How, and where, did distillation of agave spirits like mezcal, tequila, tuxca, raicilla, and bacanora first begin in Mexico?
Several theories have been proposed by researchers, historians, and archaeologists. Some suggest indigenous populations had been distilling alcohol from agave plants before European contact. Others claim agave spirit distillation began during the early 17th century, after the Spanish introduced Arabic-style alembic stills.
Another theory – supported by ethnohistoric, botanical, archaeological, and toponymic evidence – is that agave spirit distillation began in the late 16th century in modern-day Colima, through adaptation of Filipino coconut spirit distillation techniques and indigenous Mexican traditions of fermentation. Under this theory, Mexican agave spirits like mezcal and tequila developed when Mexico’s indigenous people applied Asian distillation techniques to native agave varietals, local materials, and pre-Columbian fermentation techniques – eventually spreading the practice to the foothills of the Colima volcanoes (where modern-day southern Jalisco and Colima meet) and then further inland to West-Central Mexico.
How did Filipino coconut spirit distillation techniques arrive in Colima, Mexico? Following Spain’s conquest of Mexico and the Philippines, a lucrative sea trade route developed between the ports of Acapulco and Manila. The Manila galleons refer to both the Manila-Acapulco trade routes and the Spanish trading ships that sailed these routes for 250 years.
Also known as La Nao de China (“The China Ship”) – because the ships carried Chinese products like silk, gunpowder, spices, and porcelain – the Manila galleons brought East Asian luxury goods to the port of Acapulco in exchange for New World silver. From there, the goods would continue to Veracruz by land transportation, before being loaded to the treasure fleets bound for sale in Spain and across Europe.
The Manila galleons sailed the Pacific from 1565 to 1815 and, in the process, furthered cultural exchanges that continue to shape the people and lands involved long after the Manila-Acapulco trade routes came to an end. Many Filipino sailors on the Manila galleons remained in Mexico and married local women. This was in part because the sailors’ knowledge and skills of coconut spirit distillation were in high demand in Colima and the mining zones of Guanajuato, Pachuca, and Zacatecas.
One example of this lasting cultural exchange is tuba – the refreshing beverage made from the nectar of coconut palm trees’ flowering stems. This Mexican craft beverage is commonly served in modern-day Colima and other regions of Mexico’s Pacific coast. The word derives from ubâ, the Tagalog word for the fermented sap of the coconut tree. Lambanóg, the Filipino coconut liquor distilled from ubâ, seems to have disappeared in Mexico today, but was once produced in coconut plantations to popular demand before going into decline by the end of the 17th century.
It is fascinating that variations of Filipino-style stills – also known as Mongolian stills, which suggest even earlier influences of East Asian origin predating the Manila-Acapulco trade routes – are still in common use today for mezcal and agave spirit distillation. Moreover, these stills of Asian origin can be found in the same regions of Mexico where tuba has remained in the local vocabulary and cultural heritage. Variations of Filipino or Mongolian stills can be found in, for example: Colima, Jalisco, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Durango, and San Luis Potosí.
The connections between Mexican agave spirits and Filipino coconut distillation techniques do not stop here. It is telling that as of 2023, the time of this blog post’s publication, tuba – a word of Filipino origin – is still the word used by some agave spirit producers in southern Jalisco, Michoacan and other parts of Western Mexico to refer to the naturally fermented agave mash before the mash goes into the still for distillation (mosto is another word that some producers use interchangeably with – or instead of – the word tuba).
In both cultures, languages and continents that span at least five centuries, tuba has remained the same in its soul meaning of sap (or sugar) derived from a plant (coconut or agave), natural fermentation after the sap is exposed to air and wild yeasts, and the possibility of turning fermented sap into liquor after distillation.
Have the local population carried on the tradition of craft mezcal and agave spirit production in Colima and southern Jalisco? What are the unique, defining characteristics of agave spirits made in this region? Find out in part two of this blog series from Erstwhile Mezcal. Stay tuned.
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