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Drinkaware - For the facts
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History of Tequila
Dating back to the time of the Aztecs, Tequila can trace its roots to the brew called Pulque. Still consumed in Mexico today, pulque is fermented from the sap of the Maguey variety of Agave plant, which the Aztecs called Metl. Believed to be a gift from the gods, human blood was sacrificed in rituals intended to protect and ensure the bountiful harvest of the metl. Due to the belief that pulque was the very blood of the gods, with its euphoria inducing effects, it was highly prized and as such was limited to use in rituals and consumption by both the nobility and the sick. Punishments were in place to stop anyone else from drinking pulque. However during the "Day of the Dead" festival everybody was allowed to indulge in drinking copious amounts of pulque.
It wasn't until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century that the process of distillation was introduced and the resultant drink became known as Vino Mezcal. While many varieties of agave were selected and grown for the production of Mezcal, it was in the small town of Tequila located near the once active 3,000 meter volcano: Volcán de Tequila in the state of Jalisco, that the Blue Agave variety grew in the rich volcanic soil.
By the 17th century, the Mezcal of Tequila had become known for its quality and good taste and as such the town thrived with the increased production. With the increase in Mezcal production came the taxation interests and regulation by the Spanish government. However, in 1785 the Spanish authorities banned the production of Mezcal in an effort to promote an increase in the exportation of their own wines and spirits.
With the arrival of the newly crowned King Ferdinand IV in 1795, this ban was overturned and the first official permit to commercially produce Mezcal was issued to Don Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo. With the declaration of independent in 1810 and its official independence being recognised in 1821, availability of the imported Spanish alcohols became scarce and Mezcal production increased to fill the gap. It was during this time that the Blue Agave was cultivated as a crop; its production was refined and the drink from this region became officially known as Tequila.
During the 19th century additional distilleries were licensed and by 1873 Tequila was first exported to the United States of America from the distillery owned by Don Cenobia Sauza. During Mexico's Revolution, Tequila had become symbolic with national pride and as such production efforts for the patriotic Mexican spirit meant tens of thousands of barrels were sold every year. By the 1930s American prohibition pushed demand up even more, due to the ease of which it was smuggled over the US/Mexican border.
Demand for Tequila in the United States remained fairly steady until World War II, where it had become increasingly difficult to obtain European spirits. Official records show that Tequila exports in 1940 to the US were a paltry 6,000 gallons. By 1945 this figure had become 1.2 million gallons. It was also during this period that the Mexican government introduced regulations relating to the production of Tequila and standards were introduced in 1947. By 1948, the American demand for Tequila had been depleted and the export figures had been reduced to 2,500 gallons per annum.
This wasn't the case in Mexico where national pride and the consumption of Tequila continued to grow together. It wasn't until the explosion in popularity of the Margarita cocktail in America during the 1970s, that Tequila importation into the US reached the levels still seen today.
The downside to this increase in demand though was the need to produce more and more Tequila meant that shortcuts were being taken to produce Tequila. In an effort to protect the quality and the name of Tequila, the regulations introduced in the 1940s were improved upon and the Norma standards were introduced in 1978.
Despite confusions about worms and cacti, Tequila and the cocktails based on it are hugely popular around the world with over 900 brands being produced by 128 distilleries. The most recognised of these is Jose Cuervo. This is mostly due to the popularity of their Cuervo Especial branded Tequila (also known as Cuervo Gold). Ironically being the world's number one selling Tequila doesn't make it a great Tequila, it's just well marketed. While Jose Cuervo do produce a couple of good Tequila's it is highly recommended to take a look at some of the following brands: