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Mezcal has its own Denomination of Origin to protect it as a uniquely Mexican product. There are several states where mezcal can be made legally and labelled mezcal, but the majority of mezcal production is done in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico's poorest state, where it remains a small-scale, family-run, traditional operation.
Updated May, 2011
Part 2 of 3: 18th & 19th Centuries
In the 1700s, mezcal wines became an important product for export because the town of Tequila lay on the route to the newly opened Pacific port of San Blas. Mezcal wines from the region developed a reputation for quality even in urban Mexico City. The thirsty miners in the nearby Bolaños mines were also a good market for the product.
The community of Arandas, in the highlands (Los Altos) of Jalisco east of Guadalajara, was founded in late 1721.
In 1742, Don Matias de la Mota y Padilla wrote about the popularity of mezcal among natives, in his History of the Conquest of New Galicia. It had apparently become more popular than the native pulque. he also wrote of "monopolies" of coconut wine and mezcal production, suggesting production had come under the control of a few families.
The first officially licensed manufacturer was José Antonio Cuervo ("Joe Crow" of the Cuervo Montaño family). He had been given the rights to cultivate a parcel of land from the King of Spain in 1758. He acquired this property - the hacienda (Cofradía de las Ánimas) - from Vicente de Saldivar, who was already running a small, private distillery (taberna) on the land. The distillery was later moved to the hacienda de Abajo, which had been bought by his brother, Jose Prudencio, in 1781. Cuervo's industriousness soon had the distillery producing around 800,000 liters of mezcal a year. Taxes on tequila were used to help fund the construction of the University of Guadalajara in the mid-18th century.
But that was a short-lived venture: in 1785, the production of all spirits, including mezcal wines and pulque, were banned by the government of Charles III to favour and promote the importation of Spanish wines and liqueurs.
Officially, production was halted but went underground until 1795, when King Ferdinand IV ascended the throne and lifted the ban. Prohibition may have led the native population to bake the agave underground - literally - a practice that continues today in mezcal production. In 1786-89, records show taxes on pulque production represented 3.5 million pesos paid to the Crown, so enforcement of the ban was likely not very stringent in all places.
Authorities eventually realized taxation, rather than prohibition, was the better means of control. The University of Guadalajara was paid for in part by taxes on mezcal wines.
In 1795, although the family had been producing it for several decade, Jose Antiono's son, José Maria Guadalupe Cuervo got the first licence to produce mezcal wine from the Crown. Jose thus founded the first official Mexican distillery. His Casa Cuervo (or Taberna de Cuervo) proved very profitable.
According to one story, 1800 was the first year in which tequila was successfully aged in wood, the date celebrated in the tequila of that name. At this time there were only 24 haciendas farming agaves for mezcal, 12 in Tequila, the rest around Amatitan.
A record from 1805 shows José Guadalupe was making 400,000 "cribas" (receptacles) of mezcal a year, "each requiring the burning of three loads of firewood." Cuervo's property at the time included 12 fields of agave - not just the blue agave (called chinos azul, or blue Chinese), but also the mano largo.
In 1812, José died and left his holdings to a son, José Ignacio, and a daughter, María Magdalena Ignacia Cuervo. She married Vicente Albino Rojas - her dowry was the distillery. Vicente disapproved of the name 'Taberna de Cuervo," and changed its name to 'La Rojeña' after himself. Vicente operated the factory and increased production, and eventually inherited it after the death of his wife. By mid-century Cuervo's fields had more than three million agave plants. Although he died before the railroads were built into the area, Vicente exported his mezcal to fairs in Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi and by the mid-19th century had more than 3 million agave plants under cultivation. He died before the railroad came to Tequila, bringing another boom to the industry.
Fabrica La Rojena is now the oldest distillery in Latin America, and one of the most prosperous.
Jesus Flores took over the distillery after Vicente's death. Flores was the owner of two other distilleries at the time - La Floreña and La del Puente. In preparation for the arrival of the railroad, Flores moved the equipment to La del Puente, expanded production and renamed the distillery to La Constancia. The railroad opened new, more efficient means to transport tequila and it was soon being sold further afield than the mules could ever reach.
During the 19th century, it was common to name the tabernas, or distilleries, after their owners, adding 'eña' to the name or nickname: La Floreña, La Martineña, La Guarreña, La Gallardeña and La Quintaneña are examples. Later, the names would reflect values or political convictions (La Preservancia: Perseverance) and La Constancia (Constancy). That practice is still a custom today: La Cofradia is 'brotherhood,' La Fortaleza is 'strength' and La Quemada is 'burned'.
