Few spirits are as shrouded in myth and mystery as the legend of tequila, and for good reason. This uniquely flavored Mexican spirit has been around for centuries, which is plenty of time for some stories to develop.
Despite its all too common association with shots accompanied by salt and lime, or in the early ’70s song Tequila Sunrise, this agave spirit has certainly stood the test of time and is as respected amongst top spirit tenders and mixologists as bourbon and Scotch.
And like with bourbon, tequila distillers have a stringent set of rules they must abide by. Those include ensuring that each bottle is made in the proper location, from the correct ingredients, and that reposado and añejo versions are aged for just the right amount of time. But tequilas’ beginnings go way back…..let’s take a look at the origins of this special spirit.
1000 B.C. TO 200 A.D.: THE AZTECS FERMENT AGAVE
The tequila we know today didn’t start out as we know it now. The Aztecs prized a drink known as pulque, which was created by fermenting the sap of the agave plant (this technique was also likely used by and even older civilization called the Olmecs, who were located in the lowlands of Mexico). The milky liquid was so important to Aztec culture that they worshipped two gods known for their relationship with alcoholic spirits. The first was Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey, and the second was her husband Patecatl, the god of pulque.
1400S & 1500S: THE SPANISH DISTILL AGAVE
While there are multiple theories on the beginning of agave distillation, the most common one involves the Spanish invasion and primitive mud stills. The parched Spaniards couldn’t be without their brandy for too long, so when supplies began to run low, they improvised with mud and agave, essentially creating what we know today as mezcal. As we know, all tequilas are technically mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. In the mid-1500s, the Spanish government opened a trade route between Manila and Mexico, and in the early 1600s, the Marquis of Altamira built the first large-scale distillery in what is now Tequila, Jalisco.
1700S TO 1800S: MODERN TEQUILA IS BORN
The now-famous Cuervo family began commercially distilling tequila in 1758, followed later by the Sauza family in 1873 (and likely a few other small producers in between). The story is that Don Cenobio Sauza was responsible for identifying blue agave as the best for producing tequila and therefore b what we now know as tequila began being produced at these distilleries.
1936: THE MARGARITA IS INVENTED
As was the case with rye whiskey from Canada during Prohibition, tequila also found a home amongst Americans in desperate pursuit of a decent drink. Unable to get their hands on much beyond second-rate whiskey and bathtub gin, drinkers in the U.S. began taking advantage of Mexico’s sweet agave nectar. The location and easy access to Tijuana from California made it a very popular place for Americans to go “bar-hopping” in pursuit of a night of drinking and revelry.
By the time 1936 rolled around, it was once again legal to drink in the States and going to Mexico for a good time was no longer necessary. However, a newspaper reporter named James Graham and his wife took a trip to Tijuana, where they wound up in one of the surviving bars run by an Irishman called Madden, who was known around the area for his drink called a Tequila Daisy. Though Madden admitted that the creation of the drink was a lucky mistake, it’s become one of the most celebrated in the U.S. (margarita in Spanish means daisy). When was the last time you celebrated Cinco de Mayo without one?
1974: “TEQUILA” BECOMES THE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY OF MEXICO
In a move to take ownership of the term “tequila,” the Mexican government declared the term as its intellectual property in 1974. This made it necessary for tequila to be made and aged in certain areas of Mexico, and it also made it illegal for other countries to produce or sell their own “tequila.” The Tequila Regulatory Council was additionally created to ensure quality and promote the culture surrounding the spirit.
CURRENT DAY LOVE AFFAIR WITH AGAVE
From the humble Aztec pulque to today’s craft tequilas, bartenders and mixologists around the world are taming the humble agave nectar into more than simple Margaritas and Tequila Sunrises. In 2009, Phil Ward opened Mayahuel, celebrating the current state of fantastic tequila and mezcal available in the U.S. (the name was inspired by the Aztec god, who birthed 400 drunken rabbit babies). Since then, multiple noteworthy bars across the country have arrived with a focus on Mezcal and Tequila flights and cocktails.