Food + Drinks

Cracking the Tequila Code: The Easy Way to ID the Distillery (and See If They Make Quality Stuff)

Does that fancy tequila taste strangely similar to that cheap one? Check the NOM number and never get cheated again.

At a big spirits tasting event recently, I noticed several new tequila brands were marketed as organic, and for the sake of journalism I tried them all. They were delicious—yet oddly similar in flavor.

So I took a quick look at each tequila bottle's label, and thanks to this magic thing called the NOM number on every bottle of 100% agave tequila, I learned that all of the tequilas were made in the very same distillery. Busted.

The lesson? When shopping for Cinco de Mayo, you can use this number to your advantage. There are tons of so-called luxury tequila bottles on the market that are actually made from the same (or similar) tequilas as other brands; they're just poured into fancier bottles and the price is jacked up. (Vodka brands do this too but they're harder to track.) By using the NOM number you can find out what else is produced at the distillery and either try a different brand that's not made there (if you're unimpressed) or seek out other tequilas—perhaps even less expensive ones—made at the same location (if you liked what you tried).

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Here's the (oversimplified) way it works: The NOM number is legally required to be on every bottle of 100% agave tequila. If you don't see one on the label, you can be sure you're not drinking anything especially good. The number corresponds to the producer of the tequila and the most producers operate just one distillery. So two tequilas with the same NOM number were almost always made at the same distillery.

This doesn't imply that every tequila from a particular distillery is the same, but very often there will be similarities. A distillery may use a different selection of agave plants and process and distill them in different ways. Larger distilleries have a range of high- and low-tech equipment and use different tools for different brands. Huge brands like Cuervo, Sauza, and Herradura all have high-end lines like Cuervo's Reserva de la Familia, as well as lower-end products like Cuervo Gold. Though the tequilas are of vastly different qualities, experts can easily taste a tequila and name the distillery where it was made, as they typically share some flavor notes in common.

The Internet has made these investigations easy: You can download the official spreadsheet of all tequila producers , look it up on Tequila.net, or use the excellent and up-to-date Tequila Matchmaker app.

This is particularly useful for new, start-up brands that show up out of nowhere. For example, Casamigos, the new brand from George Clooney and Rande Gerber, carries NOM 1416—which is the same number as Avion, the tequila made famous by its plot line on Entourage . Plug that into the Internet, and you'll see there are roughly three dozen other brands from the same producer.

I highly doubt that they're made in the same way or are the same tequila in different bottles, but comparing different tequilas from the same NOM is actually great theme for Cinco De Mayo party that takes its drinking seriously.

—Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer and the publisher of alcademics.com.

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Photographs courtesy of Taste Tequila.
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