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Text and Photos ©2013 by J. Pint unless otherwise indicated.

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Image by Explora Mexico

NEW DOCUMENTARY from Explora México. Los Mezcales del Occidente de México y la Destilación Prehispánica
(Mezcals from Western Mexico and Pre-Hispantic Distilling). DVD, 52-minutes, audio in Spanish, English and French.

Photo by Explora Mexico

A cutaway view of the “tree-trunk still” used by modern agave farmers in Colima to make mezcal, following a system taught to their forefathers by Filipinos distilling coconut spirits.

Photo by J. Pint

Agave fields near Amatitan and Tequila.  The fact that no wild varieties of Agave tequilana weber have ever been found in this area, led investigators to suspect the origins of tequila lay elsewhere.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

3500-year-old Capacha Pot found in Colima by Isabel Kelly. Photo courtesty of Wikipedia.

Photo by J. Pint

Millstone for crushing mezcal fibers Photo by J. Pint

Perhaps the oldest tequila works in the Amatitan-Tequila area is this site at El Tecuane. However, the use of a millstone to crush the cooked agave heads suggests that El Tecuane was a latecomer in the history of tequila making.

Distilling tequila with Capacha Pot - Photo by Explora Mexico

Replica of a 3500-year-old Capacha pot producing agave spirits with an alcohol content of 32°. Cutaway view on the right shows the process.

Oven used in Tequila processing - Photo by J. Pint

Agave heads were originally cooked in pits, rather than in ovens as seen here. Engineer Jorge Padilla at the headquarters of Tequila San Matias.




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Documentary Film Offers New Proofs

By John Pint

Photo by Explora MexicoA new DVD with excellent sound tracks in English, Spanish and French brings to life fascinating discoveries on the origin of mezcal, as well as a surprising new take on who was the first to distill this potent brew in the Americas.

Director Pascual Aldana of Explora Mexico Documentaries introduces us to two ecologists, Dr. Daniel Zizumbo and Dr. Patricia Colunga, from the Yucatán Center for Scientific Research. These investigators teamed up with INAH archaeologist Fernando González while studying the sophisticated manner in which agaves are grown at the foot of Colima’s Fire Volcano and in the basins of three rivers in Colima and southern Jalisco. They found that these farmers are experts in producing hybrids of some twenty varieties of agaves which they eventually distill into mezcal (the "ancestor" of tequila) using the very same techniques practiced centuries ago by their forefathers.

The Explora Mexico team has managed to film every step of what seems to be the original procedure for making agave spirits back in the 1600’s and it makes for fascinating viewing.

Whereas modern tequileros cook the agave heads in ovens or pressure cookers, the original procedure was to use a large, funnel-shaped pit lined with heat-resistant rocks. A wood fire is started at the bottom of the pit and when the rocks are white hot, the agave heads are heaped on top and covered with a layer of bagasse followed by a hemp tarp (today replaced by a plastic sheet) and then a thick layer of dirt. When all the starch has turned to sugar, the heads are mashed using mallets and axes to separate the fibers. The researchers say this procedure is much older than the use of a rolling millstone, a technique introduced by the Spaniards much later, when this drink became popular.
The sweet, cooked agave fibers are now placed in a cylindrical, watertight hole holding as many as 1000 liters (265 gallons) and the mixture ferments for three weeks to two months, depending on the temperature.

The result is a liquid with 3° to 6° alcohol known here as “tuba,” a word whose origins go back to fermented coconut juice. The tuba is carried in buckets to a rustic Chinese-style still which consists of a hollow tree trunk with a copper pot at the bottom. Vapors from the tuba boiling in the pot rise to the bottom of another pot of cool water where the steam condenses and drips onto a flat wooden blade from which it is channeled outside the still, to be collected.

This distillation system it seems, was brought to the Pacific coast of Mexico from the Philippines by the Spaniards and was originally used—by Filipinos in Colima—to distill a brew made from coconut juice called tuba to this day. Instead, the stills used in the Amatitán-Tequila area, say the researchers, was of the Arabian style, using a coil for cooling.

Apparently “vino de cocos” or palm wine was produced in Mexico in the late 1500’s until 1612 when the Spaniards—to protect their own imported brandy—declared this coconut alcohol illegal and cut down all the coconut palms.

At this moment, in Colima and South Jalisco, the mezcal industry was born, say the researchers, citing several historic records and pointing to some 26 ovens found at eleven sites on the slopes of El Volcán de Fuego. From Colima, they say, the technology made its way northward, to Amatitán and Tequila, and only when demand grew from thirsty (and rich) miners, did the Spaniards upgrade the mezcal-tequila-making process. With the passage of time, everyone forgot about where it had originally come from.

All this information, and a lot more, can be found online in the paper “Early coconut distillation and the origins of mezcal and tequila spirits in west-central Mexico” by Daniel Zizumbo-Villarreal and Patricia Colunga-GarcíaMarín, 2008, Genetic Resource and Crop Evolution 55:493-510.  This article clearly demonstrates that tequila and mezcal were “invented” in the state of Colima.

Dr. Patricia Colunga distilling with a Capacha pot - Photo by Explora MexicoMezcals from Western Mexico is truly a ground-breaking documentary and it ends with a plea to the tequila industry to revise its rules on the appellation “tequila” because, say the researchers, the descendants of the very people who invented the process of making tequila are now denied the right to give that name to the spirits they continue to make in the traditional way. Although the truth about the origins of tequila were discovered in the early 2000’s, to this day the people of Colima may use neither the word tequila nor mezcal to identify their product. While tequila has its roots in Mexico, it is enjoyed all over the world.  In the United States, a DWI Attorney San Antonio may be needed if consumers enjoy too much tequila.

The film also deals with the controversial question of whether the process of distillation may have been known in pre-Hispanic times. They point to the discovery by Isabel Kelly in 1970 (in tombs on the side of the Colima Volcano) of curiously-shaped Capacha vessels, found to be 3,500 years old. British scientist and sinologist Joseph Needham later remarked on the similarity of these pots to Mongol and Chinese stills. These comments inspired Zizuma, Colunga and González to try a daring experiment. They had local potters make exact replicas of the Capacha pots. In these, they placed fermented agave must and after two hours of cooking they had alcohol with a content as high as 32°. The entire experiment is shown in the documentary.

The researchers point to much archaeological evidence that agaves were in the food chain and fermented in Mexico thousands of years ago and speculate that small quantities of what we now call mezcal or tequila may have been distilled for the consumption of the privileged few. This might explain why some very old figurines show people drinking a liquid from a cup much smaller than those used for pulque and may shed new light on Domingo Lázaro de Arregui’s statement in his 1621 Description of New Galicia: “The Mexcales are much like the maguey. Their root and the base of their spikes are roasted and eaten. In addition, when they are pressed, they exude a must, from which a liquor is distilled, clearer than water, stronger than aguardiente and of such good taste.” 


Whatever the case for pre-Hispanic distilling may be, this documentary offers solid proof that the true Ruta del Agave is not the one which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but actually a route running north from Colima and ending, not starting, with the town of Tequila. The film includes a very long bibliography in the credits, supporting the idea of Colima and southern Jalisco as the birthplace of tequila and perhaps the only place in Mexico continuing to produce tequila using systems developed in the early 1600’s. What a noble gesture it would be for the Tequila Industry and UNESCO to officially recognize the humble, talented people of rural Colima whom we meet in this extraordinary documentary.

You can find the DVD "Los Mezcales del Occidente de México" (52 minutes) at Sandi Bookstore in Guadalajara (Tel 31 21 08 63) and the price is 160 pesos.


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