Competing Theories of the Roots of Agave Distillation in Mexico

We know that fermenting was practiced in Mexico dating to several thousand years ago with the extraction of aguamiel (honey water) from certain species of the majestic agave succulent, which when left to ferment becomes pulque. And that agave itself otherwise has a history of being used as a source of nutrition going back roughly 10,000 years. But there’s a big difference between (1) allowing fruit, agave nectar or anything else to ferment, inhibiting its decomposition and enabling its imbibers to become inebriated, and (2) deliberate advance planning and the use certain tools, resulting in distillation (i.e. the production of mezcal).

Perhaps the story of distillation and the history of mezcal in Mexico begins with the arrival of the Spanish during The Conquest in the first quarter of the 1500s. Or with Filipino seamen in the Manila galleon trade who reached the country’s western shores that same century. Or with indigenous cultures some 2,500 years ago. Mezcal of course is Mexico’s iconic agave distillate, often thought of as a generic term, one subset of which is tequila, its more popular cousin.

We also know with a reasonable degree of certainty many specifics about the global history of distillation and styles of still manufacture, all of which aids us in our conjecture. But it must be kept in mind that most is scientific speculation often based on inference, regardless of how adamant our historians, geographers, chemists, biologists and anthropologists might be in their discourse (or me in mine).

The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula about 711 AD. We have them to thank for the introduction of many food products including rice and saffron, integral in the preparation of Spanish paella. Despite their Islamic beliefs together with a prohibition against imbibing spirits, Moorish influence in Spain is connected with the distillation of mezcal.

During or about the 9th century, the modern alembic, or still, made with a serpentine condenser alongside, arrived in what is now Spain as a consequence of the invention by Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Non-Muslims who were already fermenting grapes quickly realized that distillation, for whatever purpose initially intended, could result in production of a high alcohol content spirit extremely agreeable to the palate.

And so when The Conquest began, the Spanish armed with this knowledge came across indigenous populations which were already drinking pulque, and likely baked sweet agave piñas (pineapples, or rather the hearts of the carbohydrate-rich agaves) which had been fermented. The bridge had been gapped. It is this style of still, the two sided alembic, which is frequently used in mezcal production today. It has been suggested however, that the technology had its first application in the distillation of sugar cane which the Spanish imported for rum production.

But throughout various parts of Mexico there is a different type of still being employed to make agave spirits including mezcal. It is a single unit comprised of two or more pieces stacked on top of one another, made primarily of wood, metal and/or clay. It is frequently encountered in Oaxaca, Michoacán, and elsewhere throughout Mexico including tequila country (i.e. Jalisco and thereabouts).

It has been suggested that this type of still was introduced to what are now Colima, Guerrero and/or Jalisco, during the 16th century by immigrants from the Philippines and the Solomon Islands who established a community for the purpose of developing coconut plantations. Local materials used in their homelands for fashioning small yet effective equipment for making their coconut distillate, principally clay (and likely reed), were available in this new North American environment. In fact, to this day the term tuba, the fermented coconut liquid which was thereafter distilled, is used in some parts of Mexico to describe fermented agave, despite its origin.

Various sources confirm that the beginnings of and motivation for the prohibition era in Mexico (yes, we also had prohibition) were to protect the interests of Spanish brandy importers and rum producers, and to assure tax revenue. Banning production, sale and consumption of pulque, tuba and coconut distillate started the movement which eventually lead to full-scale prohibition. But it was the portability of these small single unit and easily fashioned predominantly clay stills which (together with below ground ovens and stone fermentation chambers) made detection of distillation, including the production of mezcal, all but impossible by the “revenuers.”

Epilogue

The 2016 publication of El mezcal, una bebida prehispánica at minimum makes us rethink our understanding of the origins of agave distillation in Mexico. Authors Mari Carmen Serra Puche and Jesús Carlos Lazcano Arce together with their associates from various disciplines spent in excess of a decade researching in Oaxaca and Tlaxcala. They have purportedly debunked all previous theories, having uncovered ovens containing burned stones with runoff stains they concluded after analysis had been created by baked agave piñas. But has literally hundreds of years of research and umpteen publications been thrown to the wind? Certainly not. The foregoing finding in and of itself is not determinative, since it suggests nothing more than converting carbohydrates to sugars, and a reasonable likelihood of fermentation thereafter. It’s the unearthing of pre-Hispanic pottery fragments they identified as parts of stills, which is most significant, suggesting pre-Hispanic distillation dating to perhaps 2,500 years ago. Others have previously proposed similar theories, but that of Serra Puche and Lazcano Arce is the most comprehensive and convincing to date.

Since the book’s publication there has been a considerable amount of chest beating, a renewed or additional sense of pride that the indigenous peoples of Mexico did not need the Spanish nor the Filipinos to distill mezcal. Of course there is academic significance to the most recent work. But regardless of origins, one can never take away from our Mexican brethren of predominantly pre-Hispanic heritage, that mezcal, the pre-eminent agave spirit, owes its recent and exponentially growing popularity to not foreign interests, but rather to its dedicated artisanal producers, beginning with subsistence lifestyle agave growers, and concluding with expert distillers.

Agave is Mexican. It has been of such importance over millennia that it warranted its own goddess, Mayahuel. Her husband, Patecatl, was the god of pulque. Yet curiously there is no pre-Hispanic deity for an agave distillate. Food for thought.