Sauza: A Story of Family and Tequila

Joseph V. Micallef - Huffington Post
July 31, 2017


One of Casa Sauza’s agave fields in Jalisco.

The history of the Sauza family and its tequila distilleries are deeply intertwined with the history of Jalisco and tequila. Not only were the Sauza’s among the oldest families involved in the production of tequila, but they have also been responsible for many innovations that have shaped the modern tequila industry.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Tequila was a remote village in the lowlands of Jalisco in the shadow of its namesake volcano. The village had a local reputation for its mezcal, dubbed “vino mezcal” or “vino tequila.”

Over the course of the 18th century the mezcal trade steadily grew. A road connecting Tequila with the port of San Blas, just north of the city of Puerto Vallarta , afforded access to other markets. Vino tequila found a ready market as far afield as sophisticated Mexico City.

Stills were primitive. There was little consistency in production methods or the raw materials, the agave and other fermentable plants, on which the distillation was based. Tequila producers competed locally with distillers of aguardiente, a spirit distilled from fermented sugar cane juice, coconut wine producers, as well as a broad range of fermented native beverages including pulque—fermented agave sap.

By the mid-18th century, vino tequila was more popular among Jalisco’s inhabitants than the native pulque. The production of vino tequila had moved from haciendas, where small stills had been as ubiquitous as bread ovens, to larger, specialized distillation plants called tavernas. The tavernas or taverns where the 18th century’s version of brew pubs, where vino tequila was both made and consumed.

During the day tavernas would also send donkeys with small barrels of vino tequila strapped on either side to supply laborers at work sites. A tradition that has been preserved, although not the actual activity, at the Herradura distillery and its tequila carrying donkey Paco.

In 1740, Jose Antonio de Cuervo, along with a business partner know only by his surname Malaquisa, began to produce vino tequila at the Taberna La Chorrea. By 1750, they were reportedly shipping over 20,000 liters of vino mezcal yearly to neighboring Guadalajara. In 1758, the Spanish monarch, Ferdinand VI granted the two partners a large property on the outskirts of Tequila called La Cofradia de las Animas from which to harvest agave.

At the time, Jalisco was part of Nueva Galicia, an autonomous kingdom in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The region that would one day come to define an important part of the spirit and culture of Mexico was, during this period, independent of Spanish authorities in Mexico City. Nueva Galicia had its own flag and seal, its own governor, appointed directly by the Spanish crown, and its own capital in Guadalajara.

Nueva Galicia would become the present day Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas’s, Colima and Aguascalientes—the heart of today’s tequila producing zone. Its legacy of independence would characterize both the spirit of its tequila industry and its often-strained relationship with the central government in Mexico City.

Don Matias Angel de la Mita Padilla, a local priest, politician and historian who chronicled the early history of Nueva Galicia, noted that by the 1750’s, control of the production of vino tequila and coconut wine had already become a monopoly controlled by a few local families. From the very beginning, tequila was a big business that would define the economy and social hierarchy of the region.

The boom, as has so often been the case in tequila’s tumultuous history, proved short lived. In 1785, Charles III of Spain banned the local production of wines and spirits, including pulque and vino mezcal, in Spain’s colonies to promote exports of similar Spanish products. The ban was eventually lifted in 1795, after Charles IV ascended to the Spanish throne, and distilleries could again be licensed.

By 1800, there were already 24 haciendas farming agave to produce mezcal. Twelve around the village of Tequila and another 12 around the village of Amatitán in the highlands. What specific varieties were being grown is not known, but they would have included the blue agave, then called chinos azul (Blue Chinese) and agave largo (long agave), a species characterized by extremely long leaves.

In 1805, a local entrepreneur named Jose Maria Castaneda built the La Antigua Cruz distillery in Tequila. The distillery would be owned by two others before being purchased by Don Cenobio Sauza in 1873. This was the beginning of what would became the Sauza tequila dynasty.

The first half of the 19th century was a boom period for vino mezcal. Mexico’s war of independence from Spain, 1810-1821, brought a reduction in imports of Spanish wine and spirits and a renewed interest in indigenous Mexican beverages. Mezcal wine had been distributed to Mexican soldiers during the war of independence, many of whom retained their liking for it when they returned home.

On the other hand, Jalisco and its distillers lost a lot of their former independence when the former Spanish viceroy of Nueva Galicia was incorporated into the new United Mexican States. Other states and municipalities began to impose taxes on vino mezcal crossing their borders. The new government in Mexico City also tried to impose its authority on the region.

Read the rest at Huffington Post.

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