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Tequila: From Blue Agave to Good Spirits
Américas / January-February 1995

By Larry Luxner

Every weekday morning for much of his adult life, 39-year-old José López Reynoso has awakened before sunrise to begin an eight-hour day of backbreaking labor in the hot, dry agave plantations of rural Jalisco.

During an average shift, López -- one of 50 jimadores or field workers employed by Tequila Sauza S.A. -- rips 50 to 60 mature blue agave plants from the ground, slices off their leaves and loads the remaining hearts, or piñas, onto a truck for eventual processing into agave juice, the chief ingredient of tequila. López, who earns $13 a day for his sweat, is among 200,000 Mexicans dependent upon Jalisco's thriving tequila industry for a living.

So is Guillermo Romo de la Peña, director-general of Tequila Herradura S.A., one of Mexico's most prestigious tequila manufacturers. Last year, Herradura and 33 other companies produced a combined 69.5 million liters of tequila worth over $100 million, according to the Guadalajara-based Regional Chamber of the Tequila Industry.

But Romo says the industry's export potential is threatened by some 4,000 commercial brand names in the United States that don't exist in Mexico. He claims these brands aren't really tequilas, because they don't contain at least 51% blue-agave juice as stipulated by Mexican law. Nevertheless, they use the name "tequila" with impunity, Romo says, further cheapening the image of a beverage that already suffers image problems.

The tequila industry itself is one of Mexico's oldest. Many centuries before the arrival of Spanish colonizers, local Indians were cooking the hearts of the agave, or maguey, a member of the amaryllis family, pressing and extracting the juice, and fermenting it like beer. The oldest mention of the existence of the blue-agave plant dates to Mexico's pre-Hispanic era, in the form of various 12th-century codices -- the most important of which is Tonalmatlnahuatl, also known as Tira de la Peregrinación Azteca. By 1325, the agave plant had become holy, sacred and mythical. Already known as a drink of the gods, pulque, the fermend juice of the agave, was frequently used for religious ceremonies, creating in its Aztec devotees an animated and euphoric state. The multipurpose plant also came in handy for a wide variety of more mundane uses -- food, sugar, soap, fibers, textiles, footwear, sewing needles, even the roofing of houses.

When the Spanish arrived, they conquered not only the region's people but the process of pulque fermentation itself, introducing the distillation process. After the conquistador Nuño de Guzmán defeated the Indian federations in the area, this paved the way for the creation of the region of New Galicia and the founding of Guadalajara 11 years later.

An important figure of the time, Fray Antonio Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, mentioned the agave plant in his 1541 History of the Indians of New Spain. At the beginning of the 1600s, Juan de Villela, the governor of New Galicia, began collecting taxes on mezcal wine, also a fermented agave product. In 1636, the government -- concerned over the detrminetal effects of drinking mezcal on the citizenry, particularly Indians -- decided to authorize the distillation process of mezcal wine, a decision that wasn't ratified by King Carlos II until 1871. In the meantime, the town of Tequila itself had become a municipality; its name, signifying volcano or hill of lava, is believed to be a contraction of two local words, tel-cerro and quilla-lava.

In 1785, the viceroy Don Matias de Gálvez outlawed 85 types of alcoholic beverages, including five brands of mezcal, but the ban lasted only 10 years. After that, the industry really took off. Numerous tequila distillers sprang up throughout the region, and the product began acquiring a measure of prestige. In 1863, French traveler Ernest de Vigneaux wrote that maguey was the most precious gift that nature had bestowed on Mexico after corn and plantains, and that Tequila had given its name to the mezcal spirit the same way that Cognac has given its name to the spirits of France.

And, like Cognac, Scotch or Bourbon, tequila could only be produced in the region of its birth, Jalisco. By the end of the 19th century, the manufacture of tequila had become one of that region's principal industries. According to a guidebook published in 1899, the state had 39 registered tequila factories, 18 of which were located in Tequila and its environs, and 21 elsewhere in Jalisco.

Today, Tequila is a relatively small town of about 17,000 inhabitants, nestled in the hills 35 miles west of Guadalajara. According to Romo, "You can plant the blue agave in Tabasco and it will grow, but the flavor of the final product won't be the same."

To protect that uniqueness, the Mexican government in 1994 established a nine-member Consejo Regulador de Tequila. Led by director-general Ramón González Figueroa, the council has already begun inspecting tequila manufacturers at random, checking the content of tequila brands at distilleries and reporting violators to the government.

"Mexico is trying to be recognized not only by the United States but by the rest of the world as the sole producer of tequila," says Romo, a 47-year-old lawyer who has been running the family business for nearly 20 years. "But there's no real control of the percentage of agave and the percentage of sugar-cane juice. Our company is the only one that can consistenly produce tequila from 100% blue agave."

