History of Mezcal: A Journey Through Time and Tradition

Picture of Chichen Itza
Carolina Munemasa - Unsplash

The intricate tapestry of mezcal’s history is as rich and complex as the beverage itself. Rooted deeply in Mexican culture, this revered spirit has traced a path from ancient ceremonial uses to a burgeoning global appreciation. Tracing its origin back to the pre-Hispanic period, mezcal’s production process and cultural significance have evolved substantially over the centuries. Join us on a gentle stroll through time as we unveil the lesser-known chapters of mezcal’s storied past, carefully weaving through epochs that have defined its essence and carved out its prominent place in the world of spirits.

Timeline of Mezcal’s History

  • Pre-Hispanic Era (Before 1519)
    • Mezcal was used as a ceremonial beverage for medicinal purposes by indigenous groups like the Aztecs.
  • Colonial Period (1519-1810)
    • Spanish settlers introduced new distillation techniques, transforming the traditional production of mezcal.
    • 17th Century: The Spanish Crown started taxing mezcal and other alcoholic beverages.
  • 19th Century
    • Early 1800s: Mezcal production flourished and became a widely traded commodity.
    • 1856: Introduction of the first official standards and classifications for Mezcal production.
  • 20th Century
    • 1910-1920: Mezcal was a morale booster during the Mexican Revolution.
    • 1994: The Mexican government established the Mezcal Denomination of Origin to regulate production and quality.
  • 21st Century
    • Early 2000s: The rise of artisanal and premium mezcal brands started to change the perception of the beverage globally.
    • 2010 onwards: A surge in mezcal popularity, partly due to its portrayal in movies and celebrity endorsements.
    • Present Day: Mezcal enjoys a global presence, with festivals and a robust tourism industry, showcasing the spirit’s deep-rooted tradition and cultural significance.

The Sacred Beverage of the Ancient Aztecs – The Pre-Hispanic Roots of Mezcal

Long before mezcal became a globally sought-after spirit, it was a revered entity in the realms of the ancient Aztecs. Nestled within their deep-seated traditions, it represented more than just a beverage. It was a link to the divine, often used in sacred ceremonies and offerings. Interestingly, the name mezcal is derived from the Nahuatl words, ‘metl’ and ‘ixcalli,’ which translates to “oven-cooked agave.”

  • Symbol of Religious Ceremonies: Incorporated in various spiritual practices.
  • Currency for Trades: At times, it is used as a means of trade and as gifts.
  • Medicinal Applications: Believed to have healing properties, it is a remedy for several ailments.

Mezcal in Rituals and Ceremonies

Mezcal played a vital role in various rituals and ceremonies, reinforcing community bonds and fostering connections with the spiritual realm. As we delve deeper into its historical significance, it becomes apparent that mezcal was not merely a beverage but an entity woven into the fabric of ancient Mexican society.

  • Offerings to Gods: Mezcal was often offered to gods as a sign of reverence.
  • Initiation Ceremonies: Used in ceremonies to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.
  • Wedding Celebrations: Incorporated in wedding celebrations, symbolizing union and prosperity.
Man doing a Aztec ritual
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The Colonial Era: Mezcal Meets Spanish Influence

During the colonial era, mezcal underwent significant transformations. Its journey, marked by the melding of ancient traditions with Spanish influences, paved the way for its distinct identity today.

The Advent of Distillation Techniques

During this period, the art of mezcal production embraced new horizons, courtesy of the Spanish influence. Introducing distillation techniques transformed the once simple concoction into a refined spirit with nuanced flavors. This period saw an exchange of knowledge, where ancestral practices met modern methods, giving rise to a more refined and versatile mezcal. These advancements in production marked a pivotal chapter in the rich tapestry of mezcal’s history.

Early Mezcal Production and Trade

As mezcal’s fame swelled, so did its production and trade networks. The bustling activity around mezcal manufacture became a cornerstone in many local economies. The Spaniards brought new technologies and established the first regulations to control the quality and distribution of this burgeoning spirit. These early footsteps in commercialization highlighted mezcal’s potential to transcend borders, setting the stage for its journey to becoming a globally recognized spirit, appreciated for its rich complexity and depth of flavor.

From Rebellion to Renaissance: Mezcal in the 19th & 20th Centuries

The 19th and 20th centuries it marked a period of tumultuous change and reawakening for mezcal. It carved out its identity during the Mexican Revolution and further solidified it by establishing Denominations of Origin, a testament to its quality and authenticity.

