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Definition: tequila from The Macquarie Dictionary

a Mexican drink produced by distillation of a fermented mash of agave.

Plural: tequilas

Etymology: named after Tequila, district of Mexico

Summary Article: Tequila
From The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol

Tequila, one of the world's most popular alcoholic drinks, is distilled from the sugars of the agave tequiliana Weber azul (blue Weber agave), a succulent often erroneously associated with the cactus. Like Cognac, bourbon, and Champagne, tequila is protected by an appellation or denomination of origin, which legally bounds its production to areas in five Mexican states (Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Michoacán). The primary heart of tequila production is located in the rich soils of the valley surrounding the extinct Tequila Volcano, roughly 320 miles northwest of Mexico City and 90 miles east of Puerto Vallarta. Under Mexican law, pure tequila must be produced with 100 percent agave sugars, while mixto (blended) tequila must be made with at least 51 percent agave sugars. Tequilas are also differentiated based on their age: blanco (white) tequilas are sold unaged, gold tequilas are unaged and flavored with caramel, reposado (rested) tequilas are aged between two and nine months, and añejo tequilas are barreled for a minimum of one year.

Antecedents: Pulque and Mezcal in the Pre-Columbian and Colonial Periods

Tequila is closely related to two other alcoholic beverages derived from the agave: pulque and mezcal. Pulque, the older of tequila's predecessors, is a milky liquor made from the fermented juice (aguamiel, or honey water) secreted by the agave's heart (called piña in Spanish for its resemblance to a pineapple). Pulque's origins, described in several pre-Hispanic murals and colonial era codices, are thought to predate the Spanish conquest by millennia. According to historians, pulque was subject to regulation during the rule of the Aztecs, who restricted its consumption based on social status, gender, and harvest cycles. The agave figured prominently in Mesoamerican cosmology, which linked the plant with Mayahuel, the goddess of fertility. Pulque, thus, was also utilized for its medicinal properties to treat, in particular, issues related to fertility and virility.

The conquest's disruptive and disorienting effect on social life also extended to pre-Columbian drinking culture. As historians have shown, Spanish rule, religion, and culture—including the imposition of a seven-day workweek—destroyed the indigenous hierarchies that governed pulque consumption, in effect democratizing the alcohol and encouraging drinking outside of ceremonial celebrations. While the Spanish crown initially prohibited alcohol production in the New World to protect Iberian viticulture, colonists encouraged the expansion of the pulque industry because of its taxation potential.

As the capital of the Spanish administrative territory (or viceroyalty) of New Spain, Mexico City witnessed rapid urbanization in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The increasing population density and contact of Spanish and non-Spanish populations prompted the invention of a creative caste system that defined individuals based on blood quantum. While higher castas (caste or class)—such as Iberian-born Spaniards and mixed Spanish-indigenous mestizos—preferred imported wine and locally brewed beer, members of the poorer castas continued to drink the cheaper pulque. As the population of Mexico City grew, so did the number of pulquerías (pulque taverns), primarily in poorer neighborhoods.

The increase of pulquerías—popularly associated with crime, vice, and moral degradation—concerned Spanish colonial administrators. These fears reached an apex in 1692 when administrative mismanagement and poor harvests resulted in maize shortage, a staple food of the lower castas. When grain supplies ran out, protestors took to the city's central plaza and were met with deadly force. Spanish elites blamed the riot on the city's indigenous population and on pulquerías, where they claimed the lower castas met to organize. The conflation of pulque and revolt led to a post-riot prohibition, though loosely enforced, on its sale until 1697. Pulque's negative reputation did not deter its popularity; pulque was considered Mexico's national drink until the mid-20th century and is still widely consumed today.

Though pulque's affordability helped promote its consumption, its expansion as an industry was limited by its short shelf life of two to three days. In the 16th century, particularly in agave-rich areas of New Galicia (Jalisco), landholders began experimenting with the distillation of agave sugars to create more potent and longer-lasting liquor. How stills reached New Spain remains a point of scholarly contention; some historians attribute the dissemination of distillation techniques to the Spanish, who learned the process during the Moorish rule of Iberia. Others trace its origins to the presence in Pacific port cities of Filipino mariners, who brought stills with them to make coconut liquor after the opening of the galleon trade between Manila and New Spain in the 1570s.

