Spirits & Liqueurs Tequila & Mezcal

The Philippine Influence in Mexican Mezcal Distilling

How 500 years and a 12,000 mile-trade route shaped modern mezcal.

Man pouring mezcal next to a Filipino-style still

Pedro Jimenez

Earlier this year, Tito Pin-Perez placed seven bottles of Mexican spirits on a bar—a line-up that showcased the country’s distillate diversity, including raicilla, pox, sotol, bacanora, artisanal Oaxacan mezcal, tequila, and tuxca. He poured a small glass of the tuxca first, then slid it across the bar. “Tuxca,” he said, “is actually the grandfather of all of these spirits.” 

A New York bartender by trade, Pin-Perez moved to Mexico City during the pandemic and now oversees the bar programs at Fónico and Rayo, where his spirits selection and cocktail lists reflect his ongoing education and experience with Mexican distillates. Those include widely popular spirits like tequila and mezcal, but also an array of other agave-based distillates like bacanora, raicilla, and agave-adjacent sotol. But it’s tuxca that unlocked mezcal’s history for him. 

“It helped me understand how it all connects,” says Pin-Perez.

Insecto Tuxca, the bottle he shared, lists some clues to that history on its label: Molienda a mano (milled by hand), fermentación en pozo de piedra volcánica (fermented in a volcanic stone pit), destilado de agave del sur de Jalisco (agave distillate from southern Jalisco), and destilador Filipino (Filipino still).

It’s the last of these descriptors that offers a deeper insight into the history of Mexican distilling. It’s a story that connects nearly five centuries of distilling in Mexico with a Pacific trade route that traversed 8,500 miles of ocean, and the Filipino sailors who brought unique stills and production techniques to the Central American region. It’s a story that stands in contrast to colonialism—a testament to ancient practices, Indigenous ingenuity, and mutual resistance.

Spout pouring mezcal distillate into clay container
Spout pouring mezcal distillate into clay container.

Pedro Jimenez

The Trans-Pacific Origins of Mexican Distilling

Native Mexicans cultivated agave for centuries before Spaniards showed up on their shores in 1519. They cooked and fermented piñas for sustenance. They drank mildly alcoholic pulque, made from fermenting the plants’ sap. But they did not distill its nectar into mezcal (or at least there is no definitive proof of pre-Columbian distillation, but more on that later). There’s nearly conclusive evidence, though, that Spaniards themselves did not introduce distillation to Mexico. Rather, they tried to squelch it. 

In 1565, a little more than four decades after the Aztec Empire fell to Hernán Cortés and his troops, the Spanish conquered the Philippines. The same year, Spain established the 12,000-mile Manila Galleon trade route across the Pacific Ocean, connecting Manila and Acapulco. For 250 years, ships transported spices, silk, porcelain, and other cargo from Asia before returning from Mexico bearing New World silver. 

“[Upon arrival,] sometimes whole crews would abandon ship and desert and then mix into the local population. It’s a testament to the cruelty of Spanish colonialism.”
—Rudy Guevarra Jr., associate professor of Asian Pacific American Studies, Arizona State University.

By the early 1600s, skilled Filipino sailors made up the majority of these galleon crews of 100 to 350-plus men. Some were slaves and others underpaid navigators, and all endured tremendous hardship onboard. Crews suffered from scurvy, starvation, and dehydration. Adequate clothing was not provided, and making it to Mexico alive was not a given. In 1620 alone, two galleon crews lost 99 and 105 men, respectively, their bodies tossed overboard.  

“[Upon arrival,] sometimes whole crews would abandon ship and desert and then mix into the local population,” says Rudy Guevarra Jr., an associate professor of Asian Pacific American Studies at Arizona State University. “It’s a testament to the cruelty of Spanish colonialism.”

Scholars estimate that 75,000 Filipinos settled in western Mexico during the Galleon era. According to Guevarra’s research, they married into Mexican families and blended into a community of similarly dark-skinned, mixed-race people who had Spanish surnames and practiced Catholicism. In turn, a great cultural exchange took shape, one that’s visible still in places like Acapulco and Colima.

Among other foodstuffs, Filipinos introduced tamarind, rice, mango de Manila, and coconuts to Mexico. Coconuts, brought over in 1569, would be the most consequential of them all. 

Jimador in agave fields, sheering leaves off plants
Jimador in the agave fields.

Pedro Jimenez

Mexico’s First Distillate

Filipinos had a similar relationship with the coconut palm as Mexicans did with their native agave. Filipinos used the fronds for clothing, shelter, and tools. They ate coconut meat and milk, drank the water, and used various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. 

