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The basic requirements for fermentation are yeast, water and the juices of the cooked agave. Nothing more is necessary. The basic liquid is called the mosto (must or wort) or tepache. The juice extraction process plays a role in the concentration of sugars in the mosto. Many producers use modern crushing machines that squeeze the cooked agave fibres and rinse them with water up to four times, to extract the most juice possible. Traditional producers using the tahona (millstone or grinding wheel) simply add water to the crushed fibres to drain off the juices.
Updated May, 2011
Part 1 of 3: 16th & 17th Centuries
Distillation of agave syrup was likely inspired by the native drink pulque - tequila's distant and once-removed cousin. Early in the 16th century, someone among the invading Spanish recognized the potential for the agave: if it could produce a low-alcohol drink, it could also be used to make something stronger.
Fortunately for the Spaniards, then, that they arrived in what is now Mexico. Had they landed in what is now the USA, they would not have found even pulque. According to Henry Bruman (see sources), no native alcoholic beverage was made further north than today's Southwest states of Nevada and Arizona.
Distillation in Europe goes back to the 13th century. It may have been started in Mexico by the Conquistadors or their troops as early as the 1520s, although 1535 has also been proposed. There is academic disagreement over how and when it started, but the general belief is that it began within two decades of the arrival of the Conquistadors. Some references suggest it was started by sailors who arrived with the Conquistadors. Records show the Spaniards were already brewing beer by 1544, and pulque was also being made.
Some researchers also believe there is evidence of Prehispanic distillation, but this remains unproven and based solely on interpretation of archeological remains that may be early Filipino stills. While that interpretation has been disputed, however similar finds have recently been made in China that are much older.
Some believe distillation was initially introduced by Filipinos arriving via the Manila galleons which docked in Colima and Jalisco. The seamen used their stills initially to make coconut brandy (they may have also brought the coconut palm with them - it was introduced into Western Mexico through the ports of Colima and Acapulco, from Panama around 1539, from the Solomon Islands around 1569 and from the Philippines from 1571 onwards).
The Filipino technology used local materials and was easily fashioned for small-scale distillation, which helped spread the process among the natives, outwards from the coast, into areas where there were no palms, so the agave was used instead.
Others believe it was the Spanish themselves who brought distillation to the New World. There is some evidence the Conquistadors tried to make spirits by distilling the fermented pulque directly in these native stills, in Colima and possibly also in Chiapas. However, archeological evidence tends to lean towards the Filipino introduction.
The commercial or larger-scale technology changed when the Spanish imported Arab alembic stills made of copper in the late 16th century, originally brought in to distill sugar cane for rum production. However, the Filipino methods, using easily-obtained native resources and native plants, spread rapidly. It is still is use in many parts of Mexico and can be seen in many small mezcal or moonshine producers. Similar technology remains in use worldwide.
Alcohol was not merely a luxury: it was a necessity. The Spanish were accustomed to drinking alcoholic beverages with meals - in Europe, water could be a dangerous drink, unpurified and teeming with bacteria and parasites. Most people drank weak wine and beer with meals. Alcohol helped kill the bacteria.
In his first letter home, the Conquistador Cristobal de Oñate wrote to King Carlos about sugar obtained from agave... "From these plants they make wine and sugar, which they also sell." The agave followed the Conquistadores as they pushed the boundaries of their empire further and further.
Cristóbal de Oñate and his Spaniards fought many bloody battles against Osaña's brave Teochinchenses, but in 1530, the natives surrendered and laid down their weapons (consisting of bows and arrows tipped with obsidian, spears and shields). They transferred control of the hill "Chiquihuitillo" where the town of Tequila now sits.
On April 15, 1530, the colonial township of Santiago of Tequila was established by Cristóbal de Oñate and a group of Franciscans. Juan de Escarcena was appointed to take charge and govern the new villa.
The City of Guadalajara was founded on February 14, 1542, after the colonies of Nochistlán Tonalá, Tlacotán by Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán and Cristóbal de Oñate become insolvent. The town of Guadalajara had been founded, then moved after native attacks, three times before finding its final home at its present site.
Around this time, the first commercial fair of the Americas was held: The Fair of Candlemas of San Juan of The Lakes. The commercial carriers became distributors of the region's mezcal drink.
In The Agaves of Continental North America, Howard Scott Gentry writes:
The diffusion of agave cultivation from its original
nucleus in the Mesoamerican highlands occurred rapidly after the
conquest. When the Spaniards began colonization of more northern
regions, like Durango and Saltillo, they took Nahuatl people with them
as interpreters, laborers, and farmers. The farmers took maguey with
them and established the pulque culture which still persists as the
northern fringe of the pulque complex. Other agaves, for ornamental and
fiber uses, were apparently first carried overseas by both Spaniards and
Portuguese: Agave americana to the Azores and Canary Islands; A.
angustifolia, A. cantala, and others to Asia and Africa. By the
eighteenth century A. americana, A. lurida, and others were established
along the Mediterranean coasts. The spread of the genus to the Old World
reached its height in the nineteenth century, when agaves became popular
throughout Europe as ornamental succulents in both private and public
gardens. In northern Europe their culture was generally limited, because
of the cold winters, to pot and greenhouse culture. Agave fiber
industries were developed in the nineteenth century by colonial
interests in Indonesia and the Philippines, and in East Africa in the
twentieth century with A. sisalana. Methods of culture, fiber harvest,
and selection of varying forms have been developed in different regions,
according to the regional environments and available working resources.
