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Many people who start out enjoying a margarita graduate to appreciating fine tequila on its own. But for others, the cocktail is the supreme enjoyment. The margarita has a history long and twisted enough to make it part legend, part myth, an impossible-to-resolve tale that only enhances the drink's popularity.
Updated May, 2011
Controls, regulatory bodies and agencies
The Mexican government has strict regulations about how and where tequila is made and labelled - as strict as the French have about producing and labelling cognac, perhaps more so. This is one reason why there is no worm in tequila - such additives are not allowed by law. As noted by the American Chemical Society,
"Tequila is one of the best regulated spirits in the world with strict Mexican standards and labeling regulations," says study leader Dirk Lachenmeier, Ph.D., a chemist with Chemisches und Veterinäruntersuchungsamt Karlsruhe (Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe) in Germany. Thanks to advancements in chemistry, the quality of this ancient Mexican beverage can now be protected.
The rules are not merely legal: they maintain the purity of the icon of Mexican culture as well.
There are two types of standards in Mexico: Mexican Standards (NMX) and Official Mexican Standards (NOMs). These both establish rules, specifications, attributes, testing methods, characteristics or instructions applicable to a product, process, activity, service, or method of production or operation, as well as those relating to symbols, terminology, packaging and labeling. The difference between these two types of standards, is that NMX standards are voluntary, while compliance with NOM standards is compulsory. NOM are required in an appellation of origin.
The Lisbon Convention in 1958 was the birth of the World
Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The agreement that
resulted created a protected
designation of origin status (PDO) for agricultural products and
foodstuffs. Mexico signed the Lisbon Agreement in 1966.
The Declaration of Protection of the Appellation of Origin Tequila was published in the Official Federal Journal (Diario Oficial de la Federación) on December 9, 1974.
Tequila has had an international "denomination of origin" classification, established in 1977. A denomination of origin is described as "The name of a geographical location or area of the country (Mexico) which defines a product as originally form that area when quality and characteristics are due exclusively to the geographical region (including natural and human elements) , is the definition of "Denomination of Origin". The denominations of Origin are owned by the Mexican government (the country) and their use can be applied for and received when the applicant is engaged in extraction, production, or manufacturing of products connected to a given geographical location." (see Mexicolaw.com).
Denomination of origin also confers intellectual property protection on tequila. It is the same as the French "appellation controllee" (often used interchangeably) and the Italian "Denominazione."
The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT)
The non-profit Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulado de Tequila, or CRT maintains these rules and can take legal action against violators. The CRT is accredited as a Verification Unit and as a Certification Organization by the General Bureau of Standards (DGN) of the Secretary of the Economy.
The Tequila Regulatory Council was founded in 1994, under the initiative of the Chamber of Tequila Makers (see below). It is a private, non-profit organization. It has been accredited by the Mexican Government to oversee and certify that the production, bottling and labeling of tequila is done according to the Official Mexican Standard of Tequila (NOM, see below).
The CRT works with not only
the tequila producers, but also agave growers, bottlers, marketers,
and representatives of the Mexican Government. Since 1999, the
CRT has certified producers under the ISO 9002 standards. In
1999, the CRT also received two other certifications: AENOR (Spanish
Standards Association) with recognition in the "IQ net" (more than
25 member countries), and ANCE (Mexican Association of
Standardization and Certification).
The CRT is essentially the same organization originally founded in 1933 under a different name, but which dissolved during the war years.
The organization is based in Guadalajara, Mexico. In March 2001, the CRT opened an office in Washington, D.C. to serve both the U.S. and Canada.
On the previous (Vicente Fox) Mexican president's website, a press report said,
"Tequila is Mexico’s most representative drink, in addition to being the world’s leading denomination of origin drink, whose raw materials take seven years to produce. Tequila has recently suffered a “drop in credibility” due to the adulteration of some of its presentations, yet it is still one of Mexico’s signature products."
As a result of these and other concerns, the
NORMA which governs tequila has been amended several times since it was first written in 1974, most recently in 2006 (full text on the laws page).
