How Christopher Columbus Influenced the Discovery of Tequila

When the three ships procured by Christopher Columbus spotted a light on the western horizon, it’s believed his heart skipped a beat. Had he found his passage to the East Indies? Well, no. The Santa Maria, the Santa Clara (nicknamed la Niña due to its being a smaller caravel than the larger carrack, the Santa Maria), and the brightly painted La Pinta (we don’t know it’s given name, but it was usually something religious) had been sailing West since leaving the Canary Islands. Columbus believed his route from Europe to the Western side of Asia had borne fruit.

Even though Columbus was an Italian, his remit was granted eventually by the Spanish crown. At that time the most powerful countries had been recovering and consolidating lands in upheaval due to the spread of Islam into Africa and southern Europe as well as lingering demographic tragedies left by the Bubonic plague. Every European country has domestic battles to fight before looking to expand into distant lands. Spain had conquered the Moors and needed gold to pay for that series of expensive wars.

Columbus’ discovery was not wholly profitable for him, but it opened up a wealth of possibilities for settlement. So, like all colonist ventures, intrepid explorers were sent off to discover what there was to find. Their hopes were for golds, but the real riches of colonization have always been exploiting the simple resources and potential trading supplies found in those faraway lands. Some things from the Americas have been more uninspiringly profitable than simply finding solid gold coins and bars. The other yellow gold, corn, for example drives a massive part of the American agricultural economy. It is the smaller scale, less obvious, ways to make money that aggregate to making a new world a profitable one.

Now it should be mentioned that Mexico had a strong economy long before the Conquistadors arrived. The Aztec empire was as powerful as it was because of trading and the conquest of less strong neighbors. The demise of that empire was not solely because of the arrival of the Spanish muskets. The diseases and muskets ensured that these newcomers were able to gain a foothold that was never surrendered.

But what has this to do with distillation? One thing that was a fixture of the Spanish way of life and enjoyment, was brandy. This fermented dessert wine had changed little since its inception in Persia, except it was common occurrence to age it in oak barrels. The nobility of Spain, like everywhere else, was very status driven. The tides of fashion would come and go and what these nobles drank often was a signifier of their station. Brandy was fashionable and even in these exotic new climes, appearances had to be met.

After a certain period, the brandy ran out even with regular new trips to this “new world” bringing casks of brandy with them. An alternative had to be found. By this time, it was well established that anything with a low level of alcohol could be distilled to make a stronger liquor. A fermented and further heated sugarcane juice drink, like rum had been known for around a century in Asia.

It was inevitable then that someone would try to ferment Pulque, the milky-looking agave fermentation. A drink that had been consumed mainly by the nobility and religious classes in Mexico was obviously going to be of some interest to the status driven Spaniards. The class structures of the cities Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan were utterly overturned when their alliance to defeat the well-armed Hernan Cortes failed. The religious classes were also not to be borne by the Catholic dogmatic Spanish. Therefore, Pulque had no limits placed on it except what was physically possible.

Around the time that Cortes was assuming control of the country, Conquistadors in the high mountains of Jalisco talked their accompanying monks into distilling Pulque. The brandy long gone; some kind of replacement was needed. The resulting spirit went by several names: Agave wine, Mezcal wine, Mezcal tequila, and tequila. The latter of these caught on and the village of Santiago de Tequila was established by a monk. The word tequila comes from the Nahuatl word for ‘the place of harvesting,’ ‘the place where they cut’ or ‘place of tribute’ speaking to this place’s long history as an agricultural area supplying agave products to the outside world.

This village, in the newly designated region of Nueva Galicia, was as much of a backwater and irritation to Spanish authorities as the original Galicia had been before (and since). Some of the monks thatfounded the village were killed a decade later trying to pacify the restive natives when they attempted an uprising. The uprising eventually quelled, Nueva Galicia went back to being a sleepy backwater village.

In the year 1600, Pedro Sánchez de Tagle made a move that was to forever change the destiny of Mexico. He opened the first distillery dedicated to the production of the agave spirit. Don Pedro also set in motion the widespread planting of agave, which did very well in the rich volcanic soil of the Jaliscan highlands. In fact, they planted too many. So many agave were planted that not all could be harvested by his distillery. This set the stage for more distilleries to open. Even though agave is a slow maturing plant, it still meant that the production of tequila and pulque had to increase dramatically.

Luckily, the fall of the Aztecs allowed Pulque to be attainable by anyone and everyone. The masses enjoyed the Pulque, while the new nobility replaced their brandy with Tequila. This was likely why tequila managed to establish itself, then harm its own reputation. Everyone has likely been subject to the desire to possess things that others of a higher status do.

From a middle schooler envying the cool kids, to every ad campaign ever launched, the basic psychology is to say that this item should be wanted by your type of people. We then buy it because we are those people or aspire to be them. The trouble comes when, in order to satisfy the fact that people want certain things cheaply, quality suffers. Tequila is still suffering from this. Too many horror stories exist about tequila nights and following days. The quality of product these people drink is not the fine tequila Don Pedro made or Señor Rio makes today. The modern-day distillation Señor Rio uses to make our tequila would not exist were it not for the fact that an entire empire crumbled or that some cuirass-wearing, musket-wielding horsemen sought something to relax while being one of the cool kids of his time.