As stills began to reach New Spain's interior, distillers developed a process to extract agave sugars by roasting the hearts in an underground oven and then using a horse-drawn wheel to mash the hearts. The fibrous mash was left to ferment in water, and the resulting liquid was twice distilled and then bottled immediately or aged in wood barrels. Distillers began to call this alcohol vino de mezcal (mezcal wine), whose etymology traces to mexcametl—the Nahuatl word for the agave plant. Mezcal's popularity increased in the first decades of the 17th century as the number of distilleries in the Tequila Valley increased to meet the demand generated by nearby Guadalajara's expansion. Mezcal consumption became more popular throughout the century within the territories of New Galicia and began to reach other areas of New Spain through the Pacific port of San Blas.

A turning point in the history of commercial mezcal production was the entrance of the Cuervo family, who began to distill the spirit at their La Chorrera tavern near Tequila in 1740. Acquiring lands and smaller distilleries over the next few decades, the Cuervos were producing 800,000 liters of mezcal per year by 1781. Mezcal production suffered a minor setback between 1785, when King Carlos III banned New World alcoholic beverages to once again promote Spanish wines. Tax records on the drink from the late 1780s reveal, however, that mezcal production did not halt but rather went underground until the king's son and successor, Carlos IV, repealed the prohibition in 1795. That year, the crown granted José María Guadalupe Cuervo with the first license to produce mezcal.

The first half of the 19th century marked a period of intense growth in the popularity of mezcal from the Tequila region and its initial ascendance as a national beverage. A number of regional and transnational developments affected this growth. First, late-17th-century mineral discoveries in the Sierra Madre range provided mezcal with a new and increasingly wealthy market. Second, mezcal benefited from Mexico's independence struggles (1810–21), during which wine imports fell and armies adopted mezcal as a standard ration. Another byproduct of independence was a burgeoning anti-Spanish Mexican nationalism, into which native products like mezcal fit well. Third, the Mexican-American War (1846–48) not only revived this nationalism but also introduced Mexican cuisine to U.S. soldiers and helped develop a cross-border taste for mezcal in the newly acquired U.S. state of Texas. This nationalism would resurge again during French occupation (1861–67), linking tequila in the national and international imagination to Cinco de Mayo, a celebration commemorating the 1862 victory of Mexican forces in Puebla.

Tequila's Post-Independence Independence

After independence, the new state of Jalisco also developed a sense of regionalism and began to distinguish its products with the moniker Mezcal de Tequila. This distinction was reinforced by a divergence in production techniques, as distillers began to experiment with new processes for baking the agave hearts. A mid-century shortage in agave and wood—a key component in mezcal's traditional roasting process—drove distillers to innovate. In Tequila, modernizing distillers began to steam the hearts in aboveground autoclaves, reducing the need for wood and making fluid extraction more efficient. The difference between the two processes reinforced the divide between tequila and mezcal to the extent that, by 1854, the failed French filibuster turned prisoner of war, Ernest de Vigneaux, asserted: “Tequila lends its name to the mescal liquor, in the same way Cognac does to the liquors of France.”

Along with the production process, distillers also innovated tequila's distribution. In the 1860s, tequileros began bottling tequila in glass flasks sized to fit in workers' pockets. A decade later, the Cuervo and Sauza distilleries exported the first tequila shipments to the United States. The expansion of the Sauza distillery made a crucial impact on the divergence between tequila and mezcal. Don Cenobio Sauza, patriarch of the brand, is credited with identifying the blue agave in the 1870s as the ideal species for tequila. By the 1880s, other producers followed suit, creating informal market standards for inputs (blue agave) and processing (autoclave steaming). The completion of the national railroad system (including its connection with U.S. rails) helped bring tequila, as well as a market of immigrant consumers, to an international audience. Tequila's growing popularity even penetrated New York's elite, members of which formed an exclusive tequila club in the last decades of the 19th century. By the turn of the century, tequila's prize-winning debut at the Chicago's World Fair in 1893 led distillers and the Mexican government to drop the term mezcal from official documents.

