efe-epaShanghai, China

After a long and arduous campaign, Mexico's signature drink tequila is slowly making its mark in China, a market that was completely dominated by the national drink baijiu until recently.

But today, tequila is also one among the most popular and sought after alcoholic drinks in China.

"It has been a long process. You cannot compare China to another country as here you don't just send a product and forget about it, you have to keep investing time. I feel that the years of hard work by people who tried to enter the market and make a space for their product, are finally bearing fruit," Alba Aviles, the China representative of the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) told EFE.

The numbers bear witness to this claim: last year 951,293 liters of tequila was exported to China, a figure which does not place the country among the biggest importers of tequila but amounts to a 40 percent growth year on year.

The data also shows that China is one of the countries where the Mexican drink has a huge potential for growth, according to Avila, who has been working for 10 years in Shanghai, where one of the four global offices of CRT is situated.

The organization, jointly formed by all the stakeholders of the sector - from farmers to distributors and even the Mexican government - aims to promote the "designation of origin" classification (recognized in China since 2014), and ensure that the tequila products being sold in the country are certified.

In recent years - especially since China lowered permissible methanol limits in 2013 and it became possible to export tequilas made from 100 percent agave - it has been a difficult task to market the drink from scratch, which has been attempted through free tastings and courses in restaurants, among other activities.

These campaigns have been launched by CRT as well as importers, who were interested in entering one of the world's most sought-after markets.

"It might not match what people had expected when the market opened in 2013 (...) but tequila consumers in China are growing very fast compared to other white spirits," Derrick Moomaw, leading tequila brand Jose Cuervo's business development director for the importer Dxcel.

The last six years, however, have not been easy even for the best-selling Mexican brand, run by the most renowned tequila maker worldwide.

"We have worked very hard to build the brand in the Chinese market from scratch," Moomaw said, referring to an intense marketing campaign in which they tried to distinguish tequila shots from other drinks.

"We want people to associate it with something special, with salt and lemon," he said, adding that the brand has managed to triple sales during these six years thanks to the growing demand of the drink in Chinese nightlife, and now holds a 60 percent market share in China.

Sales have also grown for distributors of other types of tequila such as the sipping variety, the one which accompanies food and other familiar brands, according to David Munoz Oliveros, an importer for the brand Vitaespirits.

"Six years ago they knew tequila, but only the mixed and cheap varieties, nobody cared about quality tequila; but gradually Mexican food has become popular and we have grown at par with it," Munoz told EFE.

He added that this growth should be seen in the context of the Chinese people traveling abroad more frequently and getting acquainted with new products, creating a demand back home.

Apart from the support provided by CRT, in recent years importers had received a lot of help from Promexico, the foreign trade agency recently shut down by the Mexican government.

"We had that connection and support, but it will be very difficult this year," Munoz said.

In the opinion of Daniel G Taytslin, importer for the firm Gotham East, the future growth of tequila depends largely on how committed the Mexican government is about promoting it.

He told EFE that tequila might not become a major drink in China but a global tequila wave is set to reach the country and a lot of time and support would be needed to promote and sustain it.

By Paula Escalada Medrano