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The "Trouble" with Tequila?
Dispelling the Myths with a Review of Forty-Six Recommended Tequilas

Posted: October 2004

By Jerald O'Kennard, jerald@tastings.com

It never ceases to amaze me when people tell me that they are scared of tequila. "The trouble with tequila" they say, "is that it’s too strong", "too rough", and "gives me a headache", despite the fact that the margarita, not the martini and its various permutations, is still the most popular cocktail in the United States, when people want to get "rough & rowdy", out come the tequila shots, hoots and hollers.

Tequila is double-distilled to remove most impurities and is an 80-proof spirit just like most Scotches, cognacs, and vodkas so, why does the all-too-common association of tequila and roughness exist? This is a question that plagues tequila producers, marketers, and devotees on both sides of the border. Especially in Mexico, where consumers take great pride in the quality of their tequilas and seek out and covet the best tasting brands, especially the 100% blue agave brands. Tequila producers are also constantly trying to improve the quality of their brands. I saw clear evidence of these facts last year when I was a guest panelist at the prestigious Tequila Academy tastings in Guadalajara. Producers and consumers were seriously engaged in finding out what the best products were and more importantly why (what kind of oak barrels, distillation methods, etc.) they were the best. Why does all of the quality, pride, skill, and tradition south of the border somehow get mistranslated or misunderstood across the Rio Grande?

Certainly part of the situation is historical. For many years most of the tequila brought into the US was the mixto variety which was made in Mexico but bottled here in the US and blended down to 51% of the original blue agave spirit. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that 100% blue agave tequilas became a serious presence in the US market and started to be appreciated the way they are in Mexico. Some of the old mixto brands were probably not the smoothest or best tasting, but this may not the complete answer.

A more sinister explanation of tequila’s image problem may be that despite one of the best regulated systems of spirits production in the world (complete measurement, monitoring, and control from agave plant to loaded shipping container), the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) is still dealing with the problem of fraudulent or adulterated tequila crossing the border. These cheap, illegitimate products taste terrible and serve to perpetuate the myth that tequila is harsh and unrefined. I recently met with a representative from the CRT who was on a fact-finding mission in US, and the number of unauthorized, unregulated brands in different markets amazed me.

So, how can you tell a real tequila from fake one? Look for the NOM number on the bottle. This will be somewhere on the front or back label and it is the unique, government regulated distillery number. The NOM numbers range from 156-1495 with most of them in the 1400’¥¥s. There are over six hundred brands made by one-hundred-and-six licensed Mexican distilleries. Obviously, some distilleries make several brands and sometimes the recipes are different for these different brands, but sometimes not (even though they may have very different prices!) You can have a lot of fun figuring out who makes what international brands by downloading the NOM numbers and distillery lists from the CRT at http://old.crt.org.mx/docs/MARCAS%20ENVASADAS%20EN%20EL%20EXTRANJERO%2002%20JULIO.xls We sure do!

But remember, the NOM number just identifies that the tequila in the bottle is authentic, it doesn’t tell you anything about the taste or quality differences between the regulated brands. For that information, I suggest that you look to our recent tequila review of forty-six añejo, reposado, blanco, and gold (mixto) brands. You’ll find a great assortment of smooth and great tasting tequilas that you won’t have any trouble enjoying. Now about that worm...

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