Other producers, of course, dispute that claim. Throughout the hot, dusty town that lent its name to the famous drink, no less than 30 tequila distillers can be found -- nearly all of them advertising "100% blue-agave tequila." Yet for years, the two biggest players have been Grupo Tequila Cuervo and Tequila Sauza, which together account for more than half of Mexico's production. While Cuervo and Sauza, owned by Pedro Domecq Mexico, roughly share the local market, Cuervo -- partly owned by International Distillers & Vintners Ltd. of Great Britain -- boasts a 42% share of the export market.

"We exported 22.5 to 23 million liters in 1994, mainly to California, Texas and Florida, where there are large Mexican-American populations," says Cuervo spokesman Fernando González, adding that he, too, is concerned with falsified tequila being sold in the United States.

"They're trying to enforce the law, but it's going to take awhile," he says. "There have been some very strong moves to get companies to use blue agave and not other ingredients."

Adds Ricardo Tellez, director-general of Grupo Cuervo: "One of the main points of this council is to make sure everybody complies with the law." Real tequila, he says, has a government-issued denomination origin number on the label, but several brands can be found on both U.S. and Mexican supermarket shelves without the number. "The consumer doesn't know these are fakes," Tellez warns. "That is our main concern."

The council is particularly targeting Mexican companies that ship bulk agave juice over the border, where U.S. companies mix it with cheaper grain alcohol and other spirits, and slap a "tequila" label on the bottle. Worse offenders can be found in Spain, where spirits made from sugar-beet liquor are being marketed as tequilas. In fact, of Mexico's 14 bulk exporters of tequila, only two of them -- Cuervo and Sauza -- export to their own bottlers who label the product with their own brands.

"This commission was foremd in order to guard the rules of origin and protect the name tequila, which is the property of the Mexican government," says Figueroa. The agency, which has 35 employees, an $800,000 budget and its own fleet of vehicles, has already begun issuing texport certificates, and will soon complete an exhaustive survey of the tequila industry.

Sauza's González says tequila has become one of the fastest-growing categories of liquor in Mexico, outstripping both rum and brandy. Its growth, however, has been curtailed by Mexico's recent peso devaluation -- known, incidentally, as the "tequila effect" -- which has caused prices to jump anywhere from 50 to 70%. That has put higher-priced tequilas out of the reach of all but the wealthiest Mexicans. However, exports are booming; in 1994 alone, Cuervo shipped about 6 million gallons of tequila abroad, up from 5 million in 1993. For the industry as a whole, the biggest export market for bulk and bottled Mexican tequila is the United States (40.3 million liters in 1993), followed by Germany (2.1 million), Belgium (1.3 million), France (755,000) and Canada (735,000).

Producing all that tequila requires some 100,000 acres of agave plantations. Sauza alone has 18 million agave plants, according to company spokesman Luis Arturo Velázquez. An individual plant takes eight to ten years to mature and can weigh over 200 pounds.

At Sauza's Rancho de Indio plantation, a display shows the nine traditional tools -- a collection of special shovels and metal instruments -- essential in harvesting the agave plant, among them the triángulo y cuerno, the talache, the machete barbio and the coa de jima.

"We don't use the leaves really for anything. The leaves decompose into organic material," Velázquez explains. "We use only the piña for making tequila, since this part has the highest concentration of carbohydrates."

From Rancho de Indio, the piñas are trucked to the Sauza factory in downtown Tequila and dumped into a processing machine for extraction. Out the other end shoots hundreds of gallons per minute of brownish-colored pure agave juice. From there, the juice is pumped to 11 alambiques, or distillation tanks, and later left to age in one of 24 huge wooden pipones,or storage tanks. Eventually, the tequila finds its way to the bottling line, which has a capacity of 85 bottles a minute, or 3,800 cases a day.

A few miles down the road in Amatitlán, nestled among fruit trees and flower gardens, is the Herradura plant, where workers in large, brightly lit surroundings package and inspect liquor bottles for local consumption and export. Herradura employs 600 people, of which 450 work in the fields. "The plantations belong to the company, but not the land," Romo says. "We plant agave on the owner's land and give him a share of the crop."

This year, Herradura expects to produce around 300,000 cases of tequila. At $115 per case, this comes to $34.5 million. About 90% of that tequila will stay at home, to be consumed in upscale Mexican bars and restaurants. Of the 10% that is exported, most will go to the United States, and the remainder to Japan, France, Italy, Canada and Latin America.

Romo says domestic consumption of Tequila Herradura jumped 25% in 1993, and exports nearly 200%. Yet the boom can't be attributed to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), since there are no U.S. or Canadian tequila producers who would have been affected by reduced tariffs. Rather, he says, people are drinking better and more expensive spirits, and "producers are beginning to understand that genuine products are grabbing more market share than blended ones."

Cuervo's González puts it another way: "The quality of tequila has been upgraded. Tequila used to be a poor man's drink, but over the last 10 years, its image has improved, and now it's for rich guys too."

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