Cooking Art History: Tequila, Mezcal and Pulque

Growing up on the Texas/Mexico border my friends and would regularly go "across" during our high school lunch break for a leisurely lunch of Doritos con chile and a frozen margarita. Not exactly healthy – not to mention age appropriate – and little did I know that I was about to embark on a life long fascination with tequila and on a trip to Oaxaca in the early 2000s, would discover mezcal.

Recently, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles asked me to give a talk on the history of tequila and mezcal and I naturally jumped at the opportunity, quickly learning that it's impossible to talk about my two favorite spirits without giving pulque, mezcal's mother and tequila's grandmother, a staring role.

Pulque, a drink produced by the natural fermentation of aguamiel, the liquid obtained from the heart of the agave (maguey) and with the alcohol content of a mild beer, is traditional to central Mexico where it has been produced for millenia. Pulque was not readily available for just anyone. It was only consumed during ritual occasions by priests to become more euphoric in their presentations, by sacrificial victims to ease their pain, by warriors preparing for battle, and by the elderly and nursing mothers because it was thought to have nutritive properties.

Mayahuel, a fertility goddess connected with maternity, fertility and nourishment, is the personification of the agave plant. Her many breasts (symbolized by the plant’s leaves) to feed her 400 children, the Centzon Totochtin, a group of minor deities that represent the infinite forms of intoxication. (400 was not a literal number but a number representative of infinity.) Pulque was considered a gift from the gods.

I like to think that the agave is to Mexico what the grape is to France and just like the Europeans had Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, the Aztecs had Mayahuel. That said, moderation was the path to follow by the Aztecs and those who displayed drunkenness were publicly humiliated.

Post conquest, the agave plant lost its ritual significance, pulque became secular and its consumption rose. (Some even cite its widespread consumption as a factor in the quick decline of the highly civilized Aztec culture.) In the 16th century, Spaniards introduced distillation techniques and mezcal, which comes from the Nahuatl world mexcalli meaning cooked maguey, made its grand appearance. For centuries the beverage that brought together both indigenous and Spanish traditions was simply known as “mezcal wine”. It was made then much the same way it is made today. The plant was stripped of its leaves, leaving it in the form of a pineapple which was then baked underground for days before being crushed with a stone mill pulled by a horse, donkey or mule. The remains of the crushed agave were allowed to ferment before distilling.

Tequila is essentially a “mezcal wine” produced in the valleys of the state of Jalisco; Tequila is a city in that state. Here’s the deal, all tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila. The drink was not known as tequila until 1873, the year it was first exported to the United States by Don Cenobio Sauza, the person responsible for identifying the blue agave plant as the best for producing tequila. (Also the person responsible for one or two hangovers.) Throughout much of the 19th century, it was a drink of the common people and therefore not acceptable among the upper classes. The Revolution of 1910 would shift the social order and the drink would quickly become a symbol of nationalistic pride — and the spirit of the country.

The Mexican government declared the term “tequila” its intellectual property in 1974, making it necessary for the spirit to be made and aged in certain areas of Mexico and only using the blue agave. Mezcal was recognized as an Appellation of Origin in 1994 and its production is limited to a few Mexican states, most notably Oaxaca.

All three drinks are made from the sap of the agave plant, of which there are over 200 species. Numerous species will produce mezcal, only a handful of them will yield the juice to produce pulque, and only one species will produce true tequila.

Though drunkenness was frowned upon by the ancient Aztecs there was one important exception. The last 5 days of the year – days 361 to 365 – were considered "dead days" since there was no guarantee the solar gods would grant another year, making it ok for everyone to get hammered for 5 days straight. Should you choose to follow this example with Election Day right around the corner, look no further than the Ocho Margarita from Ocho, one of my favorite spots in San Antonio, TX.


Get the recipe for Ocho Margarita and learn about the history of the margarita at ArtBites: Cooking Art History.

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