Additive-Free Tequila: What’s in Your Tequila?

A person holding a bottle of alcohol

Ask a casual drinker what type of tequila they prefer, and they might tell you blanco, reposado, or añejo. But ask a tequila connoisseur what type of tequila they prefer, and they’ll probably say “additive free.”

Additive-free tequila is the best that money can buy. It’s also healthier and more pure. Whether you love a good margarita or prefer to sip your tequila neat, additive-free tequila can improve your drinking experience in more ways than one. 

Our in-depth look at additive-free tequila explains what it is, how it’s produced, and what distinguishes it from tequila that does contain additives.


What’s in Your Tequila?

Not all consumers are familiar with what’s in their tequila. If they like how it tastes in their favorite cocktail, that’s often good enough.

For those who desire an elevated experience, additive-free tequila is the only way to go. It’s cleaner and better for your health than tequilas that contain unnecessary added ingredients. Additive-free tequilas are not only truer to the traditional tequila-making process, they also boast flavors that are more complex.  

Whether a tequila is free of additives or not, it must undergo a rigorous review before it can be certified as a “tequila.” Tequilas can only be made from the blue weber agave plant and are required to be an authentic Mexican product. Only five states in Mexico are allowed to produce it. That’s why 95% of all tequilas are distilled in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the birthplace of tequila.

There are more than 150 registered distilleries in Jalisco alone. The quality of each distillery’s tequila-making process tends to vary, but they always begin with three key ingredients:

  • Blue weber agave
  • Water
  • Yeast

To produce tequila, distilleries must:

  • Grow blue weber agave plants
  • Wait for the plants to ripen, then harvest them by hand 
  • Slowly bake the agave to release its natural sugars
  • Mash and pour the agave juice into vats for fermenting
  • Add inoculum (a type of yeast) to aid the fermentation process
  • Extract the fermented product, also known as “wort”
  • Distill the wort at least twice before aging and/or bottling

This careful and time-tested process does not require the addition of any other ingredients. However, many distillers add them anyway, producing tequilas that contain one or several additives.

Additive-free tequila only uses the three traditional tequila ingredients of blue weber agave, water, and yeast. Nothing else. As a result, additive-free tequila offers brighter, cleaner flavors, allowing for an optimal drinking experience. 

If you usually drink your tequila in a cocktail, such as a paloma or a Mexican mule, you may not have noticed the additives because the cocktail mixers are masking them. But sip it straight and you’ll notice a distinct difference between tequilas that contain additives and tequilas that are additive-free.


What Makes a Spirit “Tequila?”

You can’t call a whiskey “scotch” unless it’s made in Scotland. You can’t call a sparkling wine “champagne” unless it’s made in Champagne, France, and there are regulations that prevent the sale of “California” wine unless 100% of the grapes used were grown in that state. 

The same is true of tequila. You cannot label agave-based spirits “tequila” unless they’re made in one of five states in Mexico: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michocacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

If you’re drinking a product that’s labeled as a tequila, then you’re drinking an authentic Mexican product. But if you’re drinking a product labeled as a mezcal, you might not be.

Mezcal refers to any liquor made from agave. For an agave-based spirit to qualify as tequila, it must be made from the blue weber agave plant, also known as tequila agave or agave azul. Technically, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

Tequila must also meet a minimum requirement for alcohol by volume (ABV). To qualify, tequila should be 35% ABV to 55% ABV, which means that it contains 35% to 55% pure alcohol. 


Learn More: Blanco vs. Reposado vs. Anejo: Distinguishing Types of Tequila

Testing Tequila

What Additives Are Used in Tequila?

According to Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), the government agency that regulates tequila, no more than 1% of a tequila’s total volume may contain additives unless the distillery discloses it on the product’s label. 

The CRT permits the use of four additives, which are:

  • Glycerin
  • Caramel coloring
  • Oak extract
  • Jarabe (sugar-based syrup)

The traditional tequila-making process takes many years. Distillers sometimes use additives to meet the high demand for tequila products in the US. By using additives, they can quickly imitate the more complex flavor and appearance of a traditional additive-free tequila, and produce more bottles in less time. 

But that doesn’t mean that tequila with additives will always taste as great as additive-free. There are many factors that can influence the taste of a traditionally distilled tequila with no additives, such as: 

  • The mineral content and quality of the soil in which the agave is grown
  • How and when the agave is harvested
  • How long the agave is baked
  • How long the agave is fermented
  • The process used to distill the agave
  • The type and quality of the water used
  • The type and quality of the yeast used
  • The type of casks used to age the tequila
  • How long the tequila is aged and matured before bottling

Cierto’s master distillers Enrique Fonseca and Sergio Mendoza grow their blue weber agave in ancient, red clay soil. They harvest the ripened agave by hand and slowly bake it inside low-pressure ovens prior to fermentation. Copper pots and column stills are used to distill the agave liquid twice, after which the tequila is aged inside of French Limousin oak casks. 

Cierto does not use additives in their tequila products. Other tequila distilleries use different processes. For example, some distilleries use modern ovens, known as autoclaves, to produce cooked agave before aging it in American oak barrels.

Even small differences in the tequila distillation processes can have a major impact on the flavors of tequila. 


The Downsides of Drinking Tequila With Additives

There are a few different reasons why some tequila distilleries use additives in their products.

Additives are often a shortcut for enhancing or altering a tequila’s flavor. They can speed up the production process and imitate the look of a tequila that has been aged for longer.

Here’s a closer look at how additives are used and the types of tequila you might find them in.

 

Glycerin 

Glycerin is used to enhance a tequila’s mouthfeel. Because glycerin coats the tongue, it can make the tequila feel heavier. This common additive is found in many different types of tequila, including tequila blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra-añejo.

