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The History of Tequila

By: Elizabeth Hinds - Updated: 26 Nov 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Tequila Mezcal Mexico Cactus Juice Agave

Legends and stories abound about the Mexican spirit tequila, but how much is true?

The Myths
  • Tequila is made from cactus juice

    No, it’s not. It made from the sap of the agave plant, a succulent and a relative of the lily.

  • There should be a worm in the bottle

    No, there shouldn’t. Some types of mezcal, a forerunner and close relative of today’s tequila, will contain a caterpillar. You are supposed to eat this: it’s perfectly safe, having been pickled in alcohol.

  • Tequila is hallucinogenic

    No it’s not. It does not contain mescaline, a compound that produces hallucinations – and neither does mezcal.

The Facts
  • By law, tequila can only be called tequila if it’s made in a certain area in Mexico.
  • The best tequilas are made from 100% blue agave; others contain a mixture of agave and other sugars.
  • Ageing of tequila in wooden barrels gives it a smoother flavour. True connoisseurs prefer the authentic taste of the agave and so it’s rare for tequilas to be aged longer than three or four years old.
The Name
Depending on whom you believe, tequila gets its name from the Nahuatl (the original people who lived in the area) word for:
  • Volcano;
  • Place of harvesting plants;
  • Work or duty;
  • The rock that cuts.
The History
Long before the Spanish Conquistadors invaded their country, the native people of Mexico were fermenting sap from the agave to make a nutrient-rich drink they called pulque. It is likely to have been the influence of the Conquistadors that led to the distillation of this drink into a stronger spirit, mescal wine, which eventually became known as tequila.

The first tequila factory was established in 1600 and in 1608 the first taxes on tequila were introduced. This was followed soon after by regulations to control the industry.

The first licensed manufacturer was Jose Antonio Cuervo; today Cuervo is still the largest manufacturer of tequila.

All went well and tequila became an important export for Mexico until, in 1785, Charles III of Spain decided it was becoming a little too popular and threatening the Spanish market for wines and liqueurs, and he banned it.

But you can’t keep a good thing down – although production did go down, literally, underground – and in the 1790s the ban was lifted.

The continuing history of tequila is very much tied in with, and reflects the ups and downs of, Mexico’s own history. Thus, during the War of Independence with Spain, trade was affected and there was a down-turn in its popularity. After 1821, when Mexico attained its independence, and Spanish goods were harder to come by, tequila was on the up again.

During the Mexican Revolution a century later tequila became the symbol of national pride, but in the aftermath, when land was redistributed, many of the larger commercial producers suffered. By 1929 there were only eight left in the country.

American soldiers guarding their border with Mexico were only too happy to receive smuggled goods and tequila made its way into the United States. During the prohibition era, even more was smuggled in, but tequila’s popularity really grew after the outbreak of World War II, when spirits from Europe were hard to come by.

The 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City brought tequila to the world’s attention, and in 1983, Chinaco, the first premium tequila to be sold in the U.S was released, at last ensuring tequila’s place in polite society.

Types of tequila
Blanco
Bottled straight after distillation, this clear spirit maintains the true flavour of the agave.

Oro
Tequila blanco with some additives, usually caramel, for colour and taste.

Reposado
Has been allowed to age in oak casks for between two months and one year. Although still tasting of the agave plant, it is mellower and naturally coloured from the wood.

Añejo
Blanco tequila that has been allowed to mature in white oak casks for more than a year. The result is a unique bouquet and taste.

How to Drink Tequila
Like any fine spirit, it should be savoured, and sipped slowly for most pleasure. It should be served at room temperature and traditionalists will present it in a caballito glass, although añejo tequila is best served in a tulip-shaped glass so its bouquet and flavour can be best appreciated.

Only tourists drink tequila shots with salt and lime!

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