The idea of empire is as old as civilization. Somebody rules a big piece of land, then thinks, “how much more impressive will I be if I rule those bits too?” Empires have risen and, so far, have nearly always fallen. The Akkadian Empire was first and the last two holdouts are the French and British colonies. The major difficulty has typically been the ruling of disparate peoples and cultures. Three ways have been used to control these peoples under the control of a foreign power; military control, imposition of peoples and culture, and coercion through culture or commerce. This all seems to be very complex and dry, so I need a drink. Fortunately, the age of mercantile empires meant that one drink created in them was set to become the most popular liquor in the world: Rum.

Military control is hard. Ask a Roman. You need to over-exploit the claimed territories to simply fund garrisons. Colonization and coercion are related, and the former is the ugly part of the affair. Ask a member of any of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. However the fact remains that, despite the certain resentments created by one entity ruling another, an empire can work in the long term if there is not an over-exploitation of the peoples or resources under their sway. The key is usually to allow the subject peoples to gain access to the benefits of the empire. After all money is a key that opens all doors.

Mercantilism centers around the idea that your empire or country exports more than they import. It is an unsustainable ideology, and one that inevitably results in the empire or country growing because the capacity to produce cannot. There is still residual mercantile philosophy at work in the world today. China holds a huge amount of foreign debt and exports a vast amount more than it imports. Donald Trump’s America First ideology seeks to punish foreign countries who he believes have an advantage over the United States in production costs.

The early days of trade, just like today, took place by sea. The trouble with this was that you need sailors. For the average man in Britain, France, Spain, Holland, or Portugal, there was little to recommend a naval career apart from heritage of the promise of wealth. The likelihood of wealth was remote, despite the penny novels talking about sailors finding the jewels of the Indies and the like. More likely it was hard labor, cruel treatment, and scurvy. One of the ways sailors were helped was by giving them alcohol.

Rum’s definite origin is lost in time, but the knowledge of how to make it came from Persia. Following the English conquest of Jamaica, and the mercantile nature of the fledgling British empire, a spirit was sought to replace the foreign Brandy that the sailors drank. The sugar cane plantations that drove the slave trade provided an answer. Rum was produced in British colonies and could be mixed with the fresh water that had to be stored in oak barrels to provide the sailors with drinking water. Water stored in an oak barrel goes stagnant, and algae forms, making in undrinkable. Mixing it with rum made the water more drinkable and the sailors less likely to engage in mutiny.

The word for this mixture was Grog, named after Admiral Vernon, who was known as "Old Grog" because he wore a grogram cloak. Grosgrain is a fabric similar to the hem of the underwear you’re wearing right now. Grog was so influential it became a standard on all British Navy vessels and this tradition was expected on private British vessels too. The practice only ceased in the British Navy in 1970. Two hundred years earlier, it was one part of the glue that held the Empire together. All because Brandy was made in France or Spain, and while Tequila at that point was also Spanish, it rarely left its place of creation.

Rum’s status was so exalted! It was considered as important a commodity as tobacco, sugar, tea, or spices in driving the engine of the British empire. Curiously, while Whisky and Scotch were known and established, and Gin was being produced, neither held the lofty status of Rum. The Scottish tobacco lords, who grew enormously in wealth due to their cornering the American tobacco market, often would meet to agree on trade strategies and furthering their interests. During these lavish dinners, they would toast their future success, not with their native Scotch, which was a poor man’s drink, but with the finest aged rum that could be procured.

These men grew the modest Scottish port city of Glasgow to a major metropolis within 20 years. They also ensured that Rum would forever be a part of the pantheon of spirits. These things occurred because of three events. The first was that in 1707, Scotland officially became an official part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This was a contentious move, but at the time, there were many in Edinburgh and Glasgow who thought this was the way forward. Scotland was the poorest nation in Europe, but had lofty ambitions with no way to implement them.

The next was the teachings of the Scottish Enlightenment. Unlike the flashier French counterpart, the Scottish version was more practical and often looked to societies, and trade, as the markers of civilization. Commerce as laid down in Adam Smith’s, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was a magnum opus of economic theory. It gave license, method, and purpose, to the Scots willing to engage in trade within the British empire. Risks were taken, but vast fortunes were made more often than lost.

The third, seemingly innocuous factor in Rum’s lasting legacy was the Scottish doctor, James Lind, who proved that ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) was a preventative for Scurvy. His work eventually ensured that citrus fruits were given to all Royal Navy personnel while at sea. It became apparent that lime, when mixed with the Grog, or with Rum, had a pleasant taste. Because of this, experimentations with other rum mixes began and cocktails like the Mojito, Caipirinha, Dark and Stormy, Pina Colada, and many more came to be. The Dark and Stormy came about because the British Navy, in an attempt to free itself of the burden of providing sailors with rum by brewing ginger beer. Sailors simply mixed that with rum instead of water. Later, it would become an official cocktail.

All the mentioned cocktails have Rum, but most have their origins because an Empire of some kind took a thing from one place and brought it together with things from elsewhere. The Pina Colada exists because Pineapples from South America were introduced to Rum, whose history is uncertain, and to coconut from Asia. This cocktail is the most telling example of the fact that empires don’t just take, but also give. The drink was said to have originated in Puerto Rico, once a Spanish colony but now under the United States’ sphere of influence.

There’s more to Rum than a pirate saying “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” It truly speaks to the nature of man and woman to go out and seek their fortune around the globe. Just so long as they can have a mellow time doing so.

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