Revolution, Contagion, and U.S. Prohibition

The association of tequila and Mexican nationalism was concretized by the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), which ended the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1880–1910). A Francophile who tried to modernize Mexico with hygenicist ideals and massive foreign investment, Díaz promoted the consumption of European goods, including beer and wine. The regime also reiterated pulque's racialized connotations, attacking the drink and its consumers as antimodern and unhygienic. This condemnation increased the gulf between pulque and tequila, which Díaz praised for its international renown and modern distilling practices. Expunging Díaz's rule also meant a cultural revolution against everyday practices of the porfiriato, including the elite drinking culture. Jalisco's native son and writer Mariano Azuela described this gastronomic revolt in his famous 1915 novel, Los de Abajo (The Underdogs): “Rather than Champagne, which sparkled in bubbles and dissolved in the light and the candles, Demetrio Macias preferred the clear tequila of Jalisco.”

During the revolution, tequila also gained a reputation as a medicinal elixir. Many histories of tequila suggest the habit of pairing it with lime and salt arose from doctors' recommendations to treat the symptoms of the devastating Spanish flu epidemic (1917–18). Tequila distillers also benefited from the decade-long ban on alcohol in the United States, following the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920. Tequila reached U.S. consumers through cross-border smuggling operations at prices (adjusted for 2013 inflation) between $60 and $200 per quart. U.S. residents who wanted to imbibe legally began to frequent border towns like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, the latter of which transformed from a turn-of-the-century backwater into a booming vice capital registering 16,000 vehicle entrances on Labor Day in 1927.

Creating a Postwar Tequila Culture and Industry

Like many industries, tequila production suffered during the Great Depression but rebounded after the start of World War II as imports of European spirits slowed. Tequila's debut as modern Mexico's national drink, however, was due less to this trade advantage than to the rise of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema (mid-1930s through mid-1950s). Drawing inspiration from ranchero (rancher) customs, Golden Age filmmakers capitalized on tequila as a symbol of mariachi culture and machismo. Movies starring Mario Moreno, playing the witty drunkard Cantinflas, and Pedro Infante, the charro (cowboy) crooner, featured tequila prominently as a social lubricator and healer of broken hearts. While Infante's alcoholic identity was merely stagecraft, that of his fans was not. Scholars have linked the entrance of Alcoholics Anonymous into Mexico with Infante's cult of popularity, which reached a crescendo after his accidental death in 1957. Since the 1970s, tequila has continued to be blamed for Mexico's high rates of death associated with alcohol, especially in the 1980s, when the country led the world in cirrhosis deaths.

“The Pulque Seller” (circa 1853–55) peddles the Mexican antecedent to tequila: a milky liquor made from fermented agave-heart juice. The increase of Spanish pulquerías in the late 16th century was associated with crime and moral degradation.

While neither Cantinflas nor Infante had great crossover success into the U.S. market, the emerging postwar advertising industry capitalized on tequila's appeal. By the late 1950s, recipes for the margarita—long considered the United States' favorite cocktail—and tequila sunrise were appearing in issues of the New Yorker, Esquire, and House & Garden, among other mass publications. The Champs popularized the spirit even further with its 1958 one-word hit song, “Tequila,” which became a mainstay soundtrack in film and television. The 1959 Cuban Revolution and subsequent U.S. embargo put a dent in Cuba's rum exports and tourism, redirecting vacationers to tequila-laden Mexican resorts. By the 1960s, the so-called Zapata subgenre of Spaghetti westerns had cemented the cultural stereotype of the tequila-swigging Mexican bandit. Mexican advertisers also took advantage of tequila's transnational popularity. According to some accounts, the infamous “worm at the bottom of the bottle” was a mezcal marketing ploy loosely based on traditional pulque recipes integrating the worms of the agave plant.