Filipinos fermented palm sap into the low-alcohol beverage tuba, similar to Mexican pulque, which you can still buy on the streets of Colima. In the morning hours, freshly made tuba is sweet and often enjoyed plain; by the afternoon tuba has a more prominent fermented tang and gets topped with peanuts, syrup, and fruit. Filipinos also transformed tuba into vinegar. To make tatemado, essentially a spicy Mexican adobo, cooks in Colima braise pork, chiles, and aromatics in coconut vinegar. 

Filipino sailors also brought with them the technology to distill tuba into lambanog, known in Mexico as vino de coco. Newly arrived Filipinos established coconut palm farms, and vino de coco soon became the most important business in Colima. By 1631, the town produced 262,000 liters of the stuff, and as mining activity picked up in northern Mexico, vino de coco helped to fuel its workers’ labor. 

It’s from this colonial soup of circumstances that mezcal, as we know it today, is thought to have emerged. “All the identified evidence suggests that agave distillation originated through adaptation of the coconut distillation process in Colima,” write Zizumbo-Villarreal and Patricia Colunga-GarcíaMarín in a 2008 landmark study.

Compared with the Arabic-style alembic stills used by Spaniards, the Filipino still is a rustic apparatus. There’s a hollow tree trunk—in Mexico, most often from the parota tree—that’s appended on either side with a copper bowl. Vino de coco distillers added tuba to the bottom bowl and heated it over a fire. The liquid turned to vapor, rose in the still, and hit the copper bowl on top, through which cold water circulated. The vapors condensed and fell in droplets onto a wooden gutter and through a spout into a clay vessel. Distillers repeated the process several times to achieve the ideal proof and composition. 

Zizumbo-Villarreal and Colunga-GarcíaMarín’s study, as well as that of Paulina Machuca in 2018’s El Vino de Cocos en la Nueva España, stack evidence that Filipinos shared this technology with their new Indigenous and mixed-race neighbors and families. If this distillation process worked for tuba, why fermented agave? 

Side by side photos of original Filipino-style still build into a perota tree trunk, and brick oven
Original Filipino-style still build into a perota tree trunk, and brick oven at Balancan distillery.

Ismael Gomez

Modern Mezcal Is Born

Of the 38 tabernas, or distilleries, Zizumbo-Villareal and Colunga-GarcíaMarín documented in southern Jalisco, 24 had coconut palm groves nearby. The research team also found greater agave diversity in southern Jalisco than in Tequila to the north, describing the region near the Colima volcano as “the nucleus of agave genetic diversity.” 

For millennia, Indigenous Mexicans in the area had selected specific agave varieties suited to making pulque. They cooked agave in stone pits, smashed the piñas with mallets, and fermented pulque in wells carved into volcanic rock. Then this centuries-old beverage met the adaptable Filipino-style stills that had landed on nearby shores. 

The first known documented reference to agave distillation comes from a Spanish cleric in 1619, who speaks of “mexcale” as an Indigenous drink produced on the coast and in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Nayarit. Mezcal distillation was traveling north and south through ancient and mining-related trade routes, and, along with vino de coco, becoming an economic threat to imported Spanish brandy.

“The Spanish didn’t intend for the kind of interracial convergences that occurred between Indigenous and mixed-race Filipinos and Mexicans,” says Gueverra. “When this community started selling their own spirits and competing with the Spanish, it had this unforeseen impact on the culture.”

Starting in 1603, colonial powers declared a series of prohibitions on vino de coco and mezcal, and by the 18th century, Colima’s vino de coco industry had effectively vanished. Agave distillation, on the other hand, went clandestine in the foothills of the Colima volcano and continued to spread, according to Zizumbo-Villarreal and Colunga-GarcíaMarín. Underground fermentation in volcanic wells was easily concealed, and the lightweight Filipino stills could be easily disassembled and moved. And agave—sacred, wild, and abundant—had far more cultural import in Mexico than the newly introduced coconut palms.

“There’s a big argument and controversy around the idea of pre-Hispanic distillation, and a lot of debate between academics. But even if agave was being distilled in Mexico, the Filipino system changed the way we distilled.”
—Pedro Jimenez, owner, Mezonte

One essential caveat to note: there’s still an ongoing investigation into whether distillation may have existed in pre-contact Mexico. Although there’s no written record of such, the documentary, Los Mezcales del Occidente de México y la Destilación Prehispánica, demonstrates that distillation was at least possible. Patricia Colunga-GarcíaMarín and peers worked with artisans to recreate 3,500-year-old clay capacha vessels that were found in the foothills of Colima and bear an uncanny resemblance to early Chinese stills. A mezcalero was tasked with making mezcal in various styles of capacha, and, with the clay vessels, the team successfully produced between 1½ to 2½ ounces of agave distillate—a quantity that is thought to have made the drink exclusive to social elite in a strictly ceremonial context. 

