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Is Your Tequila Full of Shit?

April 06, 2023

Story: Emma Janzen

art: Andy Bourne


Is Your Tequila Full of Shit?

April 06, 2023

Story: Emma Janzen

art: Andy Bourne

An estimated 70 percent of all tequila contains undisclosed additives, like vanilla extract and aspartame. One couple is on a mission to change that.

Scarlet and Grover Sanschagrin have built a veritable temple to tequila at Casa Lotecito in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, the headquarters for Taste Tequila and Tequila Matchmaker. Near the entrance, a small lab and microdistillery (where the couple make small batches of experimental tequila) give mad scientist vibes. Upstairs, a well-stocked bar promises tastes of many delicious agave spirits—some rare, others housemade.

At the dining room table, a few fluted glasses and a tray of small dropper bottles are set out in advance of our arrival—each brown vial hand-labeled with the liquid contents inside: caramel coloring, vanilla extract, glycerin, tutti-frutti, aspartame, almond, chocolate, stevia, green apple. 

“It’s legal and considered very normal to use additives in the tequila world, and through our research we estimate that at least 70 percent of all tequilas sold contain additives like these,” Scarlet says. “And that is conservatively low, because there are a lot of companies that don’t release that information.”

To show visitors in real time how additives influence the personality of a tequila, the Sanschagrins acquired an eclectic collection of additives from Guadalajara-based companies that also sell to big tequila brands. “We’re going to use them to recreate a few popular celebrity tequilas,” Scarlet says with an amused grin. She adds two modest pours of blanco tequila into the glasses. One will serve as the constant, Grover explains. To the other, we will add incremental drops of additives (the variables) to see how the aromas and flavors change.

“Glycerin is used for mouthfeel and to cover defects,” Scarlet says. I dispense a few drops of the colorless, odorless, oily substrate commonly found in soaps, moisturizers and some pharmaceuticals into my glass. “It dampens down aromas and coats your tongue so you won’t get 100 percent of the flavor of the tequila anymore.” 

It takes more force than I expect to swirl it into the tequila, and with just a few drops, the weight of the spirit has thickened substantially. Grover suggests tipping the glass to the side to watch how the liquid runs down the interior surface. “Glycerin is heavier than unadulterated tequila, so the ‘tears’ will run down the edges faster,” he says.

Next up: vanilla extract. “It smells like frosting,” my friend groans. I take a whiff, and my sense memory ferries me back to a recent bar visit where I was gifted shots of a celebrity-owned spirit that’s taken the mainstream by storm. All of the vibrant agave flavors—spicy green peppercorn, lemon curd, mint—have faded into obscurity. It tastes like sticky birthday cake.

These [industrial] producers are essentially making a neutral product, stripping away all the natural agave flavor in the process. That is why they have to add flavor back in after the fact.

The Sanschagrins met in San Francisco while working in tech—Scarlet as a reporter, Grover as the founder of the photo-hosting platform PhotoShelter. They connected over a mutual love of tequila, which led to the creation of the hobby site Taste Tequila in 2009. A move to Guadalajara shortly thereafter spurred deeper immersion in the agave spirits realm; the duo trained as catadores—a kind of tequila sommelier—under the tutelage of Ana Maria Romero Mena, a maestra tequilera known as “the most famous nose in the tequila industry.”

A Cheat Sheet to Additives

Caramel color: Creates uniform color. Because reposados, añejos and extra añejos are aged for months (instead of years, as with whiskey and other aged spirits), the natural color is often quite light. The addition of caramel makes the spirit look like it has rested much longer as a means of appealing to whiskey and brandy drinkers. 

Glycerin: A viscous substance used to cover defects. The texture is somewhat oily, to “smooth out” the feel, numbing flavors and aromas in the process. 

Jarabes: Sugar-based syrups that add extra sweetness to tequila. These include artificial sweeteners, such as stevia, aspartame and Splenda, as well as natural ones, like agave nectar. “You can add flavors into jarabes, and you don’t have to tell the CRT what is in it because that’s your ‘trade secret,’” Grover says. “Almost anything goes: wood, vanilla, tutti-frutti flavor, etc.”

Oak extract: Adds woody notes. “Say you age a reposado for three to four months, but you want it to taste like it was aged for six to seven months—the extract will give it more barrel qualities,” says Scarlet.

In 2012, the Sanschagrins launched the Tequila Matchmaker app, which offers detailed production information on retail brands, like distillery number and location, cook and extraction type, water source and fermentation length, plus aroma and flavor profiles and reviews—intel that was otherwise not widely available to the general public at the time. The program to evaluate additives started as one of many boxes to check on the app. “Years ago we decided that, ‘Hey, additives are a thing, so let’s put a line in there for brands we know don’t use them, like Fortaleza, Cascahuín, Siete Leguas,’” Grover explains. 

When the couple started to receive requests for inclusion from brands who claimed to be additive-free—but clearly weren’t—it quickly became apparent that they would need to develop a more formal confirmation process. Now, they use a multipronged approach to fact-check distilleries’ claims, including on-site visits to observe production, tasting evaluations—once off the still or from the barrel, and again from the finished retail product, to look for discrepancies—plus lab evaluations when necessary.

