Tequila is rich in a history far beyond the margarita and in recent years has transcended a quality that could not have been imagined a decade ago.
The story of tequila begins not with the famous spirit we know today but rather with a little known drink called pulque. Pulque is tequila’s ancestral drink and dates back to 200 BC. Pulque was used as a ceremonial drink by the Aztecs during their sacrifice rituals. Whilst most of the early alcoholic drinks are reckoned to have happened almost by accident, pulque and tequila are attributed to a divine intervention and were referred to as ‘a gift from the gods’.
In pre-Colombian times, the agave was central to Indian life and almost all of the plant was used. The agave’s spiny needles were used for pins and creating writing implements, whilst the fibrous leaves were woven into robe, parchment, and roofing materials. The fruit produced by the agave could be eaten and the sweet sap was used as glue or for making soap. The fruit and sap were also fermented to make the low alchoholic beer known as pulque. Such a useful plant was seen as a gift from the gods and, more specifically, the agave was seen as an earthly representation of Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of the earth. The red sap of the plant was seen as Mayahuel’s blood which explains the importance of the agave as a symbol of power during rituals.
Around 1520, the Spanish Conquistadors brought with them the technique of distillation and created a spirit known as mescal. The Spanish soon discovered that a particular species of the agave plant – known as the Weber Blue Agave – produced the best mescal. This agave plant could be found in an area called Jalisco around the small town of Tequilla.
In 1935 there was an outbreak of Spanish Flu in Mexico. Doctors prescribed lime juice for vitamin C, salt to replace that lost through sweating, and tequila for its reviving qualities (much like the use of ‘medicinal brandy’ around this period). This combination give rise to a lasting tradition.
From the 1930s, there was a huge enthusiasm shown by the US for all things Mexican. Americans came down to Mexico for a taste of the wild life and brought aspects of Mexico back to the US. Mexican cinema for example became very popular and spread a stereotypical image of Mexican life. This in turn created a huge demand, despite the recent Prohibition, for tequila in the US.
This sudden demand posed a problem to tequila producers. The Blue Agave plant needs 6-10 years to reach the required maturity for distillation, so surges in supply and demand were hard to accommodate. To overcome this, the Mexican government allowed tequila producers to blend in up to 49% of other sugars into their tequila. The originally slow process required to make tequila was also cut to ensure bottles could reach shelves even faster. As a result of this, the flavours were bitter and peppery, which gave rise to tequila’s unfortunate reputation in the subsequent years.
In recent years, the tequila industry has gone through a revolution in terms of quality. Domestic demands for smoother aged styles now means that tequila is on its way to being globally recognised as a drink that can be enjoyed amongst other quality spirits throughout the world.