was the first distilled drink in North America? Or that it was the first commercially produced alcohol? Yes, tequila history is robust, rich, and rooted in pre-Hispanic times when natives fermented sap from the local agave (also called maguey) into a drink called pulque.
Quick fact: Pulque is a milky colored, sticky liquid that creates a light foam. It’s made by fermenting the sap of maguey plants. Pulque was so vital that it had even had a god, Patecatl. Mezcal is derived from the cooked heart of agave plants. Tequila, a variety of mezcal, is made all (or mostly) from the blue agave.
The history of tequila’s growth from a cultural and traditional beverage to a modern and widely distributed spirit is as chaotic, turbulent, and obscure as Mexico’s growth.
Mezcal – The Granddaddy of Tequila
The exact date isn’t known, but we know that mezcal was first produced just a few decades after 1521 when the conquest brought the Spaniards to the New World. Mezcal was referred to as “mezcal brandy” or “agave wine.” Then, “mezcal tequila,” and finally shortened to “tequila” as we know it today. It was named appropriately after Tequila, a quaint town in Jalisco, Mexico.
Quick fact: “Mezcal” in Nahuatl means “the house of the moon,” to mean the core, the essence, the center, etc. Nahuatl (pronounced Nah-wat) is a Uto-Aztecan language spoken by about 1.5 million people in Mexico. Classical Nahuatl is a language used by the natives of the Aztec empire. It was used as a lingua franca Mesoamerica from the 7th century AD until the Spanish conquest.
The Meaning of the Word “Tequila”
What does “tequila” mean? The exact meaning is a mystery but is said to be a Nahuatl expression. There are a couple of ideas about its meaning lurking around the internet, including:
- “The place where it is cut” – due to the abundance of obsidian (naturally occurring volcanic glass) that natives used to make different hunting and kitchen tools.
- “A place of tribute” – during the Aztec empire, it was used as an offering to the emperors and consumed during religious rituals and festive ceremonies.
- Jose Maria Muria, a Mexican historian, believes that it means “the place where plants are harvested,” or “the place where a lot of work is done,” according to his book, “A Drink Named Tequila.”
The Meaning of the Word “Maguey”
The first mention of maguey is by Peter Martyr, who said, “they say the first inhabitants lived contented with the roots of dates and magueans, which is an herb much like unto that commonly called ‘sengrem’ or ‘orpin.’”
The species of agave, called maguey by the natives, grows luxuriantly over Mexico’s table-lands and its neighboring borders. It is so useful to the people that they call it “miracle of nature.”
The Nahuatl referred to maguey as “metl” or “mexcametl,” from which the word “mezcal” is derived. They worshipped it as a sacred plant and an earthly representation of the goddess Mayaheul, who had 400 breasts to feed all 400 of her children.
The Agave Plant: Over 9,000 Years of History
Beyond an alcoholic drink, natives used the plant leaves to create a hemp-like fiber used for rugs, mats, clothing, rope, paper, etc. However, historians are unsure when humans learned to ferment maguey’s sap into an alcoholic drink (AKA pulque). Pulque was already custom when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. But they liked it so much, by 1520, they exported it back to the Old World and began distilling it into a more potent alcoholic beverage.
Quick fact: In Spain and across Europe, it was dangerous to drink water. Instead, most people drank beer and wine with their meals. Naturally, they wanted to create a more potent alcoholic beverage from pulque since they were not fans of staying hydrated with water.
In his first letter back to Spain, the Conquistador Cristobal de Oñate (founder of Guadalajara in 1531) wrote to King Carlos V about sugar obtained from agave…” From these plants, they make wine and sugar, which they also sell.” It was so popular that the wine trade with Spain began to decline. So, in 1595, Phillip II (King of Spain from 1556-1598) outlawed planting new vineyards in Mexico and other Spanish colonies to maintain the market for Spanish products, AKA collect taxes on wine exports.
Tequila in the 1600s
Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle y Pérez Bustamante was a Spanish aristocrat but his nickname is “The Father of Tequila.” Don Pedro was born in Spain but later sailed to Mexico and married his first cousin (back before they banned that sort of thing). When Phillip II banned planting new vineyards, Don Pedro jumped at the neglected blue agave plants’ opportunity. Around 1600, he built the world’s first tequila factory. It probably comes as no surprise that he amassed a great fortune due to its popularity and ended up serving as the Prior of the Consulado – head of the largest “corporation” in Mexico at that time. Don Pedro is credited with introducing the idea of cultivating this agave on a mass scale and producing it into tequila.
By 1621, “wines of mezcal” were growing in popularity in Guadalajara and being noted in local records. Because it hadn’t been previously authorized for distillation and manufacturing, Governor Don Juan Canseco y Quiñones came up with a great plan to collect taxes on the production. By 1636, “wines of mezcal” were generating enormous funds for public works. And “wines of mezcal” were used for more than just fun. In 1651, Jeronimo Hernandez stated the health and medicinal benefits of tequila, including rubbing it on injured or affected parts of your body. Have you tried this in 2020 😝?
1666: Tequila, Jalisco Officially Becomes a City
After the conquest, the area around today’s Jalisco state was initially called New Galicia (named after their current governor La Torre Argus De Ulloa y Chavez) by the Spanish conquerors. Tequila officially became a village in 1666. Operating autonomously, it wasn’t until 1821 that Jalisco joined the government of Mexico.
Quick fact: The village of Santiago de Tequila (now known as Tequila) was founded in 1530 by Franciscan friars. They moved many of the locals here from Tequila volcano, but by 1541, natives revolted against Spanish rule. Locally, The Tecoxines and Caxcanes in Tlaltenango, Xochipila, Nochictlán, and Teocaltech rebelled first, with those in Tequila joining later. They revolted at the top of Tequila Mountain, and Friar Juan Calero of the monastery near Tequila went to try and alleviate the situation. Still, he was annihilated with arrows and rocks. The natives stripped him naked and hung him on the local stone idol. Brutal!
The History of Tequila is Fascinating, Mysterious, and Nuanced
If you’ve read up to here, then you know just how mysterious the roots of tequila are. Although there are mixed messages about tequila and maguey’s meaning, one thing is sure: the plants have played an enormous role in Mexican history for hundreds, if not thousands of years. With a rich history in the pre-Hispanic era, the Spaniards turned it up a notch by turning agave into a more robust spirit (tequila) to suit their drinking habits (these people didn’t drink water, remember). If you’re interested in learning about the more recent tequila history, stay tuned for our next article, The History of Tequila in North America Part 2: 1700 – Present Day, which we will post soon.