Tequila: A Brief History

02. Tequila starts to emerge as a category


The 19th Century

In the early 19th century, distilleries started to move away from rural areas and towards the town of Tequila (established in April of 1530). By the mid-1800s, vinos de mezcal de Tequila began to gain recognition within Mexico as a formal industry and a growing commercial identity started to emerge.

The first commercial distillery license was given to José Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo in 1795 (followed by Don Cenobio Sauza’s subsequent distillery opening in 1873). Sauza and Cuervo both claim to be the first to export the spirit to the United States, but disputes aside, it’s agreed upon that the introduction of tequila in America sparked a new global taste for the liquid around this time. By 1893, Sauza won medals for their mezcal brandy” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1910 San Antonio International Fair. These accolades started to set tequila apart from other Mexican spirits and highlights one of the most interesting parts of tequila’s history: how tequila, from its very beginning, through its rise, fall and resurgence has always been intrinsically tied to international trade, and specifically, trade with the U.S.

CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR Don Cenobio Sauza made a sensation when his tequila was served at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Demand surged in the 1870s, especially in the United States (by 1873, 80% of mezcal exports went to America.). With a nascent global market looming and the completion of the Guadalajara-Mexico City Railway in 1888 allowing for easier transportation within Mexico, the industry started looking for ways to produce more tequila more efficiently. Technological advances, including the use of contemporary copper pot stills in place of wooden or clay stills and steam-powered brick ovens (instead of wood-fired conical pit ovens), helped establish tequila as a distinct spirit category separate from other agave distillates. Reports from the time described this emerging category as more chemically pure and cleaner thanks to the lack of smoky flavor (a result of using steam-powered ovens).

The Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) was a time of great consolidation of land, which had a negative immediate effect on the tequila industry; in the town of Tequila, the percentage of producers shrunk by 50% and in Jalisco, the number of producers decreased from 87 to 32. Then during WWII, demand for tequila grew in North America as wine and spirit exports from Europe became scarce. This resulted in a widespread adulteration of the spirit to meet demand. At this point, it was time for the government to step in and start regulating and protecting the spirit that was emerging as a national icon.

COPPER POT STILLS Today, copper pot stills have replaced wooden or clay stills at many tequila distilleries.