How long do you think tequila has been around? Would it surprise you that your next tequila shots have been 3 centuries in the making? Well, what about 3 millennia? This is how far back tequila’s history goes, to the Olmec civilization. Created using the agave Azul plant, this drink has been around since around 1000 BC. The drink has changed over the years, both in production and consumption. Here we take a look at how the Olmecs created the drink that would become an integral part of Mexican culture.

Early Origins of Fermented Agave

The earliest agave drinks came from the fermentation of the plant, creating a creamy liquid that probably didn’t taste very good at all. The drink would have been sour and yeasty, and whilst our modern palates may not. Having enjoyed it, the Olmecs certainly seemed to. They called this early drink pulque, a drink still enjoyed across Mexico today. The process back in Olmec times, was rather rudimentary, bashing the heart of the agave to release the milky fluid. They would then transfer the liquid to clay pots to ferment. Pulque at this stage wasn’t used as a beverage for getting drunk.

agave azul tequila

Trial and Error, and Probable Illness

When you are planning a party and pick up a bottle of Olmeca tequila (named in reference to the civilization that created it). You can be safe in the knowledge that you’re drinking at least 51% Blue Weber agave. This is because it is the only agave plant used in tequila production, and the law dictates that 51% is the minimum required. During the early Olmec civilization, however, much of this information was not yet known.

The Mayans first began playing around with agave fermentation, although didn’t get very far. The Olmecs, therefore, had to learn which of the 250+ species of agave worked well. Experts suggest that back then, the number of species was around half of what we have today. Nonetheless, you can only imagine the number of vile drinks and illnesses that this trial-and-error period witnessed.

Use In The Culture

Most frequently, it was during religious rituals when Olmecs would mostly drink pulque. And it was widely regarded as a gift from the gods. Evidence has suggested that the Olmecs drank this early form of tequila during sacrificial ceremonies too. Doing shots around the altar whilst sacrificing a human child or young animal was very much the norm. Grisly as this sounds.
The Olmecs also used pulque in medicine and the elite, on occasion, would drink pulque in celebration from time to time. We have seen evidence of rulers having their own cups and pouring jars for pulque. It is worth saying that around this time, the alcohol content was very low.

tequila olmeca shot

Becoming Tequila

Each civilization is responsible for the tequila we know and love today. The Mayans first discovered agave drinks, the Olmecs turned it into pulque, the Aztecs added some cosmology and mystique to the mix and then the Spanish took things to different levels. Once the Spanish invaded Mexico, they struggled to enjoy this popular drink, which by all accounts tore their guts to shreds.

Given that the Spaniards couldn’t drink their products from back home. They had to find a way to make this new, Mexican drink palatable. This, coupled with the Spaniard’s use of pulque to control the masses, and their economy, saw many changes in the production and content of the drink. The first known distillery of what we know now as tequila opened in Jalisco in the early-1600s.

Remembering The Olmecs

The Olmecs certainly created the early origins of this drink, and they are still remembered for it today. There are tequila brands with products like Olmeca dark chocolate, a good cocktail tequila that also gives a nod to Olmec’s discovery of cacao. Tequila is still drunk at rituals across the country, from games of pok-ta-pok to modern-day festivals like the Day of The Dead.
The Olmecs may not have been aware of what they set in motion with their creation of pulque, but their contribution was critical to the drink we all love today. It is thanks to their efforts, and the efforts of those who came after, that tequila is such a critical aspect of Mexican culture.