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First licensed tequila brand

Despite tequila (and mezcal) being enjoyed in Mexico for 100s of years previously, it wasn’t until 1795 that José Maria de Cuervo became the first tequila maker to get an ‘official’ license to distil the stuff.

But let’s rewind a bit, as Don José shouldn’t get all the glory.

Let’s first head back to the Spanish conquistadors…

As we know, the Spanish soldiers and aristocrats fighting in Mexico from 1519 quickly began to yearn for some of the more refined drinks they’d enjoyed in Europe, like wines and brandies. They tried distilling the local pulque, a cloudy low ABV drink made from fermented agave juice, but the resulting sour tasting spirit didn’t much appeal to their palates. So, at first, the Spanish wine makers were the real winners from the Conquest, as they were exporting galleon-loads of wines to the thirsty garrisons in the New World. But around the late 1520s Hernando Cortez, conqueror of the Aztecs and the governor of New Spain, began thinking ahead. He ordered 1000s of vines from Spain be planted on the new colonies and estates, which eventually made Mexico entirely self-sufficient in wine production by the late 16th century.

Of course, this didn’t go down well with Phillip II, the King of Spain, who had been earning a tidy profit from export taxes for decades. In 1595, he banned the planting of all new vineyards on any private land (although churches were still allowed) in a bid to stop the rise of Mexican wine.

But what has all this got to do with tequila you ask? Well, alongside winemaking, the Spanish had continued to distil anything they could get their hands on, often copying the traditions of the local Indian tribes. Raw agave juice hadn’t been successful, but they had discovered that if they first cooked the agave hearts before distillation, they could create a sweeter spirit, which they named mexcalli. Phillip II had not banned agave growing, so the wily conquistadors turned their attention to planting fields of the stuff.

This is where Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle y Pérez Bustamente supposedly enters the story. In the established and oft repeated history of tequila, he is also known as the Marquis of Altamira, or the ‘Father of Tequila’. But the dates don’t quite add up. He is said to have established the very first tequila distillery, or taberna, in his Hacienda Cuisillos, in 1600. But archives suggest he only travelled from Spain to Mexico in 1695. Nor was Don Pedro even the Marquis de Altamira (that was his father-in-law). He was the proud owner of the Hacienda Cuisillos in the valley of Ameca however, but he didn’t buy it until 1702.

But despite the global myth of a Marquis starting the first large-scale tequila business, it is true that the production of spirits distilled from agave hearts increased after the ban on wine-growing. In 1608, the governor of New Galicia, Juan de Villela, imposed the first taxes on mezcal wine, which shows its growing popularity.

In his book “Descripción de la New Galicia”, dated 24th December 1621, Domingo Lázaro de Arregui makes reference to “mezcal” more specifically. “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.”

In 1623, Fray Antonio de Tello, a missionary, historian and man of letters, wrote from Colima, Guadalajara, about the stills in used there.

“The stills are hollow trunks, the thickness of a man, covered by a copper encasing full of water, which is changed as it is heated, and in the middle of the hollow part there is a round fitted board, with a pipe protruding from one side, through which the distillation occurs.”

By 1630, the arrieros (vendors who sold goods village to village from donkeys) were spreading the word about the vino mezcal, and possibly selling it wherever they went, including to the miners working at the Bolaños silver mines northeast of Guadalajara.

In 1637, the 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 should be established so that the product could be legally sold and consumed, and he could generate monies for municipal projects.

He was worried that the increasing popularity of many alcoholic drinks (including vingarrota (fermented agave juice mixed with honey) and tepache (a fermented drink made from pineapple skin) among the indigenous population was becoming a health risk. He wanted to control the production, which made it easier to establish some basic quality control on the mezcal.

But to do this, he had to ask the homeland. He appealed to Doña Mariana de Austria, Governing Regent Queen of Spain, asking that mezcal wine could be commercially sold through an estanco that would be auctioned to the highest bidder, and the payment would be destined for the introduction of water into the city of Guadalajara. 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. This official royal Spanish authorization continued to be extended by successive monarchs, which led to the widespread sale of mezcal wine in Mexico.

In 1651, Spanish doctor Jeronimo Hernandez wrote that mezcal was used for medicinal purposes, like rubbing it on affected parts of the body to ease aches and pains. So not only was it being consumed regularly, but it had become such a common and popular product, it was seeping into all aspects of society.

Fast forward almost 100 years and mezcal production was showing no signs of slowing down and had come under the control of a few local families according to Don Matias de la Mota y Padilla in 1742.

One of these families, of course, were the Cuervos.

Not much is known about the early life of Don José Antonio de Cuervo, the head of the family. He was a farmer in Jalisco, Tequila, but there’s no record of what he grew before blue agave on his La Chorrera smallholding. In 1740, Don José and Malaquisa (the only name we have that references a business partner) registered to produce mezcal wine.

Eighteen years later, on 2nd November 1758, Don José de Cuervo obtained another landownership decree (auto de propiedad de tierras) for a parcel of land measuring 14.26 hectares. Called La Cofradía de las Ánimas (‘the brotherhood of souls’), it was bought from Vicente de Saldivar, and happily included a small distillery, or taberna, from which he apparently distilled around 20,000 litres the following year.

Don José, who by this time had served as Mayor of the Cofradía de las Ánimas de Tequila, passed away in 1764. But his legacy was secure. His business passed down to his eldest son, José Prudencio de Cuervo, who was as industrious and ingenious as his father.

José Prudencio worked tirelessly to acquire more parcels of land through small purchases to increase their landholding. He even negotiated the purchase of individual agave plants to expand production, as well as personally handling distillation and barrel filling.

The business was growing, so José enlarged the distillery and later moved it to the Hacienda de Abajo in 1781, where production ramped up to around 800,000 litres of mezcal a year.

All was going swimmingly for the Cuervo family until 1785, when King Ferdinand VI banned the production of all spirits, including mezcal wines, in Mexico so he could promote the import of Spanish wines and liqueurs and raise some much-needed funds. For a decade, mezcal distillation went ‘underground’ until the ban was lifted when King Charles IV ascended the throne in 1795.

The new king represented a real opportunity for the Cuervo family. Despite them having made tequila for over two decades, José María de Cuervo, the youngest of the family’s brothers, asked the King of Spain for official authorization to distribute mezcal wine. His request was successful, and the family obtained the certificate in 1795.

It was a royal license that made the Cuervo family the first official tequila producer, distributer and brand in the world.

There was no stopping the Cuervo family now. Production increased and business boomed. In 1810 José Maria’s daughter, María Magdalena Ignacia de Cuervo, married a businessman named Vicente Albino Rojas. As part of her dowry, he was gifted the distillery. He later acquired the rest of the operation after his father-in-law’s death in 1812.

As one of the first acts of his new stewardship, Vincente changed the name of the distillery from Taberna de Cuervo to La Rojeña, after himself. La Rojeña remains the oldest working distillery in Latin America and still produces José Cuervo tequila to this day.


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