During Mexico's War of Independence (1810-21), tequila became a stock item among the soldiers on all sides of the conflict. Mezcal production rose during the early period of the war. But when the more distant port of Acapulco supplanted San Blas as the major Pacific port during that period, export tequila declined in importance. By 1815, tequila production had fallen.
Several distilleries were founded in the period between 1810 and 1820, but most of them closed before mid-century. One of the few that survived was started in 1805 by Jose Maria Castañeda. It passed through two more generations and different hands before it was finally sold to Don Cenobio Sauza, in 1873.
Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Until 1821, Jalisco was under separate government from Mexico. Spanish names replaced native ones for many of its communities.
J. C. Beltrami, an Italian, visited Jalisco in 1823 and wrote, "The tequila maguey produces a high-quality liquor that is called mezcal wine." In 1825, the Englishman W. H. Hardy wrote, " This smaller maguey plant is fermented and produces a whiskey, which is distilled into a much stronger spirit called chinguerite."
During the next century, the agave plants would be exported to Europe and her colonies as ornamental plants or as sources for fibre. In some places - like South Africa - they would thrive in the local ecosystems.
Tequila did not achieve its former prominence again until after 1821, when Mexico attained independence, and Spanish products were harder to get.
In 1821, tequila producers banded together to demand the authorization of Free Commerce, so they could be free to make and sell their products. On October 3, 1835, a decree gave the municipalities more independence from the control of the capital. Tequila production expanded, but was inconsistent and not closely regulated. It wasn't until the Republic was reinstated that the production of tequila was transformed into a real, viable industry. By 1832, Guadalajara had a population of 93,875.
In 1836, the Mexican state of Texas broke from the republic (not for freedom, but to protest Mexico's abolition of slavery, since slavery was popular in Texas). Texas declared its independence. Mexico refused to accept this, and sent in the troops to take back the rebellious state. But there were Americans there now, and the US didn't appreciate their citizens being killed by Mexicans. The Battle of the Alamo, 1845, was the event that launched the Mexican-American war, 1846-48, during which Mexico lost 1.3 million sq. km, almost half of its original territory.
This period also brought Americans in contact with Mexican food, culture and mezcal. Wagonloads of mezcal commonly followed the troops and soon became popular on both sides of the conflict. But although the war gave American soldiers exposure to tequila, the poor distribution network did not allow it to grow.
First railroad construction began in 1842, but was interrupted
several times by wars, and didn't get completed until January, 1873. The
first line ran from Mexico City to the east coast and the city of
Veracruz. Roads were still very poor, however. The Republic Line stage
coach took 10 days to go from Mexico City to Durango in 1879. To go
onwards to Chihuahua, travellers needed a horse and travel another 10
On April 7, 1845, a severe earthquake shook central Mexico, damaging
many buildings in Jalisco. Another severe earthquake struck the state on
June 19, 1858.
Sometime around 1850, the change from baking agaves in ground pits to above-ground ovens began. This marks the point at which mezcal and tequila began their separate journeys. The majority began to change in the 1880s-1890s. It would take 70 years before all producers had made the switch.
In 1854, the French writer Ernest de Vigneaux identified the mezcal in regional terms when he wrote,
"Tequila lends its name to the mezcal liquor, in the same way Cognac does to the liquors of France."
The next conflict brought international forces into Mexico. The War of the Reform between Mexican liberals and conservatives, began in 1858 and ended in 1861 with the installation of Benito Juarez as president. At its peak in 1859, it paralyzed the economy of Jalisco as opposing sides clashed frequently in the state. Of the 30 major battles of the War of the Reform, 12 took place in Jalisco. A large segment of southern Jalisco, including Guadalajara, were devastated, leading to a mass migration of middle class persons.
Ernest de Vigneaux, a Frenchman, was captured during one of these battles, and as a prisoner of war, he wrote about his experiences being transported through the region in 1853:
"The terrain is desolate, the land arid and rocky. Immense fields of maguey signal our proximity to Tequila, the city of mezcal. The sight of those dry and rocky plains covered with thorny plants brings to mind the forgotten circle of Dante's inferno. It is not, however, a cursed land. After banana and corn... the American maguey is the most precious gift nature has bestowed on Mexico."
Defeated conservatives fled Mexico, and sought foreign help to continue their fight. In 1862 - while the American Civil War was raging - Napoleon III of France decided he would establish an empire in Mexico. Napoleon III sent in troops, along with forces from Britain and Spain, although the latter troops soon withdrew. But again, Mexican culture, food and spirits received exposure to the invading European forces.