As of March 7, 2006, all tequila factories must have their own laboratories to test the sugar levels of the agave, test the wort, and the tequila, and report on that data to the CRT.
In May, 1997 Mexico and the E.U. signed a bilateral trade agreement in which Europe recognized Tequila and Mezcal as "denominations of origin." In return, Mexico granted exclusive recognition to 175 European spirits, including Champagne, Cognac, Grappa and Scotch. However, despite signing, the E.U. has been lax in enforcing the agreement.
The CRT has estimated that at least 30 brands of pseudo-tequila are being sold throughout Europe, including "Blue Tarantula, "Hot Tequila" and "Silver Gunmen." (see the Trade Environment Database study). None of these knock-offs are real tequila, they may not even be made with blue agave (some may merely be flavoured with agave syrup or an artificial 'tequila' essence), and none are subject to the strict controls in place on Mexican tequilas. Since Tarantula is now imported into the USA (by McCormick), it has become a made-in Mexico mixto, but still bottled in Italy.
While all 100% agave tequilas must be bottled in Mexico, bulk mixtos may still be bottled outside the country. In August, 2004, the Tequila Regulatory Council proposed bottling mixto tequila in Mexico, too, in an effort to guarantee the integrity of the drink, which sometimes has been adulterated with other types of alcohol or additives by foreign bottlers. However, distillers were reluctant to invest in additional bottling equipment, American bottlers fought the loss of business, and distributors complained about the extra costs costs, so the combined resistance quashed the recommendation.
The CRT responded by saying it plans to tighten regulations for exporters and overseas handlers, including requiring non-Mexican tequila bottlers to be certified by Mexican government inspectors (see SignonSanDiego.com).
Mexico takes its tequila seriously and the CRT does not lightly
slough off infractions of the laws. many tequila manufacturers have
been shut down - temporarily and sometimes permanently - for
violating the rules. Porfiodio was one of the most media-visible
incidents of the CRT closing an operation, but there are many
Despite some previous claims by importers of mixto products, the Direccion General de Normas does not provide a "government seal of approval, quality and origin" - only acknowledgement of the licensing of the NOM and adherence to the standards. A NOM listing is not a guarantee of quality, merely an identifier. Distillers are inspected to make sure they comply with regulations and reporting requirements, but the quality of their products is not ascertained.
The list of producers and brands (official NOM lists) is available on the CRT site, and is updated regularly: www.crt.org.mx/eng/marcas.asp. The Spanish list is here: www.crt.org.mx/esp/marcas.asp There is also a list of companies on a separate page (in Spanish at: www.crt.org.mx/esp/fabsoc/casa.aspx). The CRT's Spanish component on their web site is significantly more comprehensive than their English pages on this site (often the English content is missing or out of date).
An interesting sidebar: mezcal producers are forbidden from making tequila, and vice versa.
For further information on the CRT, contact the following
National Tequila Industry Chamber
The other regulatory body responsible for tequila is the National Tequila Industry Chamber (CNIT), or National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, an organization composed of industry members, and based in Guadalajara. Of the CNIT's members, 69 are producers of the State of Jalisco, one of the State of Guanajuato and one in the State of Tamaulipas.
Its purpose is to strengthen and develop the tequila industry, working with other Mexican government agencies to protect agricultural, industrial and commercial activities related to tequila. Previous presidents have included Carlos and Eduardo Orendain.
The CNIT apparently renamed itself in the late 1990s from the Camara Regional de la Industria Tequila (CRIT) to become a national, not just a regional, organization. Its current president is Francisco Quijano.
Teaching and training tequila
The persistence of such fatuous myths as the "tequila worm" couple with the need to train people in the hospitality industry about tequila have combined in the creation of the Tequila Academy, started in September, 2000. This independent organization was created to provide education on tequila, promote tequila as a premium product, organize training for bartenders and servers, and generally help dispel myths like the worm that have obscured tequila's potential growth.
In 2007, an American branch was opened in California, with Phillip Soto Mares, of El Duende Tequila, as its director. Discussions are currently underway about opening a Canadian branch.
2009: World Tequila Conference, Sept. 13-18, Guadalajara. Click for more information.