Origin of tequila spirit

It is high time to put a halt to the legend that Marqués Pedro Sánchez de Tagle and the Marqués de Altamira, two distinct personages, the initiators, beginning in 1600, of the cultivation of a variety of maguey called mescal in the Tequila valley, and thereby the inventors of the spirits originally called mezcal wine and now known as Tequila.

All of this assertion is false because the first Sánchez de Tagle to arrive in America was don Luis Sánchez de Tagle who came in 1695. Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, who was not the Marqués de Altamira, bought the hacienda of Cuisillos in the Valley of Ameca in 1702 . The first Marqués de Altamira, don Luis Sánchez de Tagle, the father-in-law of don Pedro, did not receive that title until 1704. Finally, when don Juan Rodríguez de Albuerne, Marqués Consort of Altamira, received the hacienda of Cuisillos in dowry in 1730, in the inventory made at the time there were no mezcal plants nor a distillery [taberna] listed, although sugarcane and a sugar mill were. None of these people could have been in the Valley of Tequila in 1600, nor planted mezcal there, nor much the less invented mezcal wine in a distillery installed at that time in the hacienda of Cuisillos, as has been boldly stated. Thus it is that the romantic legend that makes the father of Tequila a “Marqués” in 1600, of whom there are reputed portraits, has no substance.

The oldest report in which we are made aware of the importance of maguey by the natives who inhabited what became known as New Galicia and of how the pencas [heart stalks] of maguey called mezcal were cooked in a barbecue [barbacoa] is the “Report of the trip made by don Francisco de Sandoval Acazitli, Chief and Lord, former native of the town of Tlalmanalco, province of Chalco, with the Lord Viceroy don Antonio de Mendoza when he went to conquer and pacify the Chichimeca Indians of Xuchipila” of the year 1541, published by don Joaquín García Icazbalceta in his Documentos para la Historia de México. This report predates any of the mentions of maguey and mezcal made by doctor don Francisco Hernández (1574), published by Nardo Antonio Recchi (1628), by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1547), and by Father José de Acosta (1588). It is, however, posible to suppose that all of these authors either knew the “Report” or were in contact with those chieftans and Indian troops that accompanied don Antonio de Mendoza to the Mixtón War in 1541, and who, upon returning to their homes spoke of the maguey and mezcal of the lands of New Galicia. In this “Report” the chief of Tlalmanalco mentions the destruction of the maguey of the vanquished (unfortunately the Náhuatl text is unknown to determine if in it the word used is mezcalt and not maguey), and he also narrates how, in the lands of Tequila, those of “San Juan” (this could mean none other that San Juan Bautista de Amatitán) provided him with corn and beans for sustenance, and that in these lands there was a fiesta in which the victors and the vanquished danced and ate a calf. This coincides with that stated by Fray Antonio Tello in his Crónica that some cow´s legs were eaten in Amatitán upon returning from the reconnaissance made toward “Apanic”. It is clear in the “Relation” of Acazitli as to their eating pencas of mezcal cooked in a barbecue there and, that in the same place, they delivered five arrows wrapped in a deer skin to Mendoza, and stated to him: “…Here we bring the deceiver”, and when Mendoza began to unwrap them and broke them into pieces he said to them: “What is this that deceives you? Are you being cautious that if you should shoot arrows at something with them, you are certain of what you are shooting at?

Although López Portillo y Weber states in his work La Rebelión de Nueva Galicia that it was the chief of Tequila who delivered the peyote fetish of the shaman to the viceroy, I believe that the delivery of the fetish in those lands must be understood in the sense that those who surrendered were the true planners of the rebellion and that it would be associated with mescal and not with peyote. As is stated by Tello in his chronicle of the Mixtón uprising: “it was a fearful thing that they took in abuse in a dance…in that dance they placed a gourd and danced around it, and the the gourd was between them, and a strong wind arising it carried the gourd through the air and some old witches said to them that they should arise because, as the wind had lifted that gourd, with the same force they would eject the Spanish from their lands, and they should not doubt of it because it was certain, and that they should enter into battle with the Spanish, and being in battle, a wind would arise and would carry them from the land with a great dust cloud, and there would not be a Spaniard remaining alive, and these people celebrated this with great dances and drunkenness” . I do not doubt that the gourd contained mezcal wine and not peyote, because from a gourd one does not eat but drinks, and peyote is eaten and not drunk, while on the other hand, mezcal is drunk.