 

Caramel Coloring 

Some distillers use artificial caramel coloring to make their tequilas darker. Artificial coloring can mimic the deeper, cognac tones of longer-aged tequilas. This often leads consumers to believe that the tequila was aged for much longer than it actually was. Caramel coloring tends to be found in tequilas labeled as reposado tequila or añejo tequila.

 

Oak Extract 

Oak extract is an additive that can give tequilas some of the aromas and flavors that can only be gained from barrel-aging. Some distilleries use it to avoid waiting out the full aging process. Similar to caramel coloring, oak extract can lead consumers to believe that a tequila underwent a longer aging process. You can find oak extract in añejo and extra-añejo tequila.

 

Jarabe 

Jarabe is a type of sugar-based syrup that can sweeten the taste of tequila. The CRT permits the use of many types of sugar additives, including artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. If your tequila tastes like caramel, vanilla, or chocolate, it might contain jarabe or a similar additive. 

Even blanco tequilas that don’t use other additives tend to contain jarabe. That’s because casual tequila drinkers sometimes prefer sweeter flavors over the agave-forward taste of an additive-free blanco.  


How to Identify Additives in Tequila

Don’t be fooled by a label that says it’s 100% agave. Even 100% agave tequila may contain additives up to 1%.

Distillers don’t have to disclose additives on the product’s label unless they exceed 1%. In general, the best way to determine if your favorite tequila uses additives is to perform taste and visual tests.

Start by sampling a few additive-free tequilas. You can then compare their flavor profiles to those of mass-produced tequila brands, which are more likely to contain additives. If you’re used to drinking tequila with additives, you might not recognize the taste of additive-free tequila at first. 

Another way to test for additives is to pour a bit of tequila in the palm of your hand and rub your hands together. Wait a few seconds and see how your hands feel. If they feel dry, like you just had water on your hands, then it’s probably additive-free. If your hands feel sticky, the tequila probably contains an additive like glycerin.  

You can also test for additives by noticing how your tequila sticks to a glass. Pour some tequila, swirl it around, and take notice of the “legs.” The legs are the liquor that sticks to and cascades down the sides of the glass.

The legs of a blanco tequila travel quickly, while the legs of an añejo or extra-añejo move much slower and need more time to reach the bottom of the glass. If you’re drinking an añejo tequila and the legs travel fast, it might contain additives.

The only way to be 100% confident that you’re drinking an additive-free tequila is to check if it’s been certified.  


Read About: UPROXX: “Cierto Tequila is Simply One of the Best”

Cierto Tequila Bottle

How Are Additive-Free Tequilas Certified?

There are two ways to know if a tequila has been certified as additive-free:

  • It bears an additive-free certification label from the CRT
  • It bears an additive-free certification label from the Additive-Free Alliance

 

The CRT Additive-Free Certification 

In 2023, the CRT added the Natural and Free of Additives Certified Product designation to its certification process. If a tequila product meets their requirements, it can bear the CRT’s additive-free label. However, CRT’s process for marking a tequila additive-free is not clear.

Because the CRT’s process isn’t as transparent, some tequila connoisseurs prefer to check if their tequila has a certification from Tequila Matchmaker’s Additive-Free Alliance.

 Additive Free Alliance Logo

The Tequila Matchmaker Additive-Free Alliance Designation

To bear the Additive-Free Alliance mark and appear on Tequila Matchmaker’s certified additive-free list, Tequila Matchmaker inspectors must visit the distillery to conduct the following:

  • Tour all areas of the distillery
  • Access production log books that show all supplies purchased
  • Collect samples of blanco tequila directly from the still
  • Collect samples of aged tequilas directly from their barrels
  • Analyze and lab test samples to detect any traces of additives
  • Compare the distillery’s samples to other samples taken from bottles on retail shelves, to ensure that they’re the same

If a distillery produces some tequila brands that contain additives and others that do not, they must disclose that information. The Additive-Free Alliance designation will then be given to the select brands that qualify.

It’s worth noting that just because a brand of tequila doesn’t bear the Additive-Free Alliance designation, doesn’t mean it contains additives. Not all distilleries opt in to the Additive-Free Alliance certification program. 


Is Additive-Free Tequila Better?

There are several reasons why additive-free tequila is regarded as a superior product. 

Not only is it purer and cleaner, but it centers the authentic flavors of the blue weber agave plant. It also respects the historic tequila-making process.

Additive-free tequila takes longer to produce, which means the products are more artisanal than mass-market tequilas sold by major commercial brands.

It takes several years to produce a tequila. At minimum, agave plants need five years to mature before they can be harvested. Some big-brand tequila makers simply use additives to shortcut that process. 

Additive-free brands like Cierto honor the slower, traditional approach to distilling tequila. The result is a healthier, better-tasting spirit with nuanced flavors that inspire the palate. 

If you’re someone who wants to know exactly what you’re putting into your body, additive-free tequila is a must. It’s less clear what you’re drinking when you consume a tequila that uses additives. But you can always trust additive-free tequila to contain nothing more than the classic ingredients of blue weber agave, yeast, and water. 

Additive-free tequila has changed the way people think about tequila and how they consume it, but the only way to fully understand it and appreciate it is to try it for yourself.

To enjoy the most award-winning additive-free tequila brand in the world, shop the Private Collection and the Reserve Collection from Cierto now


Up Next: Cierto Tequila Named Best in Show at the 2023 Tequila Mezcal Challenge


Author: Jim Ruane is the Chief Growth Officer of Elevated Spirits and Cierto Tequila. During his 12-year career in spirits, Jim has led some of the world’s most respected brands, has studied and taught the engineering, chemistry and cultural significance of spirits distillation and is one of the spirits industry’s most dynamic leaders.

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