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Tequila sips:

You can't truly appreciate tequila until you have visited Tequila County. If you can at least once in your life walk between the rows of blue agave, take the soil between your fingers, taste the baked agave fresh from an oven, sip tequila dripping from a still, smell the muskiness and agave seeping from barrels in a dark bodega, or stare in wonder at the dark shape of the volcano on the horizon, you will learn more about tequila than a lifetime of mere sipping.


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Updated May, 2011

Tequila's Pre-Columbian Origins

Archeological sites near TequilaThe valleys that lie beside the volcano at the heart of the Tequila region were the home of the a complex society that reached its peak between 200 BCE and 350 CE. Archeologists estimate more than 50,000 people may have lived within 15 miles of the Tequila volcano. Known today as the Teuchitlán tradition (named for the nearby town), this society was the cultural center of West Mexico, with unique, complex architecture and a trade network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona.



The Teuchitlan culture was already in decline and being replaced by the El Grillo phase when the area was subject to migrations of outsiders (possibly originating in nearby Guanajuato) began to enter the area in the Epiclassic (550-900 CE). These newcomers were seem to have adopted the Nahua* language, which was probably present in the Basin of Mexico.


Many Pre-Columbian people in Mesoamerica cultivated the agave. Domestic agaves included  (popular names in parentheses): Agave zapota (sapodilla), Agave atrovirens (maguey), Agave fourcroydes (henequen), Agave latissima (maguey). Agave mapisaga (maguey). Agave sisalana (sisal) and Agave tequilana (tequil maguey).


Maguey worshipAgave nectar was known and widely used among the Pre-Columbian cultures. Along with honey, it was used a flavouring for several dishes, and as a sweetener when drinking chocolate. Both were highly valued and traded extensively throughout Mesoamerica. These products augmented other Mesoamerican foodstuffs: maize and posolli gruels and their atolli and pinolli drinks. There is evidence that sweetmeat dessert-like substances made with toasted squash seeds or popped amaranth seeds and boiled agave syrup or honey were made and given as gifts and used as ritual offerings.

Mildly alcoholic (fermented) drinks called aguamil, pulque and balche were made using agave syrup and/or honey.


Salud! To Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess who bore 400 gods, provided sustenance to Mexico’s people and from her bosom oozed the first alcoholic drink of the Americas. Known as pulque, this 2000 year-old, white, foamy, viscous beverage of four to eight percent alcohol, is the mother of mezcal and the abuelita of tequila, Mexico’s national drink.

Rachel Barron, El Andar magazine, 2000

Old agave harvesting printAgave nectar (aguamiel) is harvested primarily in Southern Mexico from the agave varietal maguey shawii and from other members of the agave family, most related to the Blue Agave and other maguey species from which mezcal and sotal are made. However, there is a big difference in the harvesting process to obtain agave nectar as opposed to the production of tequila.

Agave nectar is usually sustainably harvested from the plant through a process which extends it’s life for about three years. Just before the agave grows its quiote, the top section of the piña is cut and scooped out into a hollow. The agave juice collects in this hollow is harvested daily. The nectar is then allowed to go through a natural enzymatic process, similar to honey, which results in a sweeter and thicker agave juice, somewhat sweeter than honey but with a thinner consistency. It has an additional advantage: it does not crystalize like honey or maple syrup.

Modern version of MayaheulAgave syrup is also quite low on the glycemic index, lower than honey, and the fructose releases its  sugars slowly, so they do not raise the blood sugar. Agave nectar does not induce the pancreas to produce or release insulin. This makes agave nectar a great natural sweetener for anyone concerned about their sugar intake.


Agave syrup was also taken to make a low-alcohol, fermented drink called  pulque. This appears  to have been done for millennia, and was a widespread practice. Maya codices depict feasting and drinking what was probably a form of pulque. Aztec codices also show scenes with pots brimming over, signifying the fermentation process. These are often shown with depictions of rabbits, symbolizing fertility and plenty.


Pulque appears in pre-Hispanic "history" about 1000 A.D. A joyous mural called the "Pulque Drinkers" was unearthed in 1968 during excavations at the Great Pyramid in Cholula, Puebla, 70 miles east of Mexico City.

From many graphic indications, it is obvious that pulque was not a new thing when the mural was painted; the drink is at least 2,000 years old. It is the sap, called aguamiel or honey water, that becomes pulque through a natural fermentation process which can occur within the plant, but usually takes place at a "Tinacal" (place of production).

Aztec in agave headdressThe beverage became such an important element socially, economically and, as a consequence, religiously, that myths, legends and cults proliferated around it and its source, the maguey, many of which continue today.

In the great Indian civilizations of the central highlands, pulque was served as a ritual intoxicant for priests-to increase their enthusiasm, for sacrificial victims-to ease their passing, and as a medicinal drink. pulque was also served as a liquor reserved to celebrate the feats of the brave and the wise, and was even considered to be an acceptable substitute for blood in some propitiatory ceremonies.

Today the giant pulque maguey (the most common being the San Francisco Tlaculapan) are first processed after 12 years of growth. Often an outstanding plant will have an initiation attended by the local governor in honor of a potentially long production cycle. A good plant can produce for up to 1 year. The center of the maguey is regularly scraped out activating the plants production of aguamiel. A local custom for a man without sons is to process 6 plants, make and drink a special pulque, and then make sons. The drink is often considered a mythic aphrodisiac. The name Tlyaol is given to a good strain that makes one particularly virile. Pulque is frequently the potion of choice used by women during menstruation and lactation.


Quiote trumpetAnother use for agave seldom recognized is as a musical instrument. According to the Virtual Analysis of Mayan Trumpets, the Mayans and other indigenous people used the hollowed quiote of large agave to create an instrument that appears similar to a didgeridoo. And the Shakuhachi Society of B.C. is doing just that: making didgeridoos from agave quiotes (from American agave). So there is a reason to let them grow naturally, although the market for such instruments is small. 

*"Nahuatl" is generally used for the set of dialects that descended from Proto-Nahua, a.k.a. Proto-Aztecan "Nahua" refers to speakers of Nahuatl, both as a noun and an adjective. "Aztec" is a more recent word of uncertain origin, that refers to the Late Post-classic (1000-1500 CE) Colhua Mexica, their empire, and/or their entire cultural setting.




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