Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila

Since 2006 • Cultural

The 34,658 ha site, between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the deep valley of the Rio Grande River, is part of an expansive landscape of blue agave, shaped by the culture of the plant used since the 16th century to produce tequila spirit and for at least 2,000 years to make fermented drinks and cloth. Within the landscape are working distilleries reflecting the growth in the international consumption of tequila in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the agave culture is seen as part of national identity. The area encloses a living, working landscape of blue agave fields and the urban settlements of Tequila, Arenal, and Amatitan with large distilleries where the agave ‘pineapple' is fermented and distilled. The property is also a testimony to the Teuchitlan cultures which shaped the Tequila area from AD 200-900, notably through the creation of terraces for agriculture, housing, temples, ceremonial mounds and ball courts.

Historical context

The domestication of wild agave seems to have begun around 3,500 years ago. The wild plant may have originated in the Rio Grande canyon. The agave plant is ideally suited to the poor soil and rough terrain of the Tequila area.

Agave was extensively cultivated by the Teuchitlans and served to provide many basis necessities: its fibres were used for fabric, rope and paper, the flower stem provided wood for construction, the fleshy leaves were used as roof tiles and fuel, the spines for needles and arrow heads, the sap produced a type of honey and its juices were used for medicinal balm and fermented to produce an alcoholic drink. The leaders of the complex, stratified, Teuchitlan society created wealth from their apparent monopoly of the agave resources.

To transform the starches in the plant to sugar, for eating and fermenting into alcohol, the pineapples need cooking. There is archaeological evidence from nearby Lake Sayula (outside the nominated area) that the practice of cooking agave pineapples in open, conical ovens, made of volcanic stone, existed around 400 BC. These ovens were preheated with wood and the pineapples covered with branches and clay.

The Spanish priest, Friar Francisco Ximenez, wrote in 1615 how juice from the cooked plant was fermented to make wine flavoured with orange and melon rinds.

In the 16th century the area was conquered by the Spanish who established the town of Santiago de Tequila. The Caxcanes who were living in the areas gradually assimilated with the Spanish. In order to mitigate shortages of spirits from Europe, the Spanish experimented with local beverages and begun to distil the agave fermented juice to make vino de mezcal. At the same time rum was being developed in the Antilles and so the necessary equipment for the new agave spirit was introduced from the rum making areas.

The taxes levied on the new spirit produced a significant income for the Spanish government of Guadalajara. It funded a water supply and the government palace of Jalisco in Guadalajara.

At the end of the 17th century the first formal distilleries were established and the first intensive agave plantations created. During the course of the 18th century industrial facilities begun to be established within haciendas, and gradually agave cultivation spread out across the plain.

As the liquor became better known in the 18th century, so demand increased. Its growth was greatly helped by the creation in 1758 of the commercial route known as the Camino Real connecting Tequila to the port of San Blas on the Pacific Ocean, to Guadalajara and to Mexico City. The wine was transported by mule teams and donkeys along the new road and became the first export product from the region. The significant increase in production and consumption of this drink contributed to the development of a clear regional identity.

Overuse of the spirit became at times a cause for concern amongst the civil and religious authorities, and there were periodic, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to ban the drink, in spite of the loss of revenue, but these merely resulted in clandestine activity developing in remote areas. In 1795, after almost three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, a regional producer, José Maria Guadalupe Cuervo received the first licence permitting the legal establishment of a mescal distillery.

In the mid 19th century, with the growth of the export trade, large distilleries were established in the towns, separating the production of liquor from the growth of the raw materials. This led to the decline of some rural distilleries and their haciendas begun to concentrate instead on producing raw materials for the urban distilleries, resulting in a rapid increase in land under agave cultivation.

The second half of the 19th century saw consolidation amongst the urban distilleries and the introduction of more efficient machinery, such as enclosed steam heated ovens and mechanical mills.

The Mexican Revolution in the third decade of the 20th century led to a temporary decline of the tequila production process as land attached to haciendas was reallocated to workers on a communal basis or became private property.

Today measures have been put in place, such as the renting of land, and the advance purchasing of the agave plants, to try and ensure continuity in production to meet the continuing high demands.

Latin America and the Caribbean

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