Our Additive-Free Tequila Program: The Details

Our Additive-Free Tequila Program: The Details

Why it exists, how it works, and what you should expect.

For the past several years we’ve been conducting blind tasting events for bartenders, aficionados, and casual tequila fans. These groups of people tend to have wildly different preferences when it comes to tequila, but there is one thing that unites them all: their attitude toward the undisclosed use of additives.

Confirmed Additive-Free TequilaWe realized this since at the end of each blind tasting there is a discussion period and inevitably someone will ask something like, “Where does that intense vanilla, cake-batter aroma come from in sample number 3?”

The answer, of course, is additives. Although additives are permitted, they are rarely talked about in the industry and never appear on the label*. After years of study, we have become familiar with tequila profiles that rely on additives, and those that don’t.

When we tell a taster a particular tequila’s profile is due to additives –whether they initially liked it or not– they often feel tricked. Their next question is, “How can I find a list of tequilas that don’t have additives?”

It didn’t exist, so we decided to do something about it.

With a lack of clarity from brands, and no legal requirement to declare additive use, we began to think about what kind of program we could put together to help inform consumers on which tequilas are additive-free.

(This is our list of Confirmed Additive-free Tequilas.)

We knew this would be a formidable task. Although the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) does a thorough job at supervising production, creating a detailed chemical analysis for every batch, and enforcing the rule that additives can only be used when they do not exceed 1% by volume, we also knew that only a minute quantity of “abocantes” (as they are called in the industry) are needed to completely change a tequila’s profile.

Could we come up with a foolproof plan to detect any/all additive use, and catch any cheating that could possibly happen when the CRT isn’t looking? Probably not.

But, we interviewed several industry professionals with first-hand experience using additives (under strict confidentiality) and with their help eventually came up with a program that we believe is rigorous and goes a long way in showing the transparent and honest nature of any brand that signs up for it.

Our process is an evolving one. Participating brands and distilleries are aware that their participation must be renewed each year, and the first year is free. As we learn more, the process will likely change, becoming stricter.

We are not doing this because we think additives are bad, or we want to call out brands that are using them. Additives serve a legitimate purpose in the industry. Likewise, if someone enjoys tequilas that contain additives, we are not saying these people are wrong. Above all, drink what you like and don’t feel bad about that.

For us, this is simply a matter of transparency. As tequila lovers, we believe that additives should be disclosed because they are creating confusion in the marketplace as to how a natural tequila really tastes. If too many people get the idea that tequila is saccharine, intensely floral, or cake-like, how will they judge the slightly sweet, subtle and complex profiles of additive-free tequilas?

Our process includes several steps, including a deep tour of each distillery, and a comparisons of samples taken through various stages of production with bottles that are available in retail stores of the same batch.

So, here’s a quick reminder on how additives are used in the tequila industry:

Additives (and “abocantes”) are generally used to change the aroma, flavor, color, mouthfeel, and intensity of sweetness of tequilas. Their stated purpose is to maintain consistency between batches. Permitted additives/abocantes include:

    – Glycerin (for mouthfeel)
    – Caramel Coloring
    – Oak Extracts
    – Sugar-based Syrup

However, there are tequilas that go beyond subtle rectification and instead rely on the use of abocantes and additives to build their entire flavor profile. Use of additives can be subtle, or dramatic, and it’s all perfectly legal.

See our story “The Lowdown on Tequila Additives” for more information about each of these categories, and how they are used.

Here’s how our additive free program works:

First, it’s important to understand that every distillery or brand is different, so our inspection process needs to be flexible while still being complete. The inspection for an entire distillery is different than that of a single brand within a distillery.

Process: Entire Distillery

For a distillery that produces one or several brands, the process involves the following:

    – Signing of a non-disclosure agreement so that the distillery can be completely honest with us at all times. If, during our visit we are exposed to trade secrets, proprietary production processes or techniques, or other protected information, we are not allowed to disclose this to anyone. Our task is to confirm the non-use of additives, and nothing more.

    A “testigo” (witness) bottle, left, is compared with a bottle of the same lot purchased in a retail store, right.

    – A full tour of the facility, beyond what is commonly provided on tours. We must be authorized to see any area of the distillery that we wish.

