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First use of the word tequila

Oh, tequila. How can such a pure spirit have such a turbulent and blood-thirsty history?

Tequila claims the title of being the America’s first distilled drink, and its first commercially produced alcohol. Made exclusively in Mexico, it is distilled from the juice of the blue agave, a plant native to several states, including Jalisco, where it grows plentifully in the fertile volcanic soil.

It won’t come as a huge surprise to know the word ‘tequila’ is deeply intertwined with the Mexican town of the same name. But the first ever use of the word to describe the spirit is hard to exactly pin down.

The town of Tequila was established in 1530. And the first licensed tequila distillery wasn’t established until 1758 (there were a few before but not officially ‘recognised’). Between those dates, and even after, the names mezcal, mezcal wine, agave wine and tequila were practically interchangeable when referring to the spirit.

But before we dive too deep into the history, let’s look at the word itself.

Etymologically, ‘tequila’ originated from Nahuatl, the native language spoken in most of central Mexico when the Spanish conquest started in 1519 (and is still spoken by more than a million Nahua people today). But there are a few conflicting interpretations:

Tequila = rock that cuts

In Nahuatl, the word means ‘volcanic rock’ or ‘rock that cuts’, a reference to the volcanic obsidian that littered the land, formed millennia ago by the now extinct 9,000ft volcano that shadows the town of Tequila. The indigenous tribes used this obsidian for sharp edged tools, like spears or knives. The rocks that could be carved were known as tecatlis, and the person who used them a tecuilo. So the area naturally became known as tecuila, later corrupted to tequila.

Tequila = where work is done

The word tequila could also refer to a place of work. In Nahuatl, tequitl means work, duty, trade or task, and tlan a place. This might be a reference to the agave cultivation and farm work that had been going on for centuries.

But whatever the exact meaning, one thing’s for sure – alcoholic drinks made from the agave plant have been enjoyed in Mexico throughout history and have been known by many names.

The Aztecs had a sacred ceremonial drink called octili poliqhui, which was later corrupted by the Spanish conquistadors to pulque (pool-kay). This was a sour-tasting, cloudy white low alcohol beer (around 3% ABV) made from the fermented sap of agave hearts. It was a traditional drink passed down thousands of years, first recorded on stone hieroglyphs by the Olmec civilisation in around 200 AD. It was so important to Aztec culture, they worshipped both Mayahuel, the goddess of agave, dancing, curing, drunkenness and fertility (has there ever been a more perfect combination?), and her husband Patecatl, the god of octili poliqhui.

Agave was also widely known as maguey, a term that was imported from the Caribbean Antilles islands, where it had been reported by Peter Martyr, an Italian historian working for Spain. He gave a detailed account of the some of the first contacts with Central American tribes in his book De Orbe Novo (On the New World) written in 1530, including the plants they used.

Cristóbal de Oñate, a conquistador and one of the first royal government officials sent to ‘New Spain’ in 1524, referred to agave wine or pulque in his first letter back to King Charles 1 of Spain (who was also confusingly known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V).

“From these plants they make wine and sugar, which they also sell”.

But pulque wasn’t really to the taste of the Spanish in the early 16th century – it didn’t live up to the flavours of their European-style beers. So what did they do? They tried to distil it, of course.

But their experiments to make it more palatable didn’t get off to a great start. For one, they didn’t have any stills, so they made them out of mud, wood, a pot and a basin. Unsurprisingly, the initial spirit was harsh and unbelievably sour. But the Spaniards didn’t give up easily, quickly discovering that if they cooked the agave hearts first, they could create sweeter juice, and thus a naturally sweeter distillate.

This new spirit was called mezcal, a word that also came from Nahuatl, meaning ‘oven-cooked agave’. They called the sweet, fermented juice ‘mezcal wine’, which they then distilled into a spirit they called mexcalli.

A Franciscan friar called Toribio de Benavente (aka Motolinía), was the first to officially write about the drink mexcalli in his seminal book ‘The History of the Indians of the New Spain’. It wasn’t published until 1568 but was written between 1524 and 1541 when he was the head of monasteries from Mexico City up to the Nahuatl-speaking central highland regions.

Around the same time, Cristóbal de Oñate and his soldiers continued their ruthless and bloody obliteration of the local tribes, many of which had risen up against their invaders. But it was a one-sided fight; muskets and cannon against bows and arrows with obsidian tips. It wasn’t long before the natives surrendered and laid down their weapons, at which point Cristóbal de Oñate ordered them to be converted and baptised immediately. They became the first citizens of his newly established colonial town in the shadow of El Chiquihuitero volcano.

On 15th April 1530, this new settlement was officially called Villa de Santiago de Tequila, later shortened to simply Tequila (after the local Ticuilas Indians). Friar Juan Calero de Escarcena was appointed the town’s governor.

In 1531, the Spanish soldiers and citizens of Tequila apparently built some basic stills known as an alquitara, a simpler design where the condenser sits at the top not to the side, through which they distilled early mezcal.

These small stills were sited in local ravines along what was known as Tequila Valley, where there was easier access to water.

This mezcal, made from the local blue agave plants that had been cultivated for centuries, soon got a reputation for having a better and more refined taste. And it didn’t take long for barrels of the ‘mezcal wine from Tequila’ to be shipped to Guadalajara, the state capital some 65km away, as well as cities further afield, like the silver-mining boomtowns of San Luis Potosí and Aguascalientes.

So while we can’t pinpoint the exact time or locate exact written evidence about when this local ‘mezcal wine’ became known simply as tequila, we know it took about 200 years to fully formalise itself in language. Like lots of stories about the drinks industry, the change eventually happened based on its reputation for quality – people naturally separated the good from the bad through their specificity of language. Today, of course, tequila can only come from a certain defined region, known as Denomination of Origin Tequila (DOT) – which is mostly centred around Jalisco. Any spirit made outside this region cannot be called a tequila, no matter how many names it had throughout history!


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