Man riding a horse through an agave field.

A History of Tequila

7 minutes

Every year, on July 24th, we celebrate International (or National) Tequila Day, in honor of the spirit we all know and love. Tequila is enjoyed in many forms, in a cocktail, as a sipper, or a shot with salt and lemon. In honor of National Tequila Day, I thought I would include a little about the history of tequila and how it evolved into the spirit we all enjoy today.

What is Tequila?

If you are familiar with whiskey, you may know there are a number of sub-categories of whiskey. In North America for example, you have Bourbon which needs to meet a number of requirement in order to be classified as Bourbon. If a whiskey meets these requirements, then it can be called, and marketed as Bourbon. All Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Bourbon. If a whiskey is produced in Scotland it is called Scotch. All Scotch is whisky, but not all whisky is Scotch.

In a similar way, tequila is a type of mezcal. Mezcal is produced from the agave plant. Tequila must be made from at least 51% blue agave.

Similar to Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey, there are laws regulating production of tequila to specific regional areas of Mexico and also the process by which tequila is produced. This ensures consistency and quality of a product recognized as a protected “designation of origin product” in more than 40 countries.

Why is Tequila Produced in Jalisco?

Most Tequila is produced in Jalisco. The region of Jalisco, particularly the town of Tequila, became the epicenter of tequila production due to its favorable climate and soil conditions for agave cultivation. The volcanic-rich soil in the area, combined with the altitude and temperature, provided optimal conditions for growing the blue agave plant.

How is Tequila Made?

Tequila production involves harvesting the mature blue agave plants, removing the leaves to reveal the piña (the heart of the plant), and then cooking the piñas in ovens to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. The cooked piñas are crushed, and the extracted juice is fermented and distilled to produce tequila.

Don Julio 70 tequila with a glass and lime slices

History of Tequila

The origins and history of tequila are deeply rooted in Mexico, specifically in the region of Jalisco and its surrounding areas. Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the blue agave plant and is considered one of Mexico's most iconic and well-known exports.

The cultivation and use of agave for various purposes can be traced back thousands of years in Mesoamerican cultures. The indigenous people of Mexico, such as the Aztecs, had been fermenting the juice of the agave plant long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

Prior to the 16th Century

The Aztecs were fermenting the sap of the Maquey (Agave) plant to create a viscous white liquor with yeast-like flavor known as Pulque. The Maquey plant was sacred to the Aztecs, and Pulque was considered a ritual drink, consumed by certain classes of people at specific rituals and events.

Arrival of the Spaniards in the 16 and 17th Centuries

The production of tequila as we know it today began during the Spanish colonial period. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the early 1500’s they, according to legend, ran out of Brandy. What’s a thirsty Spaniard to do? Apparently they distill whatever they can by whatever means necessary, which means they learn from the locals how to distill agave in primitive mud huts into what will later become known as mezcal. Whether or not this is true, the evolution of the process of fermenting agave sap to create Pulque, to distilling agave heart juice to create mezcal was introduced by Spanish immigrants.

The King of Spain banned the planting of new vineyards in Mexico, to protect the Spanish wine trade, in 1595, leading to an increase in agave distillation to satisfy demand for cheap liquor.

The first official record of mezcal production by indigenous peoples in colonial records was in 1619 with a reference to people producing "mexcales" in the coastal region of Sierra de Nayarit.

Mezcal production gradually moved inland over the next few decades to both evade prohibition imposed by the Spanish King, but also to take advantage of the more abundant wild agave plant plants that grew in the interior.

Small distilleries began to be established, and these remote areas and they used the blue agave plant to produce what we know today as tequila.

18th Century

In 1758, King Ferdinand VI of Spain granted Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo land in the town of Jalisco, Mexico to found a farm to grow the blue agave plant. In 1795, after years of prohibition imposed by King Carlos III, Jose Maria Guadalupe, Don Jose’s son, was granted the first license to produce tequila commercially from Spain’s King Carlos IV. The tequila industry was born.