At the battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862, French troops were defeated in their march ion Mexico City. That day has been celebrated ever since as Cinco de Mayo. The French tried again in 1863 and took the city after a two-month siege. Napoleon III put the Austrian prince, the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Abzburg, on a Mexican throne as 'emperor.'
The liberals, led by Juarez, resisted bitterly. Despite the support from French troops and Mexican conservatives, Maximilian could not consolidate his empire. Under American pressure to leave Mexico, the French withdrew in 1867, leaving Maximillian and his wife to meet their deaths by execution. Juarez became president that year and initiated various reforms to modernize Mexico before dying in 1872.
In 1860 Jesús Flores, owner of the taverns "La Floreña" and "La del Puente" (also known later as "La Constancia"), acquired "La Rojeña" from the Cuervo family. Flores was the first producer to bottle tequila in glass vessels. His bottles were called damajuanas, hand blown, rounded-shape 5 liter bottles, wrapped in agave fiber. Later these bottles would be as large as 32 litres. The use of the small pocket-sized 'pachoncita' bottles at the end of the century really gave tequila sales a boost because workers could carry them around in their baggy pants.
Cuervo shipped its first three barrels of tequila to the USA in 1873 (this is contradicted by a comment that it was Sauza who sold the first eight barrels to the USA that year). That year, the name tequila for the regional mezcal was first noted in the tax records.
In 1874 Tequila was defined as a city as a reward for the "patriotic and valiant conduct" of the residents in fighting against the troops of rebel leader Manuel Lozada - "the Tiger of Alica."
In 1876, General Porfirio Diaz, hero of the battle of Puebla (1862) seized power and effectively governed Mexico until the Revolution of 1910. Diaz established order and a workable government. Civil wars ceased and banditry disappeared from the countryside. Provincial governors obeyed laws and the army became professionalized while the "Rurales" - a militarized police - maintained order throughout the country. General Diaz and his wealthy intellectual supporters adopted French positivism as a national creed, and Francophilia became a national standard. This period of stability and peace is known as the Porfiriato.
By 1880, Cuervo was selling 10,000 barrels of its tequila in Guadalajara alone. Jesus Flores remarried in 1888 to Ana Gonzalez, whose sister was married to Luciano Gallardo, owner of La Gallaredeña distillery. in 1891, Cuervo was awarded a certificate and gold medal by President Diaz for the excellence of their tequila.
A railway line was built from Mexico City to Leon in 1882, followed by a line to the Pacific coast, and a few years later by another to Paso del Norte. On August 2, 1882, the first train crossed the border at El Paso, travelling from the United States into Mexico. In 1884 The Central Mexican Railroad (Ferrocarril Central Mexicano) is inaugurated, providing service between Mexico City and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua was also opened. Other railroad lines were laid in the next few years, connecting the major cities of Mexico, and opening trade with the USA.
In 1900, after Flores had died, his widow married the administrator, José Cuervo Labastida, and soon the product became known as 'José Cuervo,' and the taberna returned to its original name and the product was called "Jose Cuervo." The plantations had four million plants growing. Today Cuervo - its plant is still called La Rojeña - is the largest manufacturer of tequila, with a huge export market.
Meanwhile, another great tequila family was building it empire. In 1873, Don Cenobio Sauza, former administrator of La Antigua Cruz (founded in 1805 by José Castaneda) purchased the distillery. Sauza had previously leased "La Gallardeña" distillery for production and he later purchased this distillery as well. Sauza also bought a distillery from Vicente Orendain in 1889.
The former Cuervo employee would found Sauza Tequila, and become Cuervo's great rival.
Sauza changed the name to La Preservancia in 1888 - the name it still bears - and he started making mezcal wine. One legend says it was Don Cenobio who determined the blue agave was the best of all the magueys for making tequila, in the 1870s, and the rest of the distillers followed his lead. Some say tequila was first exported to the USA in 1873, when Sauza sold three barrels to El Paso del Norte, in Texas. This was the beginning of the export market for tequila.
Records from 1873-74 show a small amount of mezcal and other alcoholic beverages made in Mexico were exported to England, Spain, France, the USA and New Grenada.
Don Cenobio was also known for defending his plantation against bandits. Before his death in 1906, he purchased 13 more distilleries and numerous fields of agave for his own use. Sauza today owns about 300 agave plantations and is the second largest tequila manufacturer. The family sold the company to the Spanish corporation, Pedro Domecq, in 1976. His great grandson, Guillermo Sauza, still operates his own distillery, Los Abuleos, using his family's traditional production methods (and is one of the few distillers left to use a tahona exclusively).
Don Cenobio is credited with determining the blue agave was the best agave for tequila in the 1890s, and his choice was echoed by others in the industry at the expense of other varieties then in use.
