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You can't truly appreciate tequila until you have visited Tequila County. If you can at least once in your life walk between the rows of blue agave, take the soil between your fingers, taste the baked agave fresh from an oven, sip tequila dripping from a still, smell the muskiness and agave seeping from barrels in a dark bodega, or stare in wonder at the dark shape of the volcano on the horizon, you will learn more about tequila than a lifetime of mere sipping.
Updated May, 2011
Tequila's Pre-Columbian Origins
The valleys that lie beside the volcano at the heart of the Tequila region were the home of the a complex society that reached its peak between 200 BCE and 350 CE. Archeologists estimate more than 50,000 people may have lived within 15 miles of the Tequila volcano. Known today as the Teuchitlán tradition (named for the nearby town), this society was the cultural center of West Mexico, with unique, complex architecture and a trade network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona.
The Teuchitlan culture was already in decline and being replaced by the El Grillo phase when the area was subject to migrations of outsiders (possibly originating in nearby Guanajuato) began to enter the area in the Epiclassic (550-900 CE). These newcomers were seem to have adopted the Nahua* language, which was probably present in the Basin of Mexico.
Many Pre-Columbian people in Mesoamerica cultivated the agave. Domestic agaves included (popular names in parentheses): Agave zapota (sapodilla), Agave atrovirens (maguey), Agave fourcroydes (henequen), Agave latissima (maguey). Agave mapisaga (maguey). Agave sisalana (sisal) and Agave tequilana (tequil maguey).
Agave nectar was known and widely used among the Pre-Columbian
cultures. Along with honey, it was used a flavouring for several dishes,
and as a sweetener when drinking chocolate. Both were highly valued and
traded extensively throughout Mesoamerica. These products augmented
other Mesoamerican foodstuffs: maize and posolli gruels and their atolli
and pinolli drinks. There is evidence that sweetmeat dessert-like
substances made with toasted squash seeds or popped amaranth seeds and
boiled agave syrup or honey were made and given as gifts and used as
Mildly alcoholic (fermented) drinks called aguamil, pulque and balche were made using agave syrup and/or honey.
Salud! To Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess who bore 400 gods, provided sustenance to Mexico’s people and from her bosom oozed the first alcoholic drink of the Americas. Known as pulque, this 2000 year-old, white, foamy, viscous beverage of four to eight percent alcohol, is the mother of mezcal and the abuelita of tequila, Mexico’s national drink.
El Andar magazine, 2000
Agave nectar (aguamiel) is harvested primarily in Southern Mexico
from the agave varietal maguey shawii and from other members of the
agave family, most related to the Blue Agave and other maguey species
from which mezcal and sotal are made. However, there is a big difference
in the harvesting process to obtain agave nectar as opposed to the
production of tequila.
Agave syrup was also taken to make a low-alcohol, fermented drink called pulque. This appears to have been done for millennia, and was a widespread practice. Maya codices depict feasting and drinking what was probably a form of pulque. Aztec codices also show scenes with pots brimming over, signifying the fermentation process. These are often shown with depictions of rabbits, symbolizing fertility and plenty.
Pulque appears in pre-Hispanic "history" about 1000 A.D. A joyous
mural called the "Pulque Drinkers" was unearthed in 1968 during
excavations at the Great Pyramid in Cholula, Puebla, 70 miles east of
use for agave seldom recognized is as a musical instrument. According to
Virtual Analysis of Mayan Trumpets, the Mayans and other indigenous
people used the hollowed quiote of large agave to create an instrument
that appears similar to a didgeridoo. And the
Shakuhachi Society of B.C. is doing just that: making didgeridoos
from agave quiotes (from American agave). So there is a reason to let
them grow naturally, although the market for such instruments is small.
*"Nahuatl" is generally used for the set of dialects that descended from Proto-Nahua, a.k.a. Proto-Aztecan "Nahua" refers to speakers of Nahuatl, both as a noun and an adjective. "Aztec" is a more recent word of uncertain origin, that refers to the Late Post-classic (1000-1500 CE) Colhua Mexica, their empire, and/or their entire cultural setting.