Additional observations are given in the section dealing with fiber, pp.
16-20, and under individual species in the taxonomy part of this work.
In the "Relacion de Zapotitlan," from 1579, there may also be an early reference that mezcal wine was already being produced:
"There is in this province a tree named mexcatl which the Spaniards named maguey. They produced with it wine, vinegar, syrup, rope, fabric, timber, needles, nails, and a very proven balsam for injuries."
In 1536, in his work, The History of the Indians of the New Spain, the Franciscan friar, Toribio de Benavente (Motolinia), wrote about the drink 'mexcalli.'
Initially, the Conquest generated a surge in business for Spanish wine makers, shipping considerable amounts to the New World. But Spanish explorer and conqueror, Hernando Cortez, changed that. As governor of New Spain (1521-1527), Cortez ordered grape vines from Spain and had them planted (1,000 vines per 100 families) on the colony's farms. He also allowed wines to be made from wild grapes before the new vines could bear fruit.
New Galicia, where today's Jalisco would be born, was the western frontier of the Spanish Empire in the New World, a barren, wild place crisscrossed with jagged mountains, canyons and crags. In 1604, Bernardo de Balbuena called the area of New Galicia, "the frontier human exchange and trade" and said it was "useless and barren of all human life, at the mercy of the natural elements and the domain of the grasses and frightening solitude."
By the end of the 16th century, the wine trade with Spain trade had declined; Mexico was self-sufficient in wines and didn't need to buy any from Spain. Eager to maintain the market for Spanish products in the New World, and reap the taxes on wine exports, in 1595 Phillip II banned the planting of new vineyards in Mexico and other Spanish colonies, but was evidently not concerned about agaves. The church was exempt from the ban, so wine production shifted from secular to religious producers.
Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira and Caballero de la Orden of Calatrava, is known today as the 'father of tequila.' He established the very first tequila factory in his Hacienda Cuisillos, in 1600, cultivating the local agave for distillation. He arrived in Jalisco that year, and local tax records show the production of mezcal wines began very soon after his arrival.
Obviously the Marquis' commercial efforts were a success because in 1608, the governor of New Galicia, Juan de Villela, imposed the first taxes on mezcal wine.
As it says on Tequilas Don Rafael, the exact location of the first distillery is still in dispute:
Where was mezcal wine or tequila first distilled? Some say it was in Amatitán, some that it was in Arenal. Unfortunately there are no documented sources for either version. What is known for a fact is that a wealthy landowner from the region of Tequila, don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, marquis of Altamira, was the first to compile the different traditional techniques to plan an industry with a better production process. He was also the first to plant agave exclusively to make mezcal wine. There was enough water for such an industry in Tequila, but not in Amatitán.
The factories (fabricas) were also called 'taverns' (tabernas) because the mezcal was consumed there as well as manufactured. Early records often refer to distilleries simply as tabernas.
Over the next centuries, mezcal was used for everything from generating taxes to curing illness. The Filipino technology for distillation spread rapidly over the next 17th and 18th centuries, first into Tequila and Los Altos, then into Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca, and finally reaching Sonora, San Luis Potosi and Tamaulipas. The Filipinos also seem to have travelled inland to many locations, often referred to in historical records as "Chinese Indians" by the Spaniards.
By 1621, these "wines of mezcal" were being regularly supplied to nearby Guadalajara and the first references to an "abundant" mezcal harvest appeared in local records.
In 1623, Fray Antonio de Tello wrote from Colima about the stills in use there:
The stills are hollow trunks, the thickness of a man, covered by a copper encasing full of water, which is changed as it is heated, and in the middle of the hollow part there is a round fitted board, with a pipe protruding from one side, through which the distillation occurs.
Bruman found similar stills in use in several places in Mexico in 1938.
Mezcal was initially served in a vessel know as a cuernito later called a caballito, made from the hollowed and cleaned tip of bull’s horn. The point of the horn made it impossible to rest the drink, and the limited supply of horns meant patrons had to share them, so they learned to drink and pass the horn to the next person. Later this point would be cut off, permitting the horn to be set down.
The first reliable reference to the spirit comes from this year, in the Description of New Galicia (Descripcion de la Nueva Galicia) by Domingo Lazaro de Arregui. In 1636, Don Juan Canseco y Quiñones, president of Council of Nueva Galicia, decided the increasing popularity of pulque and distilled spirits (including vingarrota and tepache) among the indigenous people was becoming a health risk. He decided to control the production of vino mezcal by authorizing the distillation and manufacturing process, which made it easier to collect taxes on production - taxes which increased significantly in the next decade as the government tried to generate funds for public works. This also made it easier to establish some basic quality control on the mezcal, as well as to collect taxes on it.
In 1651, Spanish doctor Jeronimo Hernandez wrote that tequila (mezcal) was used for medicinal purposes, including rheumatic cures by rubbing tequila on the affected parts of the body.
After the Conquest, the area around today's Jalisco state was originally called New Galicia by the Spanish conquerors.
The community we now know as Tequila officially became a village in 1656. It was originally named after the current governor of New Galicia, La Torre Argus De Uloa y Chavez. Some sources say Tequila was named for the local Ticuilas Indians.
Tax records of the time show that mezcal was already being produced in the area. The local mezcal soon established a reputation for having a superior taste. Barrels of the "Mezcal wine from Tequila" were soon being shipped to nearby Guadalajara as well as more distant cities like San Luis Potosi and Aguascalientes.