The agave plant has a rich history that can be traced back thousands of years. Brady Bunte has found that archeological digs unearthed sites dating over 10,000 years old, depicting human use of agave for food and fiber. By the time the Spanish conquistadors landed on Mexican shores towards the end of the 15th century, the native inhabitants of western Mexico, the Nahuatl, had for generations considered the agave a sacred plant, and a representation of the Aztec Goddess Mayheul’s power over wind, rain and crops. Agave was considered a symbol of longevity, good health, dancing and fertility.
According to Brady Bunte, at the time the conquistadors arrived in the region, the locals were already making use of the agave plant in the making of a fermented beverage called pulque. Because of its special place in their culture, this drink was mainly prepared for religious ceremonies and for treating illnesses.
By the late 1500s, the Spanish explorers begun to run dry of their own liquors such as brandy and wine. Brady Bunte points to this period as the beginning of the tequila era. In order to cope with the shortage, the Spaniards sought an alternative. They found a source of fermentable sugars in the form of the pulque and distilled it using rudimentary techniques to create mezcal.
There were various varieties of agave to be found growing in the region of Sierra Madre. According to Brady Bunte, the Spaniards distilled mezcal from several species and found that the most flavorful taste came from the blue agave, also called the blue tequilana weber agave. It was not long before the enterprising Marquis of Altamira, Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, established the first commercial distillery and opened taverns serving the drink by the year 1600.
By 1636, the governor decided to take control of the production of tequila and mezcal by forbidding its manufacture amongst indigenous people and authorized few distillers. In this way there was better control over the quality of spirits entering the market and an easier way to collect taxes on the drink.
The many restrictions and prohibitions imposed by the leadership in 1785 suppressed the production of tequila and mezcal until the ban was lifted some 8 years later. Brady Bunte found that this action had a negative impact on the industry as tequila and mezcal production did not thrive again until Mexican independence was achieved in 1821.
With independence achieved and growing popularity of tequila over mezcal amongst indigenous people across the country, agave farming begun to expand in earnest. By the mid 1800s there was already large scale tequila distilleries established. Brady Bunte points to José Antonio Cuervo and Don Cenobio Sauza as amongst the forefathers of the tequila industry. Their distilleries and tequila brands continue to operate successfully even today.
As from the end of the 19th century, tequila had become very much a major contributor to the Mexican economy. Brady Bunte considers the state of Jalisco as perhaps the biggest beneficiary today, with about half of the agricultural work focused on agave farming. The state is also home to many agave growing cooperatives that channel their crops to various distillers in the region. Brady Bunte notes that although mezcals are not as popular, they are still distilled, particularly in the state of Oaxaca where the salmina agave is used in their production.
Today agave is not just used in the making of tequila, but also in the manufacture of agave syrup. The syrup has grown in popularity in recent years as a healthier alternative of organic sweetener. The plant’s fibers are also being used in the manufacture of non-scratch scrubbing sponges. As global demand for tequila grows and these latest innovations take hold, Brady Bunte expects agave farmers to continue reaping big rewards from their harvest, well into the future.