A brief history of mezcal: Who invented it and where its origin is?

While historical references about mezcal in Mexico are scarce, it is known through oral tradition that since ancient times (more than 400 years ago), this beverage has been produced in different regions of the country.

A brief history of mezcal: Who invented it and where its origin is?
Ancentral mezcal cooking. Image by mezcalmedios from Pixabay

There are several myths and legends about the origin of mezcal as a beverage, one of them, perhaps the closest to reality and that has been spread by oral tradition since ancient times, thanks to the fact that it was recorded in the codices, is the one that speaks that in the region of Tequillán, inhabited by the tiquilas, belonging to the Toltec culture.

An old wise man, called "Achio Colli" which means the first of the grandparents, had heard in the narrations of his ancestors that the gods, angry with humans, had sent upon them a great storm one summer afternoon, describing the event as follows:

"A luminous bolt of lightning fell with force on some wild plants that abounded in those places. With the heat of the lightning, the plants burned for a few minutes and when the fire was extinguished, the long leaves of the magueys had been consumed, leaving only the hearts of the plants, from which a milky liquid emanated a seductive aroma. Between curious and amazed, the natives drank the nectar and found it so pleasant to their palate that they attributed the phenomenon to a miracle of their gods, who had shown their forgiveness by giving them a drink that besides feeding them, vanished the sorrows of the soul".

Some historians, refer to the same legend as follows:

"A storm fell on a field of agaves and several lightning strikes fell on the plants, cooking the heart of the plants, which caused that, by the cooking, the starches, became a kind of honey. When the storm passed, the wind carried a pleasant aroma to some nearby dwellings inhabited by indigenous people. One of them was curious, approached and took a piece of the burnt agave and when he tasted it he felt it was sweet. Then he offered it to the others, thus discovering a new use for the plant".

Another version says that:

"Amazed, the Indians saw the aromatic nectar sprout, which they drank with awe and reverence, considering it as a divine gift from Mayáhuel, so from that moment on they used it in their ceremonial rites, creating in priests, sages and warriors states of euphoria".

The knowledge of maguey cooking by Mesoamerican cultures is probably attributed to this fact. As for the fermentation process, the same legend narrates that:

"An indigenous man forgot the juice for several days and, upon returning to his hut, discovered a new aroma that enveloped the environment. Then he observed that small bubbles came out of the juice, forming a thick white foam. When he tasted it, he found a different and enriched flavor. He then separated the liquid from the foam for consumption. The drink caused a change of personality in the native, hence the liquid was considered a gift from the gods".

Myth or reality, the truth is that the closest antecedent to the elaboration of mezcal as a beverage occurred long before the conquest since different cultures obtained from the maguey a wine called mexicalli, which Motolinia would later mention in his chronicles saying:

"Thanks to the decoction of mezcal (heart of the maguey) a wine is produced which the indigenous people call "mexcalli".

This drink was obtained by cooking the hearts or pineapples of the plants, which were later crushed to extract their juice, which was placed in clay containers where it was fermented in the same way that pulque and must are made today to distill and obtain mezcal, which was consumed mainly in religious ceremonies.

After the conquest, this plant continued to be used integrally, and with the introduction of the distillation system (Arab technique learned by the Spaniards in the Philippines), wine began to be produced, which was elaborated following the traditional process developed by the natives up to the fermentation stage, passing later to the distillation process, to obtain in this way a liquor generically called "Vino mezcal" (mezcal wine).

According to the chronicles of the time, this drink was widely accepted by the indigenous population as well as by the Creoles and Spaniards, to the extent that, during the XVII century, the "Vino Mezcal" began to be successfully exported to Spain, likewise, the liquor obtained through this process was of such good quality that it came to compete with the Spanish and European liquors of that time, the reason for which the Viceroyalty government prohibited its elaboration.

It was precise during the reign of Charles III (1716-1788) when not only the importation to Spain was prohibited, but also its production in New Spain, to favor the production and consumption of wines and liquors produced in Spain, and although neither the production nor the consumption disappeared, it was a hard blow to the incipient agro-industry.

