Top 10 moments in Tequila historyBy Amy Hopkins
More than any other spirit category, the Tequila industry is laden with mythology and folklore – but which historical events made the sector what it is today?
As with most categories in the industry, the origins of what we now call Bourbon whiskey are hotly debated, and are never likely to be completely ascertained.
What is clear is that a number of world events, including colonial conquests and ground-breaking legislations, have played a part in making the category one of the most diverse and exciting in spirits.
While, similar to Cognac and Tennessee whiskey, there are many restrictions which producers must follow in order to legally call their products Tequila, including only producing it in certain areas of Mexico, the spirits has found an enthusiastic international market which is continuing to expand.
From one of the most significant events in colonial history, to the rise of the Margarita, click through the following pages to discover the top 10 moments in Tequila history.
If you think we have missed any essential dates out, let us know by leaving a comment below.
1521 – Spanish conquest of Aztec Empire
One of the most significant events in colonial history, Spain expanded its global empire with the colonisation of the Aztec Empire, now modern Mexico, in the 16th century. The expedition was authorised in 1519 and declared a success in 1521, resulting in the creation of “New Spain”. This monumental event was played a significant role in the the development of the Tequila industry as while the Aztecs drank fermented agave juice, the colonising Spaniards, used to consuming brandy, distilled the substance to create something which would later become what we know as Tequila.
1795 – Casa Cuervo receives Royal Warrant
In 1795, Casa Cuervo, founded by Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo, received a royal warrant from King Ferdinand VI of Spain to cultivate agave plants in order to commercially distill and sell mezcal de Tequila. The brand’s La Rojeña distillery was officially founded in 1812 and is thought to be the oldest operating distillery in Latin America. It was many years after this time, in 1893, when Tequila makers and the Mexican government stopped calling the spirit “mezcal de Tequila”, and used the singular Tequila label instead. Jose Cuervo is now the best-selling Tequila brand in the world, shifting 5.5m nine-litre cases in 2013.
1873 – Tequila enters US
Another early, pioneering Tequila distillery still growing to this day is Sauza, the firm credited with introducing the spirit to the US – which has long-been Tequila’s largest market. Having learned how to farm agave and distill “mezcal de Tequila” at the Cuervo distillery, the company’s founder Don Cenobio Sauza set off on his own and opened La Perseverancia distillery. In 1873 he crossed through the border at El Paso del Norte carrying three casks and six jugs of his spirit, marking the beginning of Tequila’s export industry.
1919 – Prohibition in US declared
As a nationwide ban on alcohol consumption and production was enforced across the states with the implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment, smuggling and illicit production became rife. As American whiskey and Bourbon production dramatically decline, Tequila, along with rum, was smuggled in great volumes into the US, undoubtedly helping to cement its future popularity in the region.
1940s – Rise of the Margarita
The Margarita cocktail, a mix of Tequila, triple sec, lime or lemon juice and salt, rose to prominence in the US shortly after the Second World War, and remains hugely popular to this very day. An essential celebratory drink for the Cinco de Mayo festival, the Margarita has extended its reach beyond the shores of the US in the years since. It is thought that the first Margarita was created by Carlos “Danny” Herrera in 1938 at his restaurant Rancho La Gloria for aspiring actress Marjorie King.
1959 – Tequila Chamber established
The Tequila Chamber (CNIT) was established in 1959 as Tequila companies joined forces to collectively face challenges in the sector. The body, which has pioneered a number of key changes in the industry, aims to represent, promote and defend the common interests of its members.
1970s – Appellation of Origin
In 1974, the Appellation of Origin Tequila (AOT) was published, setting firm standards producers must adhere to in order to call their products “Tequila”. For a product to be labeled “Tequila”, it must be produced in Mexico, and the distiller must follow the Official Standard for Tequila. This Appellation of Origin Tequila was registered before the World Industrial Property Organization (WIPO) in 1978, formally initiating its international protection. The Tequila Regulatory Council was established 20 years later formed to protect the AOT.
2006 – Tequila Trade Agreement
While Tequila’s Appellation of Origin had been in place for some time, 2006 saw a proposal for the extension of the regulations, stating bottling Tequila must occur “at the source”, in Mexico. The US moved quickly to block these proposals due to its heavy investment in Tequila bottling plants, claiming thousands of jobs would be put at risk. As such, the Tequila Trade Agreement states that the US can continue importing Tequila in bulk, in order to bottle the spirit at its own facilities. Trade body DISCUS welcomed the agreement, claiming it would benefit both Mexican and US trade.
2013 – “Tequila Pact” signed
In June 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a bilateral agreement with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto – dubbed the ‘Tequila Pact’ – ending a five-year ban on importing 100% agave products into China over fears of their high methanol content. The CNIT said it predicted there would be 10m litres of Tequila imported into the country between 2013 and 2018, making it the second largest market for the spirit behind the US. Since the pact was singed, exports of Tequila exceeded US$1 billion for the first time in history.
2011-2014 – Diageo and Jose Cuervo saga
One of the longest-running disputes in the Tequila industry occurred between UK drinks giant Diageo and leading Tequila brand Jose Cuervo. Diageo, which owned the majority of Cuervo’s global distribution rights, had been engaged in protracted negotiations with the Tequila distiller to acquire a majority stake in the business. However, negotiations broke down in 2012, with Diageo announcing it would not be acquiring the stake, and would instead be terminating its distribution deal with Cuervo.
The drawn-out tale take took a further twist in 2014, when it was revealed Diageo struck a deal with Casa Cuervo to acquire the remaining 50% of its Don Julio Tequila brand, in exchange for its Bushmills Irish whiskey brand. This was a hugely significant move in the industry, demonstrating that the world’s largest drinks group has opted to throw its weight behind the super-premium Tequila category at the expense of maintaing a present in Irish whiskey.