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.
The history of tequila's development from the traditional beverage to the modern spirit parallel's the often turbulent, chaotic growth of Mexico itself - and is equally obscure and complicated to outsiders.
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).
The legend states Mayahuel was a young and beautiful Aztec goddess, who ran away to marry Quetzalcoatl, god of redemption, and both of them turned into two branches of a leafy tree so they would not be found by their terrible grandmother, "Tzintzimitl" who ordered their execution after finding them. Quetzalcoatl stayed alive, but Mayahuel died eaten up by the stars and after burying her remanents in the ground, the first plant of Agave was born, which was striken down by a lightning bolt from a great storm sent by the gods on their rage for what Mayahuel had done. Afterwards, once the storm had finished and the fire was out, the long and thorny leafs of the Agave had been consumed, leaving only the Heart of the Plant pouring out the Blood of Mayahuel, a sweet nectar which tastes like honey and smells seductively. Ever since, the nectar became a ritual beverage and a ceremonial offer to the Gods.
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 leas 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.
XVI Century: "Motolinía" describes the cooking of Mescal (heart of Maguey) "mexcalli". Mescal wine is one of the first products that Europeans learned to obtain from a natural product in America.
4th decade of XVII Century: The audience of Guadalajara regulates the production and trade of the mescal wine. This subsisted until being abolished by the Independent government.
XVIII Century: In the middle of this century, the market for trading in the east grows rapidly. The San Blas port is opened, and the Tequila drink is supplied to the new Spanish colonies in northwest Mexico. Tequila is known and accepted in Mexico City, and it's recognized as superior to the mescal wines from closer zones which have inferior quality.
1810 Independence of Mexico: The production of mescal wine is increased.
Late XIX Century and Early XX Century: Tequila is considered decadent, since the elitist population prefers all the French liquors.
1896: Franz Weber, European naturalist arrived to Jalisco, Mexico. He was devoted to researching the domestic western flora and found the blue agave as the most appropriate plant for the production of tequila and named it Agave Tequilana Weber.
1911: Porfirio Díaz (President of Mexico) is overthrown. The consummation of the Mexican Revolution causes Mexicans to become more patriotic, and they turn their eyes to tequila. The government encourages the production of this drink. The film industry influences the spread of tequila, and it becomes the most popular drink in Mexico.
1930: An epidemic of Spanish influenza attacks northern Mexico, and tequila becomes the best medicine to fight it. (It's said that from then on, this drink was drunk with lemon and salt because that's how the doctors prescribed it).
1940: Because of WWII, tequila increases its exportation to the United States, where the majority of the population prefer drinking it over whiskey.
1959 - On October 21, 1959 the Camara Regional de la Industria Tequila is officially founded.
1994 - On may 17, 1994 the Consejo Regulador del Tequila(CRT) is founded. At the end of this year Mexico suffers a monetary devaluation which has repercussions in other countries as is know as "The Tequila Effect".
1996- La Parternidad Mexicana de Tequila is formed in Brussels consisting of a European Union Body of 15 countries. Paving the way for the possible exportation of tequila to 350 million people.
1997 - The CRT Norm NOM-006-SCFI-1994 is introduced to govern Tequila. The accord between the European Union and United States of Mexico serves to protect the Denomination in the sector of spirituous beverages.
2000-2003 - The New Millennium ushers in higher demands for tequila world wide, coinciding with the agave shortage. Which sends the price of agave soaring from 40¢ a kilo to $16-18 USD per kilo. The years 2001 and 2002 are named "Oro Azul".
2004-Present - Continuous international demand for 100% blue agave for the spirits, food and pharmaceutical industries.
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