    – Access to production log books and transfer records that show purchases of supplies in and out of the distillery

    – Collection of samples of blanco tequila direct from the still, and aged tequilas direct from the barrel. We must witness the collection of these samples, and be able to take them back to our office for additional sensorial analysis as needed.

    – A side-by-side comparison of the official “witness” (test sample bottles saved in each distillery used for each batch for chemical analysis) with a retail version of that same batch. (They must match in order to pass.)

If during the distillery inspection process additive use is either discovered or disclosed, the distillery must then supply detailed information about which brands or products are using them, and in what amounts.

In addition, if we discover that the production processes for a particular product do not match what the brand states publicly, then the product will not earn the “additive-free” designation. An example of this is if a brand states their method of extraction is roller mill, but we learn through our visit that they are buying some or all of their product from another distillery that uses a diffuser.

It is possible that some brands from a distillery will earn the “additive-free” designation while others will not.

Process: Single Brand

For a brand that does not have the distillery’s permission to review production records, the process involves the following:

    Contact us to express your interest in the program. We will then pre-taste your products and follow up with you on our recommendation for next steps. If we feel that your product may contain additives (or “abocantes”) we will alert you before going any further.

    – Signing of a non-disclosure agreement so that the distillery or brand representatives can be completely honest with us at all times

    – A full tour of the facility showing all of the equipment used to produce tequila for that brand. (This gives us an idea of the aromas/flavors naturally produced during their process. If the end result is dramatically different, this would be a clue to dig deeper.)

    – Collection of samples of blanco tequila direct from the still, and aged tequilas direct from the barrel (or collection tank) for that brand. We must witness the collection of these samples, and be able to take them back to our office for additional sensorial analysis as needed.

    – A side-by-side comparison of the “witness” (test sample) bottle with a retail version of that same batch. (They must match in order to pass.)

    – We may request lab tests on your product, at either the beginning of the process, or at the end. We will have these tests performed on your behalf, and provide you with the results.

    If we feel that lab testing is needed we will alert you in advance, and provide the costs of the tests. In general, the costs for these tests can range between $200-$975 USD per sample tested. These costs are determined by the lab, and there is no markup on our part.

    Although there are limits to what testing can identify, the lab is able to detect natural and artificial sugars as well as glycerin.

Process: Sensorial Evaluation (Distillery + Single Brands)

Both processes involve sensorial evaluations by us. Our tequila education has included intensive training from tequila industry professionals in the use and detection of additives. This training has been specialized, private, and under strict confidentiality.

Although chemical analyses can be helpful in some instances (and used by us on an as-needed basis), modern additives are extremely concentrated and may not register in the lab. We will use liquid chromatography tests to identify natural and artificial sweeteners, as well as glycerin and propylene glycol. We will perform these tests in addition to our sensorial evaluation.

During sensorial evaluation sessions, we look for consistency of product through the latter stages of production: distillation, resting/aging, and bottling. The changes in the product should be minimal to none between these steps.

Should dramatic changes appear suddenly, the distillery will have an opportunity to explain the causes and further investigation into those claims will be made to independently validate them, which could include lab testing.

During inspections, we may bring retail store-bought bottles purchased by us into the process. These are then matched with the test samples (“witness” bottles of the same batch) and compared sensorially on-site during the inspection.

This is an evolving process and we expect to be adding to this document in the future. We will continue to update you on our process and thoughts. In the meantime, we hope we are providing valuable work for tequila lovers, and the industry at large.

Frequently Asked Questions (and answers):

– Is this endorsed by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT)?

    No, it is an independent initiative designed to confirm the information that brands give us about their products so that our database is as accurate as possible. It is not associated with the CRT or part of any official regulatory process.

– Which tequilas have been already confirmed as additive-free?

– Aren’t all 100% agave blancos supposed to be additive-free?

    Yes, and no. There are some confusing rules in the NORMA that appear to allow the use of additives in a blanco.**

– Will you disclose which tequilas DO contain additives?

    No, we will only list the products that have passed our inspection process. If a tequila fails, we don’t call them out — we simply won’t add them to our list.

– Are diffuser-made products eligible for this program?

