MEXICO CITY - Mexican tequila makers say they are battling a surge of knockoffs as distillers worldwide try to profit off the drink's growing popularity.
The imitators range from sugarcane moonshine made in Mexican garages to quality spirits made from agave plants in South Africa, Mexico's Tequila Regulatory Council says. It says it is mobilizing lawyers to defend tequila's good name.
"In the last six years, we have begun detecting more cases," said Floriberto Miguel Cruz, chief of the council's quality-control department. "This endangers the consumer, the product and the image of the country."
Although most consumers might not know, or care, if they're getting an impostor, Mexican producers are concerned that the drink's image could eventually be damaged by subpar products. Tequila was once the drink of Mexican peasants, and tequila makers spent decades and millions of dollars in advertising to get it into fine restaurants and trendy discotheques.
Though sales have not fallen, tequila makers are afraid they might, Miguel Cruz said.
"The sale of these counterfeits causes doubt in the consumer," he said. "If you drink a phony product and it makes you decide never to buy a tequila ever again, then the popularity that tequila has achieved could decline."
Tequila is made from the blue agave, a desert plant with long, sharp spines. It is named after the town of Tequila in the western Mexican state of Jalisco.
Mexico and 26 other countries, mostly in Europe, have signed a treaty that protects the name tequila. Under that pact, known as the Lisbon Agreement, only blue-agave liquor from 181 towns in Mexico can carry the name. The liquor must contain 51 percent agave.
The same treaty says that only wines from France's Champagne region can be called Champagne and only wines from Spain's La Rioja region can be called Rioja.
The United States has not signed the treaty but protects the tequila name under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. In return, Mexico recognizes Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as American spirits.
In the past decade, the popularity of tequila has soared, thanks in part to heavy advertising by the José Cuervo brand in the United States. Exports nearly doubled from 1995 to 2005, from 16.7 million gallons to 32.1 million gallons, with three-quarters going to the United States.
"It's a drink that became famous and attractive for being wild and exotic," said Jorge Larsson, a tequila industry consultant in Mexico City.
The Mexican government now recognizes 735 brands from 118 companies. But the drink's success has attracted copycats.
"Whenever there is a popular drink, the entire world tries to imitate or copy it," said Juan Casados Arregoitia, president of Mexico's National Chamber of the Tequila Industry.
Some of the fake tequila is actual blue-agave liquor but made in other parts of Mexico or outside the country. Some is made from other types of agave, such as the spiny or sword agave.
Other counterfeits are made from canesugar and only flavored with agave.
In September, the Mexican Justice Department seized more than 23,000 gallons of fake tequila in Jalisco state alone. The Mexican Consumer Protection department has banned 41 brands of counterfeit tequila.
Offenders include Salvaje ("Savage") and El Valiente ("The Brave One"), which the Tequila Regulatory Council ruled to be types of rum.
Others, like El Trailero ("The Trucker"), were mainly spiny-agave liquor, also known as mezcal. One brand of "tequila," Monte Alban, even included a worm in the bottle, something that only mezcal bottlers do.
Real tequila has a plantlike smell and a creamy feeling when rubbed between the fingers, Miguel Cruz said. Mezcal has a smoky smell, and sugar-based alcohol burns but lacks flavor, he said.
Tracking down fakes
Tequila makers said they also are spotting knockoff liquors in other countries.
Complaints from the Mexican government forced a South African company, Agave Distillers Limited, to stop using the tequila name for the Agava liquor it began producing in 2002. The company acknowledges Agava is a tequila look-alike.
"The final product is virtually indistinguishable and in some ways superior to its Mexican counterpart," the company's Web site boasts.
The council said it has found fake tequilas across South America, Europe, Australia and the United States. In Britain, one company even put the tequila name on bottles of paint thinner, the council said.
To fight counterfeiters, the tequila council has hired detectives to comb bars and grocery shelves worldwide, he said. When they find knockoff tequila, the council contacts Mexican embassies, foreign governments and law firms to put pressure on the producers.
"We're seeing what is being sold in a bar in London or a supermarket in Los Angeles," Casados said.
In Mexico, the council has begun certifying bars and restaurants with the "T Seal," a plaque saying that they serve only real tequila. About 50 businesses have gotten the seal.
"We want to help make tequila a quality product and an example of what Mexicans can do," Miguel Cruz said.
Source: Sergio Solache
Republic Mexico City Bureau
The Arizona Republic reporter Chris Hawley contributed to this article.