The 20th Century

In 1902, the Mexican government officially recognized the term "tequila" as the exclusive name for the spirit produced in specific regions of Mexico, primarily Jalisco and parts of four other states. This designation established the legal framework and regulations for the production and labeling of tequila.

During prohibition in the U.S. the tequila saw a period of growth as tequila was smuggled across the Mexico U.S. border to satisfy American demands for liquor, and again during World War II as American distilleries switched to production of other products to support the war effort.

In 1974 the Mexican government declared the term “Tequila” to be the intellectual property of Mexico.

The tequila industry faced challenges and changes throughout its history. The Mexican Revolution, Prohibition in the United States, and various economic and political factors affected production and distribution. However, tequila's popularity continued to grow both domestically and internationally.

In recent decades, tequila has seen a surge in popularity and recognition as a premium spirit. Craft tequila brands, as well as aged and artisanal expressions, have gained prominence, highlighting the diversity and complexity of the spirit. Tequila is now protected by designation of origin (Denominación de Origen), which ensures that it can only be produced in specific regions of Mexico using specific varieties of agave.

Tequila in 2023

Do you remember tequila shooters with salt and lemon? Chances are you did not get through college without at least one hangover from too many tequila shooters. How times have changed. Today, in North America, tequila is enjoyed neat, no ice, salt, or lemon, just as it is in Mexico, where it's light and delicate flavor profile can shine.

I host a monthly whiskey tasting, and, just for some variety, this month we will be tasting tequila instead of whiskey. We will be following a similar tasting procedure as we do with whiskey, a simplified version of the Murray Method of tasting whiskey. We'll evaluate the nose, palate, and finish, just as we would with whiskey. I have a handful of tequilas that I really enjoy, but I have tasted far more Scotch, Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and Canadian whisky than I have tequila so I'm really looking forward to my first tequila tasting.

Explosion in Tequila Popularity

Tequila popularity has exploded in recent years due to consumers' growing appreciation for the heritage, craftsmanship, and culture presented in tequila. In America, there is a huge latin influence, with a growing Mexican population, Mexico being such a popular travel destination, and a love of Mexican food, it's only natural that tequila would ride that wave of popularity.

Additionally, there has been a significant increase in production and availability of premium tequilas, anejo and extra anejo tequilas with richer flavor profiles that enable consumers to experience everything tequila can be - and tequila can be excellent!

The Celebrity Influence

Of course it's helped that a number of celebrities have jumped on the tequila bandwagon. Celebrity owned tequila brands are everywhere, with each trying to carve out their own piece of the tequila pie.

The first one I, and I think most people, became aware of was Casamigos, owned, and since sold for close to a billion dollars, by George Clooney and Rande Gerber. Celebrity endorsements are extremely lucrative and I think George Clooney's success has inspired many other celebrities to move into the tequila space.

Below is a short list of a few celebrity owned tequila brands, in no particular order:

  • Casamigos Blanco – George Clooney & Rande Gerber (sold in 2107)
  • Nocheluna Sotol – Lenny Kravitz
  • Santo Fino – Sammy Hagar & Guy Fieri
  • Cabo Wabo Blanco – Sammy Hagar
  • Gran Coramino – Kevin Hart
  • Casa del Sol – Eva Longoria
  • Flecha Azul Blanco – Mark Wahlberg
  • Teremana Blanco – Dwayne Johnson
  • 818 Blanco – Kendall Jenner
  • Cincoro Blanco – Michael Jordan
  • Lobos 1707 Joven – Lebron James

The Rise of Premium and Super Premium Tequila

The premium tequila category was established more than 25 years ago by brands like Patron with longer aged, craft tequila, with more nuanced and complex flavor profiles. These high end tequilas had higher end packaging, and associated higher prices. Today high end premium tequilas are everywhere, with most brands offering high end premium tequilas.

Premium, and super premium tequilas showcase the intricate flavor profiles present in tequila, and show consumers that tequila is not just for shooters, or to be used as a mixer, but can also be enjoyed on it's own, sipped like a fine wine, or a great Scotch.

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