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There Are Additives in Most Tequilas, But That's Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

Updated: Oct 5, 2023


It's helpful to know what flavor additives actually are so you can make informed tequila buying decisions, but it all comes down to personal taste.

tequila and additives

Would you like a taste of P. Diddy, The Rock, or Justin Timberlake?” my husband asks me as he calls in from a liquor store. These days, a tequila brand is a major component of the Big Celebrity Starter Pack. In Philadelphia, where we live, celebrity tequilas dominate our state-store shelves and all these tequila options were distilled from 100% blue Weber agave grown in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, as all tequila certified by the CRT (El Consejo Regulador del Tequila, or the Tequila Regulatory Council) must be. The agave plant takes around six years to mature. There are 2,728 registered brands of tequila and 227 distilleries. How do so many brands maintain distinct flavor profiles when they’re coming from the same few distilleries? Well, sometimes they do so with the aid of additives. The CRT permits 1% of that 100% agave spirit to consist of additives without any change to the bottle’s label. Four types of additives are permitted: glycerin, caramel coloring, oak extract, and jarabe or sugar-based syrup. What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal? Across the country, in San Diego, I slide into a booth below a glittering wall of tequilas. Beau du Bois, the bar and spirits creative director of Puesto, pours me a drink. Puesto is one of the largest tequila buyers in California. Du Bois explains how I should be looking to sip additive-free tequilas, a notion that had previously never occurred to me. “This is maddening,” I say, realizing I spent my adult life ignorantly imbibing tequila without any thought to its composition. “Or it’s the next chapter of your tequila experience,” he responds. Du Bois gestures toward the wall of tequilas. “If I shot a pistol at the tequilas that contained additives, 40% would come down. But additives are in compliance. What I really want to do is shoot the heavily dosed tequilas which mislead you from what tequila should taste like.” He pauses. “I respect what’s legal according to the CRT, but we choose to spotlight the additive-free tequilas.” “Why don’t we as consumers expect variance? We expect and celebrate differences in sunlight, rainfall, other attributing factors in wine. What if cabernet tasted the same year after year after year?” du Bois asks. “There’s a finesse to farming this product. And it certainly takes longer than harvesting grapes.” Making Tequila Is a True Labor of Love Dr. Jonathan Deutsch, professor of food and hospitality management at Drexel University, provides some insight, telling me that because spirits are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), not the FDA, requirements for labeling and ingredient declaration are very different for alcoholic beverages than for food. "In a food product, every ingredient in the product is listed on the label in order of percentage from most to least. In alcohol, even though it is strictly regulated, many additives do not need to be disclosed on a label,” he explains. “Since agriculture and fermentation are natural processes, there's a lot of variability in production, from climate, to soil, to the microbes in the air. While that variability makes beverages interesting, it is the enemy of consistency." That, he says, is where additives come in. They offer consistency, and that's perfectly fine. "Additives need not be a bad word. Yes, you can let the yeast in the air naturally ferment a mixture of flour and water and make a delicious baked good. But I don't think using a commercial yeast, vanilla extract, or dough conditioner is ‘cheating’ for a baker if it produces a delicious result.” What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal? Fine, additives are not all bad. But what if I just want to taste the pure distillation of agave? The app Tequila Matchmaker, founded by Scarlet and Grover Sanschagrin, is one comprehensive way to start an additive-free exploration. It’s a self-funded passion project and a tool to track tequilas you enjoy, consult a list of brands confirmed additive-free through a thoroughly invasive procedure involving bringing the Sanschagrins into one’s distillery, opening up all purchasing records, inspecting tequila off the bottling line and in a lab. Users can look up tequilas according to their NOM, the four-digit identifier that tells you what distillery made a tequila and the other tequilas are made at that distillery. The majority of tequila does have additives. "We think it’s 70% by sales volume last year, so there will always be fewer additive free-tequilas,” Scarlet tells me. “And nobody is hitting the 1% limit. The additives are so concentrated that 0.02% is the highest we got on a test.” I ask her how tequila as an agricultural product is different from an industrialized tequila, and she believes it's evident in the end product for a few reasons. Put Down That Shot Glass, Here's the Proper Way to Drink Tequila “Tequila is a very romantic product. You have the culture, the traditions, it takes a ton of time," Scarlet says. "The plant needs to be at least five years old to produce the sugars that convert into alcohol. And right now, the romance of tequila is being used to market both products: on the industrial end, where you’re skipping through a lot of that tradition, speeding things up, and the artisanal end, where romance truly does apply.” Grover chimes in, “Mass production involves the diffuser as an extraction device and a column still as a distillation machine, cranking out tequila as fast and cheaply as possible. They’ll accelerate fermentation by adding intense amounts of yeast accelerants, so fermentation that normally takes three to four days is pushed to one day. Everything happens in fermentation. All the aromas, all the flavors – that is the sacred time in making tequila. You can’t rush that." He explains that the end result is a fairly neutral product that is technically and legally tequila, but then what? That's where the additives come into play. "You need to make it taste like agave again and make it palatable to the consumer.” Summon the vanilla and “cake batter” flavors. What Should You Mix With Tequila? On the artisanal side, Grover notes that the often greater expense comes as a result of the process. “You have things very slowed down. You’re not using these machines; you’re using a tahona wheel, which brings a lot of flavor, aroma, complexity, and texture to the final product. Slow and low is really a thing,” says Grover. The problem, to him, is that the consumer doesn’t know the difference between these two types of tequila. “Everyone markets themselves as though there’s this old man in the field harvesting agave. He brings it back with a mule and he slowly, carefully crafts it by hand with his wife, wiping his sweat from his brow and wearing a hat. It’s very confusing to the consumer,” Grover tells me, compounding the claims of cultural appropriation that some newer tequila brands have been accused of. “Celebrity brands tend to have additives because they’re looking to sell volume. And what do people like? Vanilla and caramel. We shouldn’t shame them for that,” Scarlet says. “Even though we’re purists now, when we first started our tequila journey, we didn’t know the difference. We drank popular brands with additives. Most people coming into the tequila category like aged products and the more you drink, the more you graduate into blancos, the purest expressions of the agave." Eva Longoria Has Something to Say About 'Celebrity-Forward' Tequila Brands "We think you should have a choice. It’s a labeling issue more than an issue with the industry,” Grover adds, “If you stick to the tequilas on our list, you will naturally retrain your brain. When you do come across something that uses additives, it will stand out. That is the point of the whole program. To give people a way to recalibrate their palate.” In the next chapter of my own tequila expedition, I spoke with tequila buyers, bartenders, and restaurateurs across the country. I found across the board that they are clamoring for more transparent labeling and third-party auditing. “Tequila has a stigma of being a health-conscious spirit. There’s more dancing around additives,” says Trevor Easton Langer, the head bartender at Bar Calico in New York City. Langer makes a comparison, saying that rum is "transparent,” in that it proclaims added flavors on its labels. I’m relieved to find newer additive-free brands like Volcan de Mi Tierra and El Tequileno, unattached to celebrities, which are amongst a handful of distilleries that produce only their own tequilas. I also hunt down some of Grover and Scarlet’s favorite distillers. Billy Erickson’s family has been making tequila since the 1870s when his great-great-great-grandfather founded Tequila Sauza. "Our family sold it but left one distillery,” he says. Erickson’s father, Guillermo Erickson Sauza, refurbished it as Fortaleza in the early 2000s and it is now a tiny, family-run distillery. I ask Erickson and Fortaleza’s brand ambassador, Mitch Wolf, if they ever considered using flavor additives. Both of them laugh. “That’s not Guillermo’s way of doing things,” they say in unison. Sergio Mendoza, the founder and director of Don Fulano, who comes from a Jaliscan family of agave farmers, is measured in his assessment of brands that use additives. “It’s a complex subject. It’s not black and white," he says, noting that the practice is historic. "It happens in wine, cognac, scotch, in different ways. Charcoal in barrels, burning the skins of certain fruits, act as a certain kind of influence of flavors." That’s one thing, he says, but the industrial use of additives to make up for lack of quality is another. "I think that harms the category when it’s to make up for lack of quality or craft," Mendoza says. "Agave is so amazing and offers so much, just working with what it has to offer is enough. That is the real craft of the tequila maker.”

