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September 29, 2016

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How Mexico’s liquid treasures came to China

THERE are numerous international spirits competitions but today the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB) Spirits Selection is undoubtedly the gold standard. I’ve judged at countless competitions and none have the scale, organization and exacting standards of CMB. This is also true of their wine competitions.

Over 100 judges from the far corners of the spirits world congregate for three days of intense judging. Among the attendees are master distillers, celebrity bartenders and mixologists and yes even some journalists. The advanced scoring method and metrics used by CMB organizers mean that after each competition even the judges are judged!

Numerous panels comprising six to seven judges taste top spirits from all over the world in carefully organized flights of stylistically and regionally same or similar types. In other words, a panel may taste 15 Cognac XOs, then 12 Chinese baijius, followed by other homogeneously arranged flights. All tastings are blind, meaning judges only know the style of spirit and sometimes whether its been aged or not. The system and diverse collection of expertise among the judges ensures consistent and reputable results. In ascending order of recognition, silver, gold and grand gold medals are awarded.

Last month the event was held in Tequila Mexico and — believe it or not — it was my first trip to beautiful Mexico, a land filled with history, culture, great food and of course lots of Tequila.

Three years ago the then Mexican Consul General in Shanghai invited me to his home to taste his personal collection of premium Tequilas and Mezcals. I was astounded by their elegance, complexity and persistence on the palate. They were at the same level of distinction and finesse as the finest Cognacs and single malt whiskies. Unfortunately at the time these fine liquors couldn’t legally be imported in China.

The relatively high level of naturally occurring methanol in 100 percent agave premium Tequilas exceeded China customs law. But thanks to the magic of diplomacy, and more specifically the February 2013 trip by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mexico, import issues were resolved and premium Tequila can now be enjoyed in China. Another important milestone for Tequila in China happened when the Mexican president visited Beijing for the 2014 APEC Conference and the Tequila Geographic Indicator was officially recognized by China. In other words, China agreed that the spirits named Tequila must come from the region of Tequila and follow the stipulations and rules of the Tequila Regulatory Council. These two significant steps built a solid foundation for the progress of Tequila in China.

Liquors, like fine wines or the best dishes, depend on the finest ingredients. So the first thing one must know about Tequila is that it’s made from mature blue agave plants. The agave is an important part of Mexican history and culture. In pre-Hispanic times, the plant was a staple food source and used to make fermented wines.

There are many Mexican mezcal liquors made from different types of agave plant, but Tequila is by far the most famous and successful. The two major types of Tequila are mixtos that are simply labeled Tequila and must comprise at least 51 percent agave, and 100 percent agave Tequila. Tequila is only made with the pina or heart of the blue agave that is baked, fermented and distilled. By law the product must originate from the state of Jalisco or limited declared neighboring areas. Unlike some other spirits, with Tequila older doesn’t necessarily mean better. Some of my favorite styles of tequilas are unaged Bianco or Joven as the attractive fresh natural and exuberant qualities of the agave plant are most apparent. However, the Reposado, Anejo and Extra Anejo oak-aged Tequilas also have their charm as the maturation process bequeaths a roundness and smooth velvety mouthfeel along with more complex aromas and flavors.

Some of the major Tequila brands available in China are Patron, Jose Cuervo, El Charro, Casa Noble, Camino Real, Don Julio and Olmega Altos. You can find their high-quality 100 percent agave Tequilas in Shanghai’s top bars and dining establishments.

In town there’s also a sales incubator where small Tequila brands are offered. These include Embajador, El Charro, Tequilas de Senor, Fogata, Cofradia, Cofradia, Huizache, Revelacion and Sombrero. These smaller producers offer an exciting opportunity to experience the stylistic diversity of fine Tequilas.

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