After the “Relation” of Acazitli, Domingo Lázaro de Arregui in his “Descripción de la New Galicia”, dated December 24, 1621 makes reference to “Mezcal” as one of the plants of the region of New Galicia: “And for the poverty and laziness of the inhabitants of these maritime lands Our Lord provided many wild things adapted to human sustenance such as bananas, mezcal, plums, xocohuistle [cactus fruit], and other berries with which the natives sustain themselves during most of the year;…” .

It is also Domingo Lázaro de Arregui who, in the same work, mentions the beverage that the natives of New Galicia make from that mezcal, cooking it, fermenting it, and distilling it:

“The mezcal is very similar to the maguey and its root and the base of the center stalk are eaten roasted, and from these same, squeezing them when roasted, that they extract a must from which they make wine from cactus sap, distilling it clearer than water and stronger than spirits and of that flavor.”.

To support the statement of Domingo Lázaro de Arregui as to the beverage manufactured by the natives being clearer than water, it is necessary that they would have distilled the fermented mass that is not, in itself, drinkable, and also realized a double distillation, since with a single distillation the beverage would be cloudy. This double distillation was possible prior to the conquest by using clay pots, since a metal still was not necessary to do so. Arregui, when he describes the manner in which the natives made the beverage refers to a method, that of distillation, and not of equipment such as a still. Furthermore, it would not be necessary to make the beverage in large quantities since it was made for the occasions of fiestas and ceremonies. Matías de la Mota Padilla, in the eighteenth century states that the natives used mezcal wine in their “retreats”.

The “Relation” of the chief of Tlalmanalco and an analysis of the statements of Lázaro de Arregui that contain documentary sources and the earliest physical evidence found to date, demonstrate the knowledge that the natives held regarding the maguey plant called mezcal and the manner in which they developed its cultivation to use it to manufacture the spirit given the name mezcal wine, thus creating, with local materials, a technological process to obtain the beverage.

The manner in which the natives domesticated maguey mezcal could only have occured through centuries and generations, because it must be recalled that the same result is not obtained by allowing the plant to thrust out its stalk as occurs after the third year when it matures by flowering and then dies. Cutting the flowering stalk once it appears to allow the plant to “season”, as opposed to mature, signifies that is is appropriate for finishing that occurs beyond the fifth year, and it can then be used to manufacture mezcal wine. Thus, if an individual during his lifetime may plant, observe, and harvest at most four or five cycles of mescal until they are “seasoned” he must be from a sedentary group, dedicated to agricultural activities. By remaining in the same place he will have observed and cultivated the mezcal, developing a technique for its cultivation to employ it in the manufacture of the spirit that is called mezcal wine and now Tequila.

It was the Indians who developed that system of cultivation consistent in impeding the maturation of the plant by cutting its central stalk [quiote] as soon as it appeared, so that then the center of the stalk and the base of the leaves would augment the richness of their sugars. It it were not cut, the growth of the stalk until it flowered would halt the enrichment of the sugars, making the plant useless for the manufacture of the beverage.

Once the central stalk or quiote is cut and the maturation of the plant is halted, it was necessary to wait until it entered into “season” following its fifth year of life. It was not necessary for the plant to reach flowering stage to be able to obtain seed to perpetuate the species, since mezcal generates offshoots, “children”, that, separated from the mother plant, can be replanted, and thus a new plant obtained.

With the agricultural technique developed for the proposed end, the Indians invented a technical process that was begun with the “trimming of the leaves” [jimar] of the mescal plant in season, that consisted in removing the extensions of the leaves so that the center of the stalk or heart and the base of the leaves remained. This was then cut into pieces and cooked, and then crushed to obtain a juice that could be fermented. On termination of the fermentation, the product was distilled twice, thus producing a spirit “clearer than water” that, as we know, by 1637 the Spanish had already named mezcal wine.

All of these stages, techniques, and processes, both agricultural and industrial, were developed by Indians by studying, adjusting, and transforming natural elements and materials to obtain a refined, sophisticated, and pure product, equal or better than the best European spirits and liquors.

If there are no antecedents of mezcal wine prior to 1621 it is because of its being an Indian beverage, and the conquistadores did not give it greater attention other than by prohibiting it. We know of massive destruction of maguey referred to in the “Relation” of don Francisco Sandoval Acazitli; and how, as much by civil authorities as by religious, with the exception of white pulque, all of the beverages manufactured by the natives were prohibited and “counterindicated”, causing the constant death and drunkenness of the “miserable” Indians. They were prohibited from its manufacture and consumption under the pretext of caring for their health and soul, although certainly also protecting the spirits of Castile and their manufacturers in Spain, the commerce in pulque, and the taxes set by the crown.

