You may have had a shot of tequila before or even had it in an elaborate cocktail. Or perhaps you’ve seen celebrity tequila brands taking off of late. But did you know that tequila started hundreds of years ago?
Tequila is the main character in many drunken tales. Love it or hate it, we’ve all heard of this notorious liquor, and many of us have one or two embarrassing stories featuring the popular drink. But there’s a lot more to this infamous beverage than you might know.
Tequila has a history spanning centuries, and in this post, we’ll explore how tequila began and some interesting facts about the alcoholic drink. For margarita lovers out there, you’ll love finding out more about your favourite beverage in this comprehensive guide to tequila’s history.
Origins of Tequila | The Agave Drink
The spirit we know today is the result of centuries worth of transformation, originating with the agave plant. This plant is a type of succulent that grows in parts of South America and Mexico and has been naturalised in other sub-tropical regions like South Africa.
As early as 1000 B.C., the Aztecs squeezed the sweet sap from the plant, which they then fermented to make an ancient recipe known as pulque.
The fermented beverage began to gain popularity during the Spanish conquest of the Olmec Empire in the 16th century. Spanish conquistadores would mix the sap with mud and distil the pulque to create what we know today as mezcal wines.
Tequila is part of the mezcal family, but the two drinks are not the same. You can make mezcal from various agave species, while tequila comes from just one species: Weber blue agave. Mezcal has an earthy tang, whilst tequila is generally more smooth and sweet.
By the year 1600, the first large-scale distillery was established in Jalisco in west-central Mexico by the Marquis of Altamira, Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle. Often called “the father of tequila,” the Marquis cultivated local agave in the town of Tequila. Nestled at the foot of Tequila Mountain, Tequila’s red volcanic soils were perfectly suited to grow agave.
Flash forward to the 1700s, and the famous Cuervo family (of the Jose Cuervo brand) steps onto the scene. Jose Maria Cuervo obtained the rights to produce mezcal wine and founded the very first Mexican distillery. He also owned over three million agave plants.
You may also have heard of the Suazas, another mogul family to distil agave and get rich doing it. Don Cenobio Sauza realised that the blue agave plant was the best species for tequila production.
Agave-based exports surged over the 1800s and 1900s when everyone in Mexico wanted to produce tequila. During the American Prohibition, Americans couldn’t get access to alcohol. So, flocks of party-goers would cross the border to Tijuana to get a taste of Mexican liquor, and the notoriety of the spirit soared.
With the popularity of agave spirits saturating American and European markets, the tequila industry solidified itself as a significant player amongst 19th-century distilled spirits brands.
Mexican Regulations on Tequila
In 1974, the Mexican government declared tequila intellectual property. This means tequila (or any alcoholic beverages laying claim to the name) must be made in stipulated Mexican municipalities and Mexican states. These include Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Guanajuanto, Nayarit, and Jalisco.
The Mexican government also created the Tequila Bottlers Registry to identify approved bottlers.
Today, the Tequila Regulatory Council, or Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), oversees tequila produced in Mexico to regulate quality at each tequila factory and promote the culture around the drink.
The CRT even issued an official tequila glass in 2002 called the Ouverture Tequila glass. The organisation also handles the regulation of all agave grown for the production of tequila.
The Mexican government also created the Tequila Bottlers Registry to identify approved bottlers who make real tequila. Only bottles bearing the official standard NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) symbol can be called tequila.
Tequila continues to flow around the world as one of the most popular drinks on the market. The tequila industry is predicted to exceed $14.70 billion by the year 2028!
How Is Tequila Made? The Fermentation Process
Unearth a blue agave plant, and you’ll find a white bulb at the plant’s base. This is also called the heart of the plant or agave piñas in Spanish.
Farmworkers harvest the plants, hand cutting them with coa de jimas (machetes) to get to the piñas. Once the plant has been harvested, the piña is chopped and ready to be steam-baked.
The piñas then go into a brick oven (or an industrial pressure cooker) for 2-4 days. After baking, the piñas are shredded like pulled pork and pressed to squeeze out agave juice, called ‘honey water’ or aguamiel. Once the liquid is extracted, it gets poured into heated wooden tanks, fermentation tanks, or barrels. Yeast is added, and the fermentation process begins.
Fermentation and Distillation
The honey water or nectar ferments for 1-2 weeks. The next stage is distillation, which happens in stainless steel tanks or neutral oak barrels two or three times. You’ll be able to tell by the bottle label, which will read ‘double-’ or ‘triple-distilled.’
If you want to read a more detailed breakdown on the A-Z of making this drink, you can check this post on how tequila is made.
Why Blue Agave?
As mentioned, Cuervo popularised the commercial use of blue agave plants as the base ingredient for tequila. So, why was the blue variety of this species so special? Well, blue agave plants produce nectar lower on the glycaemic index. Blue agave nectar is higher in fructose than mixed agave nectar, which is used for agave-based drinks other than tequila.
All blue agave plant nectar must have 80% fructose content or higher according to Mexican regulations.
How to Drink Tequila | Famous Cocktail Recipes
Now that you know more about the history of tequila, we can dive into the more fun parts of your favourite drink. How do you drink your tequila? Perhaps you throw it back in one fell swoop, or maybe you sip on a tot slowly over the evening. You might even be a fan of the well-known Tequila Sunrise, a delectable (and potent) mix of spirits, orange juice, and lime juice.
Here are some of the well-known tequila cocktails you can thank the blue agave plant for.
- Tequila Collins
- Brave Bull
- Reposado Old-Fashioned
- Tequila Sour
- Espresso Martini
If you want to drink your tequila the traditional way (the way they do in Mexico), you’ll take a sip of the neat liquor without any salt or lime. In some regions, it’s popular to drink tequila and sangrita in equal-sized shots, sipping alternately between the two.
Types of Tequila
Like many long-standing spirit alcohols, tequila is a multifaceted beverage that comes in different varietals and age categories. Just like some red wines are far superior to others, there are tequilas from high to low end, each bringing something fresh and unique to the table.
There are three major types of tequila to distinguish between: Blanco, Reposado, and Añejo, as well as two additional varietals.
Also called silver tequila, Blanco comes with the label “100% blue agave.” It’s an unaged variation from Mexico, which essentially means the tequila spent no time in oak barrels. So, you’re getting the fresh taste of agave, primarily.
Reposado is made and aged in European and American oak barrels. The ageing process affects the tequila’s taste, with a softer flavour profile than tequila Blanco. Tequila Reposado is aged for 2-12 months and is excellent for mixing drinks like Margaritas.
Añejo is also aged in American or European barrels, but this variety ages for at least 12 months. Tequila Añejo is fantastic to sip neat (if you can handle your liquor), or it can be sipped alternately with salt or lime juice.
Extra Añejo is aged tequila – for over three years, to be exact, then cut with water before bottling. Extra Anejo bottles are considered premium tequilas and fetch a premium price to match.
Have you ever heard of Tequila Ley .925 Diamante? This expensive bottle of Extra Añejo is aged for seven years, and will set you back…wait for it…$3.6 million. When it comes to premium tequila, this bottle is the one to beat.
Unlike its fancier cousins, Mixto Tequila can be found in most neighbourhood liquor stores. Made with sugars, oak extracts, or flavourings, mixto tequilas are also referred to as gold tequila. Joven Tequila is generally mixed with a neutral spirit made with cane sugar, making it lower in quality than your Reposados.
Final Thoughts on Tequila’s History
Tequila has a long and intricate history, from Spanish Conquistadors who consumed locally-made agave to 21st-century tequila sommeliers. The next time you sip on a strong tequila cocktail or knock back a shooter, you’ll be able to say you know a little bit more about the incredible drink you’ve got in hand.