Tequila's Little Secret: With 1,000 Brands, It Might All Just Be The Same Stuff

Tequila is no longer the infamous frat house party fuel, best chased down with fruit juice or cheap beer. It has gone upscale, as a flood of high-end 100-percent agave craft tequila surges north of the border. Tequila bars — often with hundreds of brands to choose from on the menu — have popped up in cities across the United States, and new tequilas are appearing faster than even the most practiced connoisseurs can keep up with them all.

Seventy brands were launched in 2011 alone, and consumption has doubled, then doubled twice more, since 1995.

But the rapid flood of new tequilas onto the market has spurred some suspicion among buyers, retailers and connoisseurs in the American tequila trade: For with roughly 140 distilleries in Jalisco now making more than 1,000 tequila brands, it seems possible — even probable — that many tequilas are identical products, and only sporting different labels.

"The same distillery will produce numerous tequilas, and it's possible they might all be more or less the same," said a source in the tequila trade who asked not to be named in this story. "The problem is there's no way to ever prove it," adds Grover Sanschagrin, co-founder of the Tequila Matchmaker mobile app for iPhone and Android.

The trendiness of owning a tequila label — celebrities like George Clooney, Justin Timberlake and Sammy Hagar are now releasing their own customized brands — has helped spur the multiplicity of new labels. Many of these labels inevitably come from the same distillery. And, perhaps, from the same batch of tequila.

Jose Valdez Reynoso, master distiller of Tequila Partida — a small craft brand — says that tequila producers are allowed to add "trace amounts" of flavor additives to their products without disclosing such additions on the label. This method, Reynoso says, is employed mostly by larger companies and may be used to create distinct differences between two brands that rely on the same tequila supplier.

In San Francisco, the tequila bar Mosto carries 300-agave based spirits, including a selection of mezcals. Beverage director Mike Barrow says that so many new tequila brands are hitting the market so rapidly that he can't even keep track of them all. "I'm not 100-percent sure, but it's very possible some of these are the same tequilas," he says.

But Sanschagrin, Reynoso and Barrow all agree that any one distillery can make multiple, legitimately different tequilas. The agave may be grown in a different location, or fermented with a unique yeast strain.

So how do you know what distillery makes your favorite tequila? It's as easy as looking at the back label. You will see a four-digit number, called a "NOM," that is, essentially, the identification code of a distillery. An online tequila database lists all the brands and their respective NOMs. If you plan to host a tequila tasting party, you might select several brands each bearing their own NOM.

Or, go the opposite way and taste several from the same distillery. Remember that if two taste exactly the same, and look exactly the same, they might be the same. There's just no way to prove they are.

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