Mezcal During the Mexican Revolution

In the swirling chaos of the early 20th Century, mezcal found a symbolic place in the Mexican Revolution. It transitioned from being a beverage to a testament of unity and resistance. As whispers of revolution grew louder, mezcal graced the tables of strategy meetings and gatherings, silently witnessing and fueling the plans and aspirations of a determined populace. The beverage mirrored the spirit of the time: bold, untamed, and echoing a deep cry for change.

The Birth of Mezcal Denominations of Origin

As the dust of revolution settled, the focus shifted to preserving mezcal’s rich heritage. In the latter half of the 20th Century, they witnessed the advent of Mezcal Denominations of Origin, which distinguished regions known for their exceptional production methods and distinct agave varieties. During this period, they cultivated a heightened appreciation for mezcal, as stringent standards ushered in a renaissance of quality and craftsmanship, positioning mezcal as a premium and sought-after beverage in the global market.

The Modern Mezcal Boom: A Global Phenomenon

Mmezcal has gracefully transitioned from a traditional Mexican secret to a global sensation, captivating enthusiasts and connoisseurs worldwide.

The Rise of Artisanal and Premium Mezcal

The contemporary landscape has seen a notable resurgence in the demand for artisanal and premium mezcal varieties. These carefully crafted beverages adhere to time-honored methods, bridging the past and the present through a harmonious blend of rich tradition and modern innovation. As one wanders through a liquor store today, the shelves offer an inviting display of mezcal brands, each a testament to craftsmanship and heritage. It’s a captivating sight, where every bottle holds a story of dedication and skill, ready to unfold in each tasting session.

Mezcal in Popular Culture: From Movies to Celebrity Endorsements

As mezcal’s popularity skyrocketed, its influence permeated various facets of popular culture, marking a significant footprint in contemporary trends and preferences.

Celebrity Ventures in the Mezcal Industry

Notable personalities have ventured into the mezcal industry, not just as endorsers but also as brand owners. For instance, actor Danny Trejo launched his line, Trejo’s Mezcal, presenting it as a genuine representation of Mexican culture. Similarly, George Clooney co-founded Casamigos, a brand that swiftly gained popularity and even found a place on many top-shelf bars across the globe. These ventures symbolize mezcal’s elevated status, a spirit now celebrated in high-profile circles, adding a touch of glamour and luxury to its rich history. The actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad also launched their brand, Dos Hombres. 

Celebrating Mezcal: Festivals and Cultural Significance

Mezcal is more than a spirit woven deeply into Mexico’s cultural and celebratory fabric. Its presence in festivals and the burgeoning tourism centered around it is a testament to its enduring allure and significance.

The Role of Mezcal in Mexican Festivals

In Mexico, the resonance of mezcal extends far beyond a mere beverage. During festivals, it transitions into a symbol of unity and celebration, from the lively atmosphere of the National Mezcal Fair in Oaxaca, where vibrant stalls showcase an array of mezcal varieties, to the intimate family gatherings where a bottle of mezcal facilitates warm, joyful conversations. This spirit embodies the pulsating heart of Mexican festivities, marking moments of joy, reflection, and togetherness.

Mezcal bottle surrounded by agave plants

Mezcal Tourism: Experience the Tradition Firsthand

Mezcal has carved out a distinct niche in the tourism sector. Visitors from across the globe are flocking to the rustic mezcalerias and distilleries sprinkled across Mexico. These places offer a firsthand experience of mezcal production, from agave harvesting to the final distillation process.

It’s not just a tour but an immersive journey where one can appreciate the meticulous craft and tradition that shapes every bottle of mezcal. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to connect with the local artisans, the stalwarts who carry forward this age-old tradition with grace and passion, fostering a deeper appreciation for this beloved Mexican spirit.


Embarking on a journey from its sacred pre-Hispanic roots to its resurgence in the modern era, mezcal has been constantly reinventing itself. Throughout its history, this distinctive spirit has intertwined with the cultural fabric of Mexico, witnessing transformations brought by Spanish influence, playing a notable role during the Mexican Revolution, and evolving with regulatory milestones like the establishment of the Denomination of Origin. Today, mezcal stands not just as a spirit with deep-rooted traditions but as a global phenomenon, celebrated through festivals and embraced by pop culture, carving out its niche in the vibrant world of spirits.