Why we decided to address the industry’s lack of transparency on additive use
If this headline has given you pause, it should. After all, 100% agave tequila traditionally comprises of three things: cooked agave, water, and yeast (before aging). But increasingly, some producers are relying on additives, or “abocantes” as they are called in the industry, not just to equalize flavor and color differences from batch to batch, but to make up their entire profile. Super efficient production methods that tend to produce a high-proof (as high as 87% abv), neutral spirit are one of the main reasons. This vodka-like tequila then has to be watered down (to 40% abv), leaving it without the signature characteristics we would look for in tequila, such as the smell and taste of cooked agave.
(We’ve talked about additives in detail before, and how they are permitted under the law if they don’t exceed 1% in volume, so you might want to review that article if you need to.)
The increased reliance on additives has us concerned on a few fronts. First of all, agaves are amazing plants that offer an incredible variety of aromas and flavors when their fermentable sugars are turned into alcohol. So, it seems a damn shame to use these agaves to make a neutral spirit. (Why not just make vodka or grain alcohol?)
Also, agaves need at least five or six years to mature and produce the level of sugar that traditional producers require. Producers who use diffusers, acid-thermal hydrolysis, yeast accelerants, and column stills —the super efficient industrial method we referred to above— are able to extract more sugar from the agaves than traditional methods, so the age of the agaves is not as important to them. They will harvest them at three or four years, which disrupts the agave growth cycle for traditional producers. This is because immature agaves don’t yet contain enough sugar for traditional production equipment to extract.*
And because diffuser producers use a sped-up process with immature agaves they often need additives to create a flavor profile. These additives usually don’t smell/taste like cooked agave, although they may be labelled as “Agave Note #307560” or “Agave Note #208344”, for example. Users of our app often describe these artificial aromas as “fake fruit”, “fake pine”, vanilla, cake batter, flowers, and botanicals reminiscent of gin. Additives for aged products usually consist of extra vanilla, caramel, and in more extreme incidents, cake batter. Sometimes they also add sweeteners, like cane sugar, agave syrup, or aspartame-like high intensity compounds. Glycerin is used in all types of tequila to give the product a thicker mouth feel and occasionally cover up for minor defects.
Consumers who are not tequila aficionados often like these products because they do not taste “strong” and have no “burn”. And let’s face it — additive makers know what us humans like and they design these fruity, vanilla, and sweet profiles to appeal to our tastes. Consumers who like these products aren’t to blame. After all, they usually don’t know that the tequila they are drinking does not resemble a real, traditional tequila.
Take, for instance, the recent popularity of “cristalinos” in Mexico, which is now taking foot in the U.S. Few drinkers of these products realize that in order to strip away all of the color from an aged tequila**, nearly all the aromas and flavors are stripped away as well. When filtering is this heavy, the only way to add flavor and aroma back in is through the use of additives.
And herein lies a larger problem:
What if the popularity and wide marketing of industrialized products that rely on additives lead consumers to believe that tequila should smell and taste like something that it is not? What happens to the producers who still make traditional and natural products? Will we lose them?
We would also like to spur greater recognition that tequila is a natural product, with terroir, and seasonal changes in elements like agave, water, yeast, temperature, and myriad other environmental factors that are part of the process. Tequila consumers should not expect each batch to be identical. The more we can do to get this message out, the more understanding we’ll have about the role that additives play.
Additives were initially allowed so that producers could meet an unrealistic expectation of “consistency”, an expectation that is not demanded of other natural products, such as wine. Now they are being used for a different reason — to make up the entire profile of a product. That’s why we believe that additive use should at least be disclosed on the label for what they are: added color, flavor, aroma, and texture, even though they do not exceed the 1.0% by volume legal limit. Modern additives are incredibly concentrated, which means a very, very little bit can go a long way. Simply put, that old 1% limit leaves plenty of room to do more than slight consistency adjustments.
Admittedly, there is a place in the market for both industrialized and traditional tequilas, but we think consumers should know the difference and be able to choose for themselves.
We believe that a movement toward more detailed labeling and transparency is needed in the tequila industry — and would aid it. After all, there’s been a larger movement among both food and beverage companies to be open and honest about what people are eating and drinking, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Tequila producers could do the same by changing the NORMA, or official rules of the industry.
We are not anti-additives, or against industrialized production techniques. (Both serve a legitimate purpose.) We are not saying that brands that use additives are doing anything wrong. We just think that the industry just needs to do a better job of labeling.
We have even heard from brands that wanted to be more transparent, but were prevented from doing so.
One tequila brand tried to include the text “no additives” on their label, only to have it rejected by U.S. regulatory authorities. (Presumably because other brands without the label would be called into question.) Another tried to label their tequila as containing additives, but got refused by their distillery. So, we know there are industry players that see the value of being honest with their consumers. So, until the rules change, we want to help.
This is why we decided to launch our Additive-Free Confirmation Program. You can read all about the process, and the products that have already passed. But we wanted to take a moment to explain our own motivations, as tequila lovers and champions of traditional brands.
Additive use is an important consideration among members of the Tequila Matchmaker community. That’s why we felt it was important to confirm the “no additives” claim ourselves before applying that label to any product in our database. This is our process, we don’t claim that it’s perfect, but it is a great start that requires transparency from participating brands and distilleries.
We realize that our opinions on these matters aren’t as safe as the data and facts we usually strive to deliver. We also realize that we will take some (or a lot) of heat for this program, but we are ready. Our intentions are for the best, for the tequila that we love, and the industry that we are honored to take part in.
-Scarlet & Grover
P.S. Want to join our movement? Share this story and encourage your friends to support transparency in tequila labeling.
*In traditional production processes, agave is cooked using steam with fibers present. During the cooking process, the sugars then bond with the fibers. Extraction via tahona, roller mill, or screw mill cannot extract 100% of those fermentable sugars because some remain stuck to the fibers. Diffusers, on the other hand, remove the fibers before cooking and can therefore gain nearly 100% efficiency during the extraction process. For this reason, they can make use of younger agaves that have less sugar.
**There are exceptions when not everything is filtered out, but this is rare.