A Brief Digression on the History of Mezcal
Mezcal is a mestizo drink, as its production draws on techniques from European and Mesoamerican traditions and has generated a new autochthonous product by mixing them.
Alcohol in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica
Agave has been used by the American peoples in many ways for thousands of years. The plant was used to make clothing, shoes, paper, building materials, tools and much more. It is an important component of indigenous cuisine and was already used in pre-Hispanic times to make pulque, an alcoholic drink made from fermented agave juice (e.g. from Agave mapisaga and A. salmiana). Its consumption was closely linked to religious rituals and reserved for certain social classes. The agave itself was believed by Mesoamerican cultures to be animated by the goddess Mayahuel (That's it for the old gods, I promise!).
The Spanish conquistadores brought the distillation technique to America, which they themselves had learned from the Moors. The Arabic words alambique (pot still) and alcohól refer to this origin. However, the possibility that distillation was already known in Mesoamerica in pre-Columbian times has recently been discussed.
In any case, the techniques for making spirits that have survived or developed since the conquest of Mexico around 1520 are highly diverse. While the copper pot stills used follow European models, ceramic stills are common in Asia as well as in Mexico. They are said to have reached the west coasts of Mexico around 1600 with Philippine slaves to distil so-called tuba (i.e. arrack) from palm wine. Pot stills with internal condensation made of natural materials are still called alambique filipino.
Mezcal, Tequila and the Protected Designations of Origin
Traditionally, Mezcal distilleries (palenques, tabernas or viñatas) are small-scale rural distilleries whose raw materials come mainly from their own lands and whose products are produced for self-consumption within the family and the village. These structures have been largely preserved in Mezcal production (and the other agave spirits) to this day, and they give rise to locally very different types of the drink with very low production at the same time, while Tequila production has been industrialised since around 1900 and large production volumes have been given preference over high diversification. The introduction of Protected Designations of Origin (DOs) and legal regulations for some types of agave spirits since 1974 (Tequila) and 1994 (Mezcal) had drastic effects on these categories.
Since DOs are interesting not only for producers but also for consumers, we dedicate a separate chapter to them under PROTECTED DESIGNATIONS OF ORIGIN.
The development of distilling techniques over time is presented under MANUFACTURING.
Until 150 years ago, agave spirits were not consumed outside Mexico. According to reports, the first “Vino Mezcal de Tequila” was exported to California in 1852, but it was not until many decades later that tequila experienced its first major export successes in the USA. Prohibition (1920 - '33) helped the Tequila industry, which had been hit by the Mexican Revolution (1910 - '20), to get back on its feet. The Second World War also created more presence for Tequila through shortages of European spirits. During the golden era of Cine Mexicano, tequila became a symbol of masculinity (or machismo) and domestic demand grew, while Mezcal continued to be perceived as a cheap peasant liquor and was only distributed regionally.
Globalisation and the neoliberal restructuring of the country since the 1990s led to the so-called Tequila crisis, an economic crisis that resulted in the sell-off of many Tequila distilleries to foreign investors. Only a few small family-owned distilleries remained. The subsistent Mezcal distillers in other regions later also had unpleasant experiences with globalisation, such as free trade and privatisation, migration and loss of sovereignty of their village communities.
However, the opening of the country and the digital age has also brought forth a generation with a new self-image. People are proud of their cultural, i.e. indigenous heritage, and while Tequila is the drink of the grandparents, the Mexican millennials have chosen Mezcal as their identity-forming spirit. Like no other, Mezcal reflects ethnic and biological diversity and enjoys a high reputation abroad.
What until 20 years ago was mainly produced for personal consumption is now also a source of income for many small distillers. This also applies to people who had nothing to do with Mezcal production before. New brands are springing up like mushrooms and their owners mainly want to make money. Sustainability is rarely practised here. That's why our OWN IMPORTS are from brands with family ownership and a history spanning several generations. After all, these people act sustainably by themselves because they want to bequeath something to the next generation.
Sustainability aspects are also discussed on the next page under RAW MATERIAL AGAVE.