Tequila success breeds fakery

You know tequila has reached unprecedented heights of popularity when the oversight bureau of the industry issues warning about fake tequilas.

"In the last six years, we have begun detecting more cases," Floriberto Miguel Cruz, head of the Tequila Regulatory Council's quality control department, told the Arizona Republic newspaper's Mexico City bureau. "This endangers the consumer, the product and the image of the country."

He said the imitators range from sugarcane moonshine made in Mexican garages to quality spirits made from agave plants in South Africa.

Mexico and 26 other countries, mostly in Europe, have a treaty known as the Lisbon Agreement that says only blue agave liquor from 181 towns in Mexico -- mostly in the Tequila area of Jalisco state -- can carry the name. The liquor must contain at least 51% agave, although the better tequila distillers insist on 100% blue agave, the spiky plant hand-harvested as seen above. (Full disclosure note: That's me working in an agave field owned by the Orendain Distillery in Tequila.)

Mexico recognizes 735 brands of tequila from 118 different companies.

While the U.S. is not part of the treaty, it protects the name "tequila" under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Likewise, Mexico recognizes Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as American spirits.

Among the brands of fake tequila are Salvaje ("Savage"), El Valiente ("The Brave One"), El Trailero ("The Trucker") and Monte Alban.

Just as true champagne can only be made in Champagne, France, true tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and a few adjacent areas of Mexico and must meet stringent government regulations. It is made in two general categories:

Tequila 100% Agave -- Must be made only with the juice of the blue agave plant and must be bottled at the distillery in Mexico. It may be Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo.

Tequila -- Must be made with at least 51% blue agave juices. It may be exported in bulk to be bottled in other countries following the NOM standard. It may be Blanco, Gold, Reposado, or Añejo.

NOM, the official Mexican product safety requirements, defines four types of tequila:

Blanco, or Silver -- The traditional tequila. Clear, transparent, fresh from the still. Must be bottled immediately after distillation process. Traditionally served in a two-ounce glass called a "caballito."

Oro, or Gold -- Modified by adding colorings and flavorings, caramel the most common. Widely preferred for frozen Margaritas.

Reposado, or Rested -- Kept in white oak casks or vats called "pipones" for two to 11 months. Much mellower than blanco or oro, pale in color, gentle bouquet.

Añejo, or Aged -- Matured in white oak casks for a year or more. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 159 gallons. Amber color, oak notes.

Reserva -- Not technically a category, but recognized as an Añejo aged in oak up to eight years.

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