In Mexico, the mid-century increase in demand for tequila, prompted also by agave shortages and land-reform expropriations, was met with quickly made, poor-quality tequila often adulterated with nonagave sugars. In the 1940s, Mexican distillers and politicians began to legislate appellation of origin and industry norms, including the 1949 requirement that tequila be produced from 100 percent blue agave sugars. After the mid-1960s, this requirement was relaxed so that distillers could legally use up to 49 percent nonagave sugars in mixto tequilas. To protect domestic appellations of origin on the international market, Mexico signed the 1966 Lisbon Agreement. In 1974, the Regional Tequila Chamber, an association of distillers former in 1959, received appellation of origin from the Mexican secretary of trade, which further regulated and delimited the geographic area of tequila production.

In 1978, the Mexican government registered the appellation of origin under the Lisbon Agreement. Since this date, Mexico has reinforced tequila's exclusivity by requiring that every trade agreement—including the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and the 1997 European Union Free Trade Agreement—contain a clause acknowledging the appellation of origin. In the past 20 years, Mexico has been internationally active in protecting threats to tequila's appellation of origin from distillers in countries like South Africa, Japan, and Spain. Since 2000, the Tequila Regulatory Council, an industry-funded organization, has worked with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to discover and destroy counterfeit tequilas.

Tequila in the 21st Century

Despite technological advances and international appeal, the tequila market has suffered from instability because of agave's long maturation period, crop diseases and subsequent market gluts, and economic crises. To insulate the industry from this volatility, many distilleries have pursued vertical integration that eliminates the need to purchase agave from small landholders. Lack of credit and low prices (especially during market gluts) fetched for the plant have pushed many independent farmers to abandon crops, to sell their land and work as sharecroppers, to cut labor costs by employing industrial pesticides, or to enter the ethanol market by replacing agave with corn.

Though a few companies—including Cuervo and Sauza, which are both owned by transnational conglomerates—control the majority of the market, tourism and other industry trends have opened spaces for other employment related to tequila. In 2006, UNESCO named Mexico's “agave landscape” a World Heritage Treasure, which helped the state of Jalisco receive international funding to develop a “tequila trail” based on the sustainable tourism of wine routes in Napa Valley and Italy. Smaller distilleries have also taken advantage of the organic foods movement, receiving in the late 2000s organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The opening of new markets like China, which permitted tequila importation for the first time in 2013, suggests that the billiondollar industry will continue to expand.

See Also: Ancient World, Drinking in the; Cocktails and Cocktail Culture; Latin America; Mexico; Native Americans; Prohibition; Spanish Empire; Tequila Cocktails

Further Readings
  • Bowen, Sarah; Ana Valenzuela Zapata. “Geographical Indications, Terroir, and Socioeconomic and Ecological Sustainability: The Case of Tequila.” Journal of Rural Studies, v. 25/1 (January 2009). doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2008.07.003.
  • Bruman, Henry J. Alcohol in Ancient Mexico. University of Utah Salt Lake City, 2000.
  • Cedeño Cruz, M.; J. Alvarez-Jacobs. “Production of Tequila from Agave: Historical Influences and Contemporary Processes.” In The Alcohol Textbook: A Reference for the Beverage, Fuel, and Industrial Alcohol Industries, K. A. Jacques; D. R. Kelsall; T. P. Lyons, eds. Nottingham University Press Nottingham UK, 2003.
  • Mitchell, Timothy. Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol's Power in Mexican History and Culture. Routledge New York, 2004.
  • Taylor, William B. Drinking, Homicide, and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages. Stanford University Press Palo Alto CA, 1979.
  • Valenzuela Zapata, Ana Guadalupe. Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History. University of Arizona Press Tucson, 2004.
  • Youman, Becky; Bryan Estep. Liquid Mexico: Festive Spirits, Tequila Culture, and the Infamous Worm. Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe Tempe AZ, 2005.
  • Taylor Jardno
    Yale University
    Copyright © 2015 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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