Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) visits the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Colima

Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) visits the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Colima


Listen:  The origin of spirit distillation in Mexico

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On December 5, 2014 a group of bartenders, anthropologists, restauranteurs, tequila makers and activists were invited to the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Colima to investigate evidence concerning possible early distillation in Mesoamerica.  The group included David Suro, President of the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) and a number of colleagues from across the United States including  Dr. Dan Healan from Tulane University, Dr. Pat McGovern, from the University of Pennsylvania,  Derek Brown, Ceci Norman, Misty Kalkofen, Dr. Steve Larson, Ryan Fitzgerald, Bobby Heugal, Phillip Ward, Katie Stipe, Miguel Huerta, Phoebe Esmon, and Madeleine Rapp, Davia Nelson


Dr. Pat McGovern and Laura Lopez


David Suro brings us into the room. 

David Suro: We are in Colima and we’re about to walk into INA, The National Institute of Anthropology and History, and we are going witness something that has the potential to change what we know about the history of alcoholic beverages. Professor Pat McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania is about to receive samples from the archeologists in Colima and take them to the laboratory at Penn to analyze them for residuals that could indicate that we had early distillation in this part of Mesoamerica about 3500 years ago.

DN: Why is this so important to understand?

DS: If these samples that are about to be analyzed give us positive results you will have to change the history on how humans have handled alcohol. All we knew about the origin of distillation before now was that it started 3500 years ago in China. So where is the connection between the Mesoamerican and Chinese cultures? We’re trying to find out with scientific tests if distilled alcoholic beverages were produced in this region of Mexico. So, it has an incredible significance.

DN: Describe what you’re looking at.

DS: I’m looking at tables in this institute that have samples  that were excavated in sites near Colima that date back 3500 years. Laura Lopez from INA has been doing this research for years.


Dr. Patrick McGovern, Fernando Zozaya, Dr. Dan Healan, and David Suro

Dr. Patrick McGovern, Fernando Gonzalez, Dr. Dan Healan, and David Suro

Laura Lopez (LL): I am a teacher and a researcher at INA. I do research on the formative period in Colima and I started by working on the surface, but it’s very hard to find remains close to the surface. In order to determine whether the Capatcha practiced distillation we need evidence—that’s what archeologists are always looking for. Fernando Gonzalez, along with a group of biologists, conducted a study with replicas of old vessels. They tried to distill with the replicas and the result proved that it was possible. We’re not claiming distillation took place, we’re just saying that the technology was there. The elements were there and it could have taken place.

(The group started throwing questions to Laura)

Q: In theory they used to distill here 3500 years ago?

LL: Yes, that’s the theory–the hypothesis. Now, it’s important for you to visualize the natural environment. To feel the weather and of course the vegetation. The volcano is right behind us, it’s imposing but you cannot see it so much from where we’re standing.


David Suro and Marite Gutierrez

The Capatcha would have been the first settlers to practice agriculture in this area and they had sophisticated agricultural practices. This is why there’s a possibility that they had a connection with South America—a cultural exchange with a well-established civilization. Another hypothesis is that the Capatcha already had the tradition of agriculture and that they brought it with them to this area.

Q: Is there any evidence of a distilled product that would have come from South America to here?

LL: No, my colleague who is a specialist in the area of Peru said, no. The material that you see here by the table—you can see it and you can touch it. We were able to rescue these materials in 2011. These vessels were associated with small remains of bone or the Number 9 Burial, which was the most complete.

Q: The shape of this is conical so anything coming up here needs to run down so it can drop into the vessel. So a conical form is probably something that would be very important. My question to you is do you seal the sides?

LL: Yes, with the fiber of the agave.


Q: And why two chambers? The problem with this distilling device is that the collector is inside the still but in other stills the collector is outside. When you put it inside the still it’s going to heat up and you’re going to have secondary evaporation. In other words, this has water in it that keeps it cool but everything inside the chamber is going to heat up.

LL: With the two chambers you can separate one for the preparations and one for condensation—I do believe this is very important. Instead of just using one single pot—it could work, but I believe that you would be losing liquid because of this secondary evaporation.

Q: Do you have any sort of carbon on the outside of this that would show that it was heated up? I mean if this is the lower heating vessel, do you see carbon buildup from the fire?

LL: No. But the absence of smoke on the pot is not in itself an indication it wasn’t used—

Q: My experience has been that with cooking pots you will see some evidence of carbon on the outside. My other question is logistical: if it takes a ton to make 100 liters and you can only fill that once before you have to disassemble it, how much of a yield would you get out of filling the bottom? About a thimble full!

LL: Well that’s what you’re going to have to remember about this whole thing, we’re talking about understanding and technology that might be very old. With what’s been going on now, thousands of years later: the scale of production, the organization of production, how it was done etc… might be entirely different. The amount of material involved would be entirely different as well.

Q: Just the logistics of filling—

LL: At that time you have pots like this big.


Q: What you’re saying is that in this period it’s more of an elitist, upper class economy. Not mass production. We should look at the other vessel. There are scratches on the inside bottom and those scratches look fresh—

LL: Yes. We did those. We took a series of samples from the inside.

Q: So where are those samples now?

LL: The samples were taken to Barcelona. I think if you look at these vessels you do see traces of the heat.

Q: What kind of vessel is this?

LL: That is the boule.

Q: It has the same gourd shape?

LL: Yes, it has the same shape. This piece is what we call kidney shaped—it’s the bottom of what we believe to be a tecomate.

Q: Why does it have the holes?

LL: The tecomates have perforations to hang them by–that’s the interpretation we’ve made. That is the lid and it would have a twin vessel right there. We didn’t put it in the restorator because that cleans everything and we didn’t want that. But we did do the report and in the report we had to show the shapes so we tried to put it together.

Q: So these were all found in the same tomb or…

LL: No. Not in the same tomb but from the same area.


National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) excavation site

Q: So this is a bean pot? Or is it some sort of a drinking or pouring device?

LL: We don’t know, but not a bean pot.

Here in Mexico all of the archeologists need permits so there is an archeology council authorizing this project. But once you have the authorization you need the funds. Our funds aren’t much—we’re talking about less than 100,000 pesos. For a two month season that’s ok and I already have the permit so if I get the funds in February or March then can work for the two months after that.

I want to do it right before the rainy season and the rainy season starts in July. But the authorities don’t care about the rainy season so we keep struggling, but I have faith that by February or March we can start digging. My objective is to look at the ovens and see how we can do an extensive excavation because we know there is one level of burials that is the Capatcha we also want to expose as many burials as possible. That’s the only way we’ll be able to determine associations and see burial patterns.  We’re not claiming distillation took place cause we cannot claim that. We are saying that the technology was there and the elements were there so it could have taken place.”