The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the Mexican organization that oversees and enforces the rules and regulations surrounding tequila (NOM 006), also looks for additives as part of its regulatory practices, but according to the Sanschagrins, the process is somewhat lacking because the whole thing is based on an honor system. “There is a binder in every distillery where you write down if you put additives in the product or not. The CRT looks at the binder and signs off and moves on. They don’t test or smell or anything,” Grover says. “Our intention is to just fact-check to make sure our database that people follow, and depend on, is accurate.” 

The four types of additives, called abocantes, that are legally allowed in tequila are glycerin, oak extract, caramel color and jarabes, which are natural sugar-based syrups like agave nectar, as well as sugar substitutes like aspartame (often seen as the Equal brand), stevia and sucralose (aka Splenda). Per the government rules, if the percentage of abocantes used exceeds 1 percent by weight, the additives must be printed on the label. (Blanco tequilas are a curious exception; the NOM says additives are not allowed, but also includes a loophole that renders this point moot, so many blanco tequilas also include additives.) Most of the time, producers include just enough additives to remain under the weight limit, so this information stays under wraps. Grover and Scarlet are primarily hunting these cases—when additives are used, but not communicated to the consumer.

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Agave spirits aren’t unique in the use of additives. Many spirits allow them—whiskey, rum and Cognac often include sugar and caramel coloring, for example—to make the liquid more viscous, sweeter or more uniformly colored and flavored across different batches. And because it’s legal and normal in tequila, the Sanschagrins say the impetus for their program isn’t to shame brands that use them; they just want to bring more transparency to the practice. 

“There are also cultural differences at play. People in Mexico don’t really care as much,” Grover says. “But people in the U.S. want to know what’s in the bottle... It’s less to do with health, and more to do with not wanting to be tricked by marketing.”

Additives are also typically only used in industrial production, which poses a threat to traditional customs and environmental sustainability. In 2022, Mexico produced about 600 million liters of tequila, a figure that required almost 2.5 million tons of agave. This demand prompts large producers to harvest plants before maturity and use machines that rely on catalysts like acid and diammonium phosphate (a common fertilizer) to make super high volumes of spirit really quickly. 

Industrial production drastically changes the flavor of the spirit, too. “In traditional tequila, you get [notes of] cooked agave, herbs, spices—everything you’d have in your kitchen—when you give time for cooking and fermentation and are using mature agave,” Scarlet says. “These [industrial] producers are essentially making a neutral product, stripping away all the natural agave flavor in the process. That is why they have to add flavor back in after the fact, and that’s also why additive tequilas are usually only one or two notes. They are not as complex as a natural tequila.”

Perhaps most concerning is the way these one-dimensional tequilas are changing the face of the spirit. “Although additives are normal and have been used for a long time ... now they are being used not only to smooth out defects and create consistency, they are being used to create the entire aroma and flavor profile,” Grover says. “Consumers are demanding these smoother, sweeter tequilas, and we think it’s gotten to the point that the normal consumer will think tequila is supposed to taste like cake batter or vanilla, and when they have a traditional tequila it is unrecognizable.”

What started as a simple box to check on the app is blooming into a grassroots movement akin to the shift toward 100 percent agave tequilas that happened about a decade ago.

Since the Sanschagrins launched the program in 2020, the number of confirmed additive-free brands in the Tequila Matchmaker database has grown from a handful to 73 products, a figure that Grover estimates will reach 100 by the end of 2023. Industry darlings Tequila Ocho, Siete Leguas, Cascahuín and Don Fulano have joined the ranks, and even a few celebrity-owned brands—like El Bandido Yankee, Mala Vida and Santo Fino—have opted into the program. What started as a simple box to check on the app is blooming into a grassroots movement akin to the shift toward 100 percent agave tequilas that happened about a decade ago

Bars like Las Almas Rotas in Dallas, Clavel in Baltimore, Drastic Measures near Kansas City, Missouri, De Nada Cantina in Austin, Texas, and more are leading the way with spirits and cocktail lists featuring additive-free tequila. At Puesto, a restaurant with locations in San Diego, Orange County and the Bay Area, vice president of bar and spirits Beau du Bois has removed Clase Azul and Casamigos from the menu. Don Julio will get the ax next. “What Grover and Scarlet are doing is pushing forward the question I ask every day, which is: Do you know if your favorite tequila is artificially flavored or not? I’ll be the first to say that the best tequila in the world is the one you like to drink, but I’m also here to offer transparency.” 

The program has also caught the attention of the CRT, which announced a new certification called “Naturaleza Libre de Aditivos Producto Certificado” in March. No further details have been offered regarding how the regulatory body will confirm or enforce the designation of products that are free of additives. But for the Sanschagrins, the news is promising. “We’d love it if they would take this over and do a good job with it,” Scarlet says with a slight laugh. “We’d have so much time to do other things.”

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