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Tequila has been with us for a long time and has an interesting history.

by Terry Sovil

June 16, 2019

Bottles of various Tequilas
Many brands of Tequila, not all pictured here!

Tequila has been with us for a long time and has an interesting history. For one, not every drink made from cactus or agave can be called "Tequila". Tequila has a Denomination of Origin which according to the "Appellation de Origin Controlee" (AOC), it can only be produced in Mexico and only in the areas of those states indicated. Tequila would be called Mezcal if produced outside of the named areas and with the right ingredients. Originally in Jalisco and the town of Tequila. Only liquors made from Blue Agave grown in the state of Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas can be labeled as Tequila. In the wine and spirits industry there are five drinks recognized with the Denomination of Origin, they are: sherry, cognac, champagne, mescal and tequila.

Tequila is not made from cactus. It is made from a sap that is distilled from the hearts of the agave plant. This plant is related to the lily and amaryllis with its own genus, Agave. It is a succulent and even though it shares a common habitat with many cacti, it is not one itself. Real Tequila is made from the Blue Agave. Only the Agave Azul Tequilana Weber (Blue Agave) variety can be used for Tequila.

Blue agave field
A field of agave tequilana commonly called blue agave

Distilling agave syrup probably came from a native drink called "pulque". A distant cousin to Tequila. Someone in the early 16th century realized the potential for agave. If it made a low-alcohol drink it could be made into something stronger. Distilling in Europe goes back to the 13th century. It may have started in Mexico as early as 1520. Most agree it started within 20 years of the arrival of the Conquistadors. Credit is given to Filipino sailors to help kick it off. Their process used more local resources and did not require the big copper stills.

Alcohol was essential. The Spanish were used to drinking alcohol with meals. The water was often unpurified and teeming with bacteria. Drinking a weak wine or beer helped kill off the parasites. April 15, 1530 the colonial township of Santiago of Tequila was established. In 1531 a crude mud still known as an "alquitarra" was used to distill agave nectar to produce the first mezcal. These ovens were located near water to help with the distillation process.

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.

harvesting the agave pinas
Harvesting the agave cactus Pinas

The first official, licensed, distiller was Jose Antonio Cuervo. He was the first to produce Tequila, obtaining the land from the King of Spain in 1758. Cuervo tequila is made in the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. He acquired the property from Vincente de Saldivar who was already distilling from a private distillery (taberna) on the land. It was later moved to the hacienda de Abajo. Cuervo's ambition soon had a distillery producing about 800,000 liters of mescal a year. Taxes on tequila helped fund construction of the University of Guadalajara in the mid-18th century.

The 1880's saw the spread of railroads across North America. This growth spread tequila to many more locations. During this period the tequila industry matured and became more stable due to the 35-year rule of Porfirio Diaz. The rising popularity of tequila creating challenges. Until the late 19th century the pinas were roasted in stone-lined pits in the ground using wood fires. As the demand grew, producers found they were running out of wood and agave. As the hills of Jalisco were losing forests due the need for wood, the land used for forests became new land for agave planting. It became obvious to producers that their methods of producing were no longer sustainable. An above ground horno, or oven, was developed to replace the in-ground pits. By the end of the 19th century all producers were using above-ground oven.

By 1895, presses, grinding equipment and power mills became widely used to crush the cooked agave heads and replaced the traditional methods. By the end of the century exports were growing slowly but steadily. In 1899 they were worth 3,062 pesos but a year later had grown 20% to 5,664 pesos. Tequila became a drink that represented rebels and gun toting heroes. It was smuggled to American troops guarding the border and spread to nearby USA states

As Pancho Villa's rebel forces approached Guadalajara many men from Jalisco joined the rebel forces. Villa entered Guadalajara on December 17, 1914 forcing Manuel M. Dieguez to flee. Villa gathered the richest men in Jalisco and Guadalajara to produce a 1,000,000 peso loan which he passed out to the poor. He became very popular but had to leave the city. By April Dieguez forces once again controlled Guadalajara. The revolutionary troops occupied Guadalajara and took loads of tequila for themselves. The popular drink was the Torito de Jalisco made with tequila and fruit juice.

Blue Agave Pinas
Blue Agave Pinas

In 1928 there was an effort to organize a group to represent the distillers but it failed due to bickering before it got started. By 1929 there were only about 8 distillers and they held on during the Depression. The country leadership like Victoriano Huerta and Diaz gave up tequila for French cognacs but the popularity among the people grew.

The Prohibition period in the USA (1920-33) boosted tequila popularity as it was smuggled across the border. But the Depression (1929) came swiftly on the heels of the Prohibition making it short-lived. In 1930 Spanish influenza spread in Northern Mexico. Doctors were prescribing tequila as the best medicine to resist it. From that point forward tequila was served with lime and salt as that was what the doctors were suggesting.

The agave shortage in 1930 forced the government to relax regulations on tequila and allowed it to be made from only 51% agave sugars. This was the start of the mixto trade. For many years only Herradura was producing 100% agave tequilas. It was also the only 100% agave tequila available in the USA for the next 30 years. The new mixtos were blander than 100% agave tequilas increasing their appeal to American consumers.

Men working with pinas
Men Sorting Blue Agave Pinas

It was in 1935 that the margarita was invented. The bartender at Rancho La Gloria, Carlos "Danny" Herrera, created it for a young new actress Marjorie (Margarita) King. In 1948 European spirits were again available to Americans and exports of tequila fell while national markets grew. The positive image of tequila as the macho drink of ranchero heroes in Mexican movies helped it grow from the 1930s to 1950s.

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