During the XVII and XVIII centuries, once the conquest was consolidated, the production of mezcal was mainly concentrated in the mining areas, where it was provided to workers to mitigate fatigue to lengthen the working day, the sites where it was produced as in some cases today, were located in the meadows of rivers and streams, from which they obtained enough water for fermentation and cooling during the distillation process.

It was not until the 18th century, when Ferdinand VII ascended to the throne (1808-1823), that the prohibition was lifted and the production and consumption of "Vino Mezcal" became popular among the inhabitants of New Spain. During the 19th century, with the development of the hacienda model, large estates were created thanks to the dispossession of land from its owners, which led to the intensive cultivation of agave, increasing the production of beverages such as Pulque, Mezcal, and Tequila, which were marketed in the main cities and population centers of the time.

Century plant
Century plant. Image by Rodrigo de la torre from Pixabay

The true origin of mezcal

At present, the place of origin of the alcoholic beverage called Mezcal has not yet been precisely determined. The states included in the Denomination of Origin dispute this honor; however, recent studies seem to indicate that the true origin is located outside the Denomination of Origin, considering that, in the elaboration process, the use of the distiller played a preponderant role.

Ethnographic studies carried out since the beginning of the 20th century to locate the possible origin of mezcal as a beverage has confirmed that the elaboration of fermented and distilled alcoholic beverages by different cultures in the country's territory had its origin in the western portion, from where this practice would later spread to the rest of the territory.

One of these studies was carried out by the Norwegian explorer and naturalist Carl Lumholtz, who in 1902 published his book entitled "Unknown Mexico. Explorations in the Sierra Madre and other regions, 1890-1898" in which he describes his travels through various regions of the country where he had contact with many of the ethnic groups that still exist.

Lumholtz was struck by a primitive method of distillation by which the Huicholes obtained a liquor from an agave, which he identifies as "mescal" and describes the simplicity of the method, which consists of cooking the agave hearts on hot stones covered with earth to later be crushed and obtain a juice that is fermented and subjected to cooking in a rustic distiller to finally obtain the mezcal. Another detail that caught Lumholtz's attention was the use of a copper ladle to cool the vapors generated inside the still and induce condensation.

Further important work regarding the production of alcoholic beverages distilled from agave in the country was done by Henry John Bruman in 1940, who assures that the production of this type of beverage was spread from the Spanish conquest and that it would later extend from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to Arizona, forming an extensive region which he called the great cultural region of "Mezcal Wine".

Within this large region, Bruman delimited another of smaller dimensions in which alcoholic beverages were based on the use of agaves, which he called the "Mezcal-Jocote" area, comprising the area occupied by the ethnic groups that inhabited the territory shared today by the states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, and Guerrero. Bruman concludes that agave alcohols were obtained since the beginning of the 16th century when the indigenous people living on the slopes of the Colima volcano subjected the fermented agave beverage to the Philippine alembic.

The diffusion of this technique in the following centuries (XVII and XVIII), according to Bruman, was directed to the north, towards the current territory of the state of Jalisco and to the south, to the region of the current states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, to later reach the mining centers of the north: in the states of Sonora, San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas.

Studies carried out by Colunga and Zizumbo in the western portion of the country that includes part of the states of Jalisco and Colima, conclude that the most important event that gave origin to the production of alcoholic beverages, mainly derived from agave, was the introduction of the alembic during colonial times, within the cultural area of "Mezcal-Jocote" referred to by Bruman, and that this introduction was given by the Filipinos brought by the Spaniards to the coasts of Colima and Jalisco in the Manila Galleon at the end of the XVI century, who had developed the distillation technique thanks to the elaboration of fermented coconut beverages with their technology, using a still different from any of those used in Europe at that time and that could be built with local materials, very different from the Arab one made of copper, used by the Spaniards at that time.

Sources: Center for Research and Assistance in Technology and Design of the State of Jalisco