Mendoza is not opposed to celebrity brands, which he believes aren’t inherently bad. "You can have a good relationship and contract from a good supplier," he says. "The problems are not in regulation. Tequila is one of the most regulated categories. We have people from the regulatory bodies every day in the distillery.”

I can’t help but think that without entities and self-professed nerds like Tequila Matchmaker and its community, brands like Don Fulano and Fortaleza are swimming upstream.

“Grover and Scarlet hold people accountable but the best we can do is educate,” says Wolf. “And there should be more third-party verification and more transparent labeling. As a consumer, you don’t have the time to invest [in research].”

Where does Mendoza see Don Fulano in 25 years? “We’re scared. There are limits to how fast we can grow," he says. "There’s room to grow and scale. Jalisco is a big state and there’s a lot of agricultural space, but we will only have organic growth. We’ll never see the growth of celebrity brands.”

And Fortaleza in 25 years? “We’re not planning on changing anything,” says Erickson. If we do things the wrong way, there will be six angry dudes in heaven.”

But what about mezcal, tequila’s cousin, which is growing in mass market popularity? Is mezcal safe?

“The overall market share is not big enough to be attractive to big celebrities," says projects Devin T. Adams, the founder of Mala Mia Mezcal Artesanal. "They’d first have a battle to convince people to drink mezcal. You don’t have to convince people to drink tequila. I’m sure this will get to mezcal, it’ll be like six years,”

Ivan Vasquez, the owner of Madre Restaurants in LA, has a more dire view. “Mezcal is already following the trajectory of industrialized tequila with celebrity-owned mezcal brands and ‘modern’ techniques like cristalino mezcal to target a different type of audience," he says. He worries that mezcal is not safe and that many mezcal brands are following the same steps of misleading misinformation. "The industrialized tequila industry (the majority except for a few brands) are decades ahead in innovation and technology from a traditional mezcal maker, but traditional mezcal makers have what the industrialized tequila has lost: centuries of tradition.”

Wolf is less concerned. “Personally, I feel that anything that gets people into drinking tequila is a good thing.” Over Zoom, he looks me dead in the eye and says, “When you first start drinking wine, you might start with the sweet stuff like Boone’s Farm Wine.”

Guilty as charged.

He continues, “You might be led down a road to drinking different agave spirits. You might find our way to us.”

Back in Philadelphia, I walk into a Fine Wine and Spirits shop. A salesperson is assisting customers, nudging them towards a tequila. “I like the bottle. I think it looks majestic,” one man says. A woman comes up behind him and asks the salesperson, “Do you sell Lobos? The LeBron James?”

I frantically open the Tequila Matchmaker app on my phone and compare what’s on the shelf to their list of certified additive-free brands. There are no matches.


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