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Toast to the past

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By Coty Dolores Miranda

Jose Cuervo, Don Julio, Don Eduardo — we know their names like those of our relatives, though we may call them more often. These are popular brands of tequila – and in 2007, there are more than 700 with which we can get acquainted.

But the road to tequila becoming the fastest growing spirits category in both the United States and Mexico began modestly in the obsidian-rich red volcanic soil of the Valle de Tequila, west of Guadalajara, where the hillside village of Tequila, officially acknowledged in 1656, remains the nexus of a multimillion dollar industry.

You’ve heard the legends and history of tequila – thought to be a Nahuatl term for the maguey or agave plant from which the spirit is distilled.

But did you know tequila is made from blue agave plant, while mezcal is defined as any distilled alcohol made from any other agave or maguey plant? To be called tequila, the spirit must contain at least 51 percent blue agave, though premium tequilas — bottled in Mexico as opposed to barrels imported to the U.S. — are 100 percent blue agave.

Exactly when fermentation of the sap of the agave first began is subject to spirited debate. That it was exported to Spain by 1520 is documented, as is the year of the first tequila “factory” founded by Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, now known as the “father of tequila.”

He was the first to plant agave for the purpose of making mezcal wine (vino de mezcal); he distilled it at his Hacienda Cuisillos.

A more familiar name to tequila lovers is that of Jose Cuervo – or Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo, who received a land grant from the King of Spain in 1758.  Nearly 40 years later, his Casa Cuervo became the first officially licensed manufacturer of mezcal. Another first for Cuervo was the documented export of tequila into the U.S. in 1873. Three barrels, marked with his black crow trademark, crossed the border on a donkey’s back.

In 1800, as the story goes, tequila was aged in wood for the first time – and yes, that is the origin of 1800 Tequila’s name. By that year, there were 24 haciendas growing agaves for mezcal, half of them in Valle de Tequila.

The rest, as they say (and prolifically through various tequila distillers and aficionados web sites and books) is history. The mezcal wine from Tequila became well known for its superior flavor and has remained so for centuries.

Today, visitors to the Valle de Tequila are greeted with a vast sea of blue as the cultivation of the blue agave increases to meet the burgeoning market.

A 2005 study showed the United States accounts for 46 percent of the tequila market, with Mexico next with 40 percent.

Among the first families of Tequila today is the historic Romo family whose impressive San Jose del Refugio hacienda in the historic 500-year-old village of Amatitán. It is the only tequila distillery remaining where everything from initial production through bottling is done onsite.

The original 1870 copper-clad stills are on display near the state-of-the-art production facilities that distilled both Tequila Herradura and El Jimador Reposado. Only 17 miles from Guadalajara, the hacienda is a popular tourist destination.

The Romo family still resides there, although the second-oldest tequila manufacturing company of Mexico was sold last year to Brown-Forman, a U.S. company. Coincidentally, Brown-Forman also was founded in 1870 with the introduction of its signature alcohol, Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

The reported price for the 136-year-old company: $876 million. This is a  price founder Don Felinciano Romo would doubtless have found unfathomable when he first started harvesting the agave’s pina (center heart), which generally weighs 80 to 120 pounds, but can reach up to 200 pounds!

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