Mezcal wine was another of the prohibited beverages that was tolerated only in New Galicia under the pretext that, by permitting it, the Indians would not become extinct. Thus, after 1637, the authorites began to recognize mezcal wine. In that year the then President of the Royal Court of Guadalajara, don Juan de Canseco y Quiñones, determined that, for the first time in Guadalajara, a monopoly outlet [estanco] for mezcal wine would be established so that the product could be legally sold and consumed, and at the same time obtain an economic benefit, although only for the city to whose treasury [propios] the sales of the estanco were directed.

Doña Mariana de Austria, Governing Regent Queen of Spain, being appraised of the beverage manufactured by the Indians called vino mezcal, and under the pretext that there was no other solution for its survival other than by permitting it, given that it was free from sales tax [alcabala] because it was a native product, authorized by Royal Order of 1673 that mezcal wine could be commercially sold in Guadalajara through an estanco that would be auctioned to the highest bidder, and that the payment would be destined for the introduction of water into the city. In the same estanco coconut wine would also be sold, making it clear that in Spain they did not have the slightest idea that this involved two totally different beverages, and that mezcal wine was a spirit, since had they known this, perhaps they would have prohibited it.

This authorization by doña Mariana de Austria continued to be extended after 1673 by successive monarchs, and with the passage of time led to the spread of the sale of mezcal wine. After 1750 its sale was not only permitted in Guadalajara, but throughout the jurisdiction of New Galicia through concession contracts [asientos].

At that time the Indian community of San Juan Bautista de Tuspan, jurisdiction of Zapotlán in the Diocese of Michoacán, had also begun to plant mezcal and manufacture mezcal wine to supply the estanco in Guadalajara. Nevertheless, they had to confront prohibition with excommunication and the placing of an anathema by the bishop of the diocese against mezcal wine as a prohibited beverage. This opened a legal process between these Indians and their bishop that reached the attention of the monarch.

Having heard the authorities and the Supreme Council of the Indies having issued an opinion, in 1767 Carlos III ordered that the beverage should be prohibited. However, in a secret instruction, he left the matter to the judgment of the Viceroy Marqués de Croix to decide what he considered appropriate for the good of public order; the disturbances caused by the expulsion of the Jesuits were very fresh in the viceroyalty.

The Marques de Croix, supported by the Royal Order and a report regarding the matter presented by Visitor General don José de Gálvez, and subject to the opinion of the jurist don Eusebio Bentura Beleña, on May 14, 1768 determined that mezcal wine would continue to be permitted in New Galicia under the terms and conditions that had always existed, but prohibited it in New Spain within whose jurisdiction the natives of Tuspan resided, and thus they ceased to cultivate mezcal and manufacture the beverage.

This ratified the fact that mezcal wine was always permitted in New Galicia while, on the contrary, it was prohibited in New Spain. The errors generated regarding the supposed prohibition and clandestine nature of mezcal wine are due to ignorance of the existence of two government jurisdictions independent of one another being able to permit it in one and prohibit it in the other. This was the case of mezcal wine, always permitted in New Galicia, but prohibited in New Spain.

Alter 1768 any person was permitted to manufacture mezcal wine just as natives always had been doing, but only in the jurisdiction of New Galicia. This generalization of production was subject to a tax on that was called Filter Tax [Derecho de Cribas]; for it a Branch of the Royal Treasury with the name Branch of Filters [Ramo de Cribas] was created. The Filter Tax was collected by the concessionaire at the rate of four reales for each vessel under fermentation. The sale of mezcal wine was also subject to sales tax from which the Indians were exempted.

Although in 1780 don Teodoro de Croix, Commandant General of the Internal Provinces established an estanco of mezcal wine, the beverage continued to be prohibited in New Spain.

In 1811, by Order of Viceroy don Francisco Xavier Venegas, the concessions were terminated, and the manufacture of mezcal wine was freely permitted throughout the viceroyalty, thus lifting the prohibition placed upon New Spain.

What has been stated so far makes it possible to conclude that mezcal wine was an Indian beverage, that they had domesticated the mezcal plant for a special purpose, and that they knew how to distill mezcal juice prior to the conquest, having only exchanged the clay pots in which they distilled it for a metal still that was called Fondo. Although dealing with one of the prohibited or counterindicated beverages, permission to manufacture it and sell it freely under the name of mezcal wine had been obtained from the authorities, with the very functionaries of the Royal Court granting it. The Indians remained exempt from all taxes and sales tax as was all produce of the land, and its sale was authorized to Creoles and Spaniards through estancos and concession contracts, first in Guadalajara, and later only in the jurisdiction of New Galicia, indicating the clearly regional origin of the beverage.


Benemérita Sociedad de Geografía y Estadística del Estado de Jalisco. Traduction: Dr.Michael W. Mathes.