Other distilleries were established during the 19th century, some of them flourishing, others closing. Tequila Herradura ("horseshoe") was opened in the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, built in 1802, but purchased in 1862 by Aurelio Lopez Rosales and his sister, Maria de Jesus Rosales. In 1870, Aurelio reopened an old aguardiente still on the premises, replaced the clay pots with copper, and started producing his own tequila. Aurelio registered the trademark in 1923, and in 1927, deeded the hacienda to David Rosales Cuervo. The distillery remained in family hands until sold to Brown Foreman in late 2006.
Herradura's original distillery is now a company museum. Herradura became the first distillery to produce a reposado tequila and has always made only 100% agave tequilas. Herradura is are the only tequila company allowed to use the terms "100% Natural" and "estate-bottled" on its labels.
Vicente Orendain acquired a distillery from Jose Antonio Cuervo in the 1830s, later selling it to Sauza.
Other distilleries founded around this time include the Destiladora de Occidente (1860s), Tequila San Matias (1886) and Tequila Viuda de Romero (1852; although it didn't get that name until 1873). El Centinela was established in 1904, the first distillery (fabrica or factory) in the highlands area. Los Camachines, in Los Altos (maker of Gran Centenario) was founded in 1857.
A reference to mezcal wine as 'tequila' was first recorded by the French traveller Ernest de Vigneaux, in 1854, but it was decades before it was in common use.
A special tequila tax funded the construction of the state legislature and the implementation of Guadalajara’s first public waterworks system.
According to Ron Cooper, of Del Maguey Mezcal, in 1870 several of the largest producers asked the Mexican government for permission to name their mezcal "tequila," after the town of Tequila in Jalisco state. The government agreed. This period also saw the trend to use only blue agave for making tequila, and some of the earliest commercial shipments to the USA.
In the 1880s, the rapid growth of the railroads across North America helped spread tequila further. Popularity and growth were aided by the relative stability during the 35-year rule of Porfirio Diaz (the 'Porfirato' period), during which the tequila industry stabilized and matured.
In 1883, Don Eladio Sauza was born. The San Matias distillery was founded in 1884.
During this time, tequila's growing popularity proved both challenging and creative. Until the late 19th century, the piñas were roasted in stone-lined pits in the ground, heated by wood fires, as mezcal is made today. As demand for tequila grew, producers found they were running out of both wood and agave. As Jalisco's hills were progressively deforested by the demand for wood, it cleared new land for agave planting.
Around this time, producers realized their method of production was no longer sustainable. The above-ground, steam-heated horno, or oven was developed to replace the traditional in-ground pits. Although the original ovens also used wood to heat the boilers, they did not demand as much fuel as the traditional pits. By the end of the 19th century, all manufacturers were using the above-ground ovens. The use of steam instead of direct fire to cook the agave heads is credited to Don Cenobio Sauza on the Sauza company website.
This production change also helped define tequila as different from its ancestor, mezcal. Tequila lost the strong, smoky flavour imparted by the wood and this surely contributed to the growing popularity. It was smoother, with more agave flavours. However, it was still identified in name as a form of mezcal, mezcal wine or mezcal brandy.
By 1893, "mezcal brandy" was regularly exported into the USA and won an award at the Chicago World's Fair that year. Mexican spirits were exported to Europe in the 1870s. Meanwhile, distilleries in Jalisco were slowly switching from making aguardiente (from sugarcane) to tequila. Around this time, the product from Jalisco - mezcal of Tequila - became known simply as 'tequila' in the same way as brandy made in a certain region of France became known as cognac.
Tequila - known as "mezcal de Tequila" - won an award at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. After that, tequila makers and the Mexican government dropped the word "mezcal" from the name.
In 1895, power mills, presses and grinding equipment came into widespread use throughout the industry to crush the cooked agave heads and separate the juices, replacing the traditional tahonas.
In 1896, German naturalist Franz Weber arrived in Mexico to study and classify the flora of the nation. His work will be remembered in the Agave tequilana Weber azul, renamed in his honour in 1902.
In 1897, Carl Lumholtz, the famous Norwegian ethnologist spent several years living with remote Indian tribes in Mexico. He discovered the Huichol Indians in eastern Nayarti distilled agave juice using simple pot stills, the pots being quite unlike any other Spanish or pre-Columbian vessels. In 1902, Lumholtz wrote that Prehispanic natives developed their own methods of distillation, but that hypothesis has yet to be proven.
By the close of the century, tequila exports were growing slowly, but steadily. In 1899 they were worth 3,062 pesos, but a year later that had grown 20% to 5,664 pesos.