    Yes. We do not disqualify products based on their production method. However, if a diffuser is used in production but not publicly disclosed, then the product will not pass the process.

– Are you taking into account changes to the final product due to oxygenation and filtration, and not additives?

    Yes, we recognize these are common practices that change some qualities of the tequila, such as mouthfeel. That’s why knowing the brand’s complete process is important.

– How do I get my brand on this list? Is there a cost for the inspections?

    Use our appointment request form to send us a message indicating your interest. We will follow up with you on the next steps. There is no cost for the initial year, unless we need to perform lab tests on your product. Annual renewals will involve a small charge to cover expenses. For a single brand, we ask for $1,000 USD/year, and $2,000/year for an entire distillery.

– Are surprise inspections performed without notice to the distilleries?

    No, this is not necessary. Because we take samples of tequila direct from the still and barrels, we are able to compare these samples with what is publicly available in retail stores. Additives are introduced into the process at the very end, just before bottling. If there is a big difference between what comes directly from the still and what it available in retail stores, then this may suggest additive use. Showing up unannounced to a distillery is therefore not necessary, nor would it be effective since we need cooperation from the distillery to go through our process.

– Do you perform gas chromatography tests on samples to detect additives?

    Gas chromatography machines can be used to detect volatile compounds in a tequila, but unless you know the exact compound’s unique signature and concentration, then you won’t be able find it in a test. Since we never know what may have been added to a product, we don’t know what signatures to look for. Therefore gas chromatography tests are not useful for the detection of additives. However, we do perform liquid chromatography tests which can detect natural and artificial sweeteners as well as glycerin and propylene glycol.

– Who is funding this program?

    The funding for this project is provided entirely through us, plus whatever fees and donations are collected from brands, distilleries, and generous tequila enthusiasts. This is not a money-making venture. Our goal is to break even. We are totally independent and not affiliated with any brands or distilleries.

– Additives are legally permitted in the tequila NORM, so why are you doing this?

    We don’t have a problem with legal additive use, but we do think that additive use should be disclosed on the label so the consumer can decide for themselves. We will consider this program a success if/when there is a change to the NORM that requires fully transparent labeling. If that day comes we will happily shut down the program.

– Do you inspect every batch a brand produces?

    No. We inspect each product once per year, as outlined above. As long as the product profile remains consistent throughout the year there is no need to re-inspect. Retail-purchased bottles are regularly checked (aroma and flavor comparisons) by us between inspections. Should the product suddenly change, we will make another visit to the distillery where the inspection process can be repeated.

– My brand is kosher, does it automatically qualify?

    No. Although kosher certification does state that additives are not permitted, there are different types of kosher certifications, and some are more rigorous than others. Also, keep in mind that kosher additives are available, and use of these additives will not cause a product to fail a kosher certification process.

– My brand is USDA Organic, does it automatically qualify?

    No. “Organic” certification does not mean that no additives are used.

– Does adding wood chips to barrels count as “additives”?

    No. This is a production technique using natural wood, and there are no official rules against it.

– The distillery that makes my brand won’t allow any inspections. What can I do?

    Our process requires a distillery visit. Make sure that your distiller knows that there is a difference between an entire distillery inspection vs. a single brand inspection. (Read the descriptions above to understand the difference.)

    If your distiller still will not allow us to inspect your batch as it is being produced then you may want to find another distillery partner who will.

– Are “mixto” (non-100% agave) products qualified for confirmation?

    Yes. However, the tequila must be made and bottled where we can inspect it. If the tequila is shipped in bulk to another country and bottled by a third party, it is not eligible for our program.

    We do recognize that some larger producers have a separate bottling facility under their same NOM, and this would not disqualify them.

* We are talking about 100% agave tequilas, not flavored tequilas, or tequilas that contain more than 1% by volume, which are legally required to be labeled.

** In the 2012 NORMA, section 4.36.1 says that blanco tequilas should be “sin abocante” (without additives). However, section states that the products defined in 5 sections, including 4.36.1, allows for “edulcorantes, colorantes, aromatizantes y/o saborizantes permitidos por la Secretaría de Salud” (sweeteners, coloring, aromas and flavors allowed by the Health Secretary.)

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