“There’s a big argument and controversy around the idea of pre-Hispanic distillation, and a lot of debate between academics,” says Pedro Jimenez, founder of Mezonte, an organization that advocates for agave spirits producers. “But even if agave was being distilled in Mexico, the Filipino system changed the way we distilled.”

Insecto Tuxca being poured into glass on bar top
Insecto Tuxca bearing a label stating its production methods and lineage.

Courtesy Rayo

How Tuxca Fits Into the History

Tuxca, by virtue of geography, is something of a gateway to the history of Mexican distilling. The city of Tuxcacuesco (and the region and river of the same name) sits in southern Jalisco at the base of the Colima volcano, and is considered to almost certainly be the cradle of modern mezcal. At a certain point, says Jimenez, people in the town of Colima started to call the agave spirit made in Tuxcacuesco tuxca. 

But Jimenez also cautions against conflating history with what’s found in bottles today. Not everyone in the region calls their mezcal tuxca, and there’s no definitive signifier of style. 

“I’ve seen lots of publications say tuxca has a particular flavor or has to be made with certain types of agave, but it’s a mistake to focus on tools and materials,” says Jimenez. It has to do with knowledge and the heritage of a place and a certain way to work.”

For his Balancan label, Ismael Gomez works with Ignacio Juarez, a traditional tuxca producer from El Grullo. Juarez’s distillery sits on the side of a mountain and very much resembles its 16th century forebears. He roasts piñas in stone pits, smashes them with mallets, and ferments them in volcanic wells, before using a Filipino still set inside a parota tree trunk. 

“What makes tuxca tuxca? I don’t know. You have to ask the maestro mezcalero.”
—Ismael Gomez, owner, Balancan

In the city of Colima, Gerardo Villegas makes between 100 and 200 liters of tuxca a month for his Zanate label, distributed mostly to restaurants in Mexico. He learned the trade from a mezcalero mentor, uses local agave varieties, and relies on natural fermentation—though he ferments in wooden vats rather than underground. 

Even with its connection to early mezcal, tuxca is not officially categorized as one. Rather, producers must label tuxca as an agave distillate. Villegas would like tuxca to earn a protected denomination of origin, like raicilla or tequila. Mezcal, he says, was born in Colima, and it’s a history worth codifying. 

Gomez sees things differently. Denominations of origin are European and colonial by nature. They’re black and white, and don’t reflect the way Indigenous Mexicans shared information and traditions. 

“What makes tuxca tuxca?” says Gomez. “I don’t know. You have to ask the maestro mezcalero.”

Side-by-side photos of Filipino-style still built in tree trunk, and man pouring mezcal next to a Filipino-style still
Mexican-made mexcal being poured from traditional Filipino-style still.

Left: Mezonte / Right: Pedro Jimenez

Mezcal as Mutual Resistance

The record of mezcal’s history still has holes in it, and its future is currently being shaped by incredible demand and an uncertain era of agave scarcity. 

But we do know that from Colima, agave spirits spread far and wide in Mexico, as did the Filipino still—and Filipinos. “Filipinos fanned out and made their way along el camino de China (the Chinese road) to Oaxaca, Puebla, Michoacán, Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta, Guanajuato, Vera Cruz, and Mexico City,” says Guevarra. “They also settled in Baja and Alta California.”

To a certain extent, Filipinos’ contribution to mezcal faded as Indigenous Mexicans took over the bulk of distillation and Filipinos disseminated into Mexican culture. In El Vino de Cocos el la Nueva España, Machuca notes that as early as 1684, Filipinos disappeared from parish registers in Caxitlán and Chamila, towns in Colima. They hadn’t moved, they were just now considered Mexicans by the parish. Additionally, Machuca writes, “In the first two decades of the 18th century, there were no longer Filipinos working as vintners on the Colima haciendas because their place was taken by native Indians and free mulattoes.”

Further obfuscating history, mezcal’s story was dominated for centuries by tequila, a spirit with a heavy Spanish imprint. Mezcaleros in Tequila used brick ovens rather than stone pits for cooking agave. They adopted animal-drawn tahona, or stone wheels, to crush piñas, and they set up immobile alembic stills for distillation. José Gómez Cuervo, an early producer, also served as the governor of Jalisco. In Tequila, mezcal production was no longer clandestine or persecuted, but rather became part of a powerful colonial narrative.

However, Guevarra still sees the early mezcal production as a powerful link between oppressed people.

“Sharing and exchanging ideas is not just an Indigenous way of doing things, but also a response to the ways in which colonialism imposes and tries to replace,” says Guevarra. “Coming together was its own form of resistance.”