HISTORY

Blast from the past

1000 BC to 200 AD: First documentation of pulque appeared on stone walls around 200 AD.

Pulque, fermented agave sap, was sacred and only allowed to be consumed by the wealthy or during religious ceremonies, by priests and those they sacrificed to appease their gods.

1519: When Mexico was invaded by the Spanish, led by Hernando Cortez, the process of distillation came into play. The Spanish, who were so used to their cognacs and other distillates weren’t accustomed to Pulque and so changed the drink to suit their palates. And so with that, Mezcal is born!

Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl ‘Mexcalli’ meaning ‘cooked agave’.

Many believe that distilling in Mexico dates back before the Spanish conquest, and that the Filipinos brought their stills to Mexico.

However it is argued that distillation occurred prior to the invasion. Not enough evidence is available though, so I will remain factual with this brief summary of Tequila history.

Mid 1500s: First trade route was opened between Manila and Mexico, which led to building the first large scale distillery in the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco.

1521-1527: Spanish explorer and conqueror, Hernando Cortez, ordered grape vines from Spain and had thousands of them planted on the colonies.

1600s: Popularity of Mezcal had increased dramatically and wine producers in Spain weren’t happy, so the Spanish King forbade the establishment of vineyards in Mexico, but not of agave plantations.

1608: The first tax was levied on ‘Vino de Mezcal’ /Agave spirits.

1620s: Vino de Mezcal grew substantially throughout Mexico.

The best medicine

1621: Domingo Lázaro de Arrequi sent reports to Guadalajara of the first commercial drink, which he described as, “the hearts of roasted mezcal which are crushed by a stone wheel to extract the mosto for fermentation in the alquitarra, creating a liquid as clear as water but as strong as aguardiente.” He wrote that mezcal was “clearer than water, stronger than moonshine.”

1623: Fray Antonio de Tello wrote about the stills in use in Colima:

The stills are hollow trunks, the thickness of a man, covered by a copper encasing full of water, which is changed as it is heated, and in the middle of the hollow part there is a round fitted board, with a pipe protruding from one side, through which the distillation occurs.

1630: Arrieros, salespeople who travelled from city to city spread the word about Vino de Mezcal and were possibly even selling it at each of their stops.

1640: The king forbade the production of Vino de Mezcal in an attempt to promote Spanish brandies and cognacs.

1651: Spanish doctors believed that Vino de Mezcal had medicinal properties (we’re not arguing!) and so it was used frequently, for example by rubbing it on affected areas when suffering rheumatic diseases.

1656: The town of Tequila became an official village, some saying it was named after the local Ticuilas Indians.

1700s to 1800s: Modern Tequila is born.

Thanks to Don Cenobio Sauza, the Blue Weber Agave was identified as the best agave for producing Tequila, due to its vast abundance and ‘short’ maturation of approx. 7 to 9 years with high starch content.

1758: A year before his death, king Ferdinand VI leased a plot of land in Tequila to Jose Antonio de Cuervo y Valdes, who started an agave plantation and began production of Vino de Mezcal to commercialise it.

1795: Jose Antonio’s son received the first licence to produce from the new Spanish king to produce and sell Vino de Mezcal (Of course the family having made mezcal for decades prior to that!)

Porfiriato

1810-1821: During the War of Independence the production of mezcal increased but then the harbour of San Blas was replaced by the more remote harbour of Acapulco, which forced the production of mezcal downhill once more.

1821: Mexico regained their independence and through the scarcity of Spanish spirits, Vino de Mezcal was on the rise again. Producers decided to unite and try to impose free trade.

1835: Municipalities were given more independence from the control of the capital

1836: After Mexico’s abolition of slavery, the Mexican state of Texas separated itself from Mexico and declared independence which led to the battle of the Alamo in 1845, launching the Mexican-American war, 1846-48. Mexico lost over 1 million sq. km.

Some good things happened through this war though, which was bringing Americans in contact with Mexican food, culture and of course mezcal.

1850: Baking agaves changed from earthern pits to above ground ovens, which marks the start of a separated journey for tequila and mezcal.

1862: General Porfirio Diaz defeated the French in their 2nd invasion in the battle of Puebla

1876:  Porfirio Diaz seized power and governed Mexico until 1910. His main goal was to boost Mexico’s economy (which he did!), however his rule of ‘order and progress’ was often at the expense of the working classes and enforced with violence. This period of Diaz’ dictatorship is known as the Porfiriato.

The Daisy

1891: President Diaz awarded Cuervo a certificate and gold medal for the excellence of their tequila.

1896: Franz Weber arrived in Mexico from Germany to study and classify the flora of the nation.

1902: Agave Tequilana Weber Azul is named in his honour.

1920-33: Because of the American prohibition there was a boost in tequilas popularity, unfortunately short-lived as the Depression started in 1929.

1930s: Due to the sales dropping and the government’s land reform breaking up many large estates including lots of haciendas for tequila production the number of agave plants being cultivated dropped by 2/3.

In this time the decision was made to add non-agave sugars (cane) in fermentation because of the shortage. This fateful move unfortunately is the reason tequila to this day still has a measly reputation…

1930s: The Margarita was created. There are many stories of how the Margarita came in to existence, however there is one that sticks out as the most probable.

The Daisy cocktail, created in the 1800s consists of your base spirit, citrus, sweetener and occasionally soda. Guess what ‘Daisy’ translates to in Spanish? Margarita!

Tequila laws

1949: Official standard (Norma) was established requiring tequila to be made with only 100% agave sugars, covering blanco and anejo tequilas.

1964: Standard was changed to allow the use of 30% other sugars, is also only had blanco and anejo categories and allowed for caramel colouring in anejos.

1968: Amendment changing the classification of tequila categories including reposados for the first time.

1970: Amendment to law allowing max 49% non agave sugars.

1974: Declaration of protection for tequila was published, specifying the DOT or Denomination of Origin Tequila.

1976: Law regulating both 100% agave tequila and tequila.

1994: Consejo Regulado de Tequila/CRT/Tequila Regulatory Council was founded to oversee production, quality and standards.

1997: Amendment to the Norma requiring permanent inspections of manufacturers and bottlers by a conformed assessment entity: CRT

2006: New classes of tequila are recognised in the Norma, specifying extra anejos and producers are now allowed to add flavours.

2012: Tequila categories and the standard of quality are defined, as is the aging time, bulk produce and distribution, registration of agaves

Renaissance of Mezcal

1994: First official regulation for mezcal

1995: Mezcal received its Denomination of Origin DO, permitting it to be made only in Oaxaca, Durango, Michoacan, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Guerrero

1997: Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal (previosly COMERCAM, now CRM) is established to regulate the production.

For many centuries mezcal remained in the shadows of tequila, simply because tequila can be produced on a large scale. As mezcal has always been and will always remain small batch, there was no need for intense regulations.

2005: Despite the DO and official regulations being established years before, it wasn’t until 2005 that the official law came in to effect.

There are many reasons behind why we are only just discovering mezcal now and why it’s even unknown in some parts of Mexico. The rediscovery of historical roots plays an important part. With a brutal history, wiping out most traditions and cultures, Mexicans themselves have only just started reembracing their prehispanic roots over the last 100 years.

Another big reason is the wonderful bartenders who are focussing on artisan and unique products from around the world that are sustainable to use and help those who produce it, to concoct special drinks.

Credit to John McEvoy for this awesome graphic explaining the recent growth of mezcal (www.mezcalphd.com)

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