Most tequila produced contains undisclosed additives, even if labeled 100% agave. Additives are used to make tequila sweeter, darker, smoother and smell like just about anything you want.
This guide covers what additives are used and why they are used. I also cover my perspective, and how you can tell if your tequila is additive free. Tequila is not alone in permitting additives – I cover additive use in other spirits such as Scotch whisky and Cognac.
Key Points About Additives in Tequila
- Tequila rules allow for the addition of certain ingredients in small doses without needing to disclose them on the label, even for “100% agave” tequila.
- These additives are known as “abocantes”, or mellowing agents and include caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin and sugar syrups.
- Additives are used to mimic the effects of aging and to cover-up poorly made tequila.
- Additives are used in most tequilas, from the very cheapest to the most expensive.
- There is a growing additive free tequila movement backed by website Tequila Matchmaker, to help identify additive free tequila brands.
- The rules state that additives cannot be used in blanco tequilas. Some producers choose to interpret the rules differently and do use additives in blancos, because of some ambiguity in the wording.
Table of Contents
What are Additives in Tequila?
A small amount of certain ingredients can be added to tequila before bottling without needing to be disclosed under the regulations for tequila production. These additives are used to change the flavor, aroma, texture and color of the final product.
There are four permitted additives for tequila that do not have to be disclosed if less than 1% of the volume:
- Caramel coloring
- Oak extract
- Sugar syrup
Tequila producers must follow the written standards in NOM-006-SCFI-2012. The CRT’s (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) role is to certify that these standards have been applied. Unfortunately, there is significant leeway in how to interpret the rules resulting in a lack of transparency about what you might actually be drinking.
Why Use Additives in Tequila?
Additives are used to “fix” the final product to suit commercial aims. Using additives can cover over shortcuts in the production process and help produce acceptable tequila at a lower cost. They can also be used to more easily deliver a targeted taste profile.
In George Clooney’s story about creating his Casamigos tequila, he says they sampled 700 different versions before landing on the perfect recipe. If you can believe that, it is almost certain that most of these samples were different combinations of additives.
Improve Consistency of Each Tequila Batch
Tequila made using traditional methods can vary batch to batch for a number of reasons. Tequila varies due to weather conditions during fermentation and before harvest, agave maturity, barrel conditions and many other variables.
Additives can be used to balance out some of these variations to create a more consistent product. Consistency is important for larger brands especially. Their drinkers value a product that is more likely to remain the same no matter the year, no matter the batch.
Better Indicate Aged Tequilas
Caramel coloring is used to make añejo look like añejo and reposado to look like reposado. Sometimes tequila can be aged in barrels for a long time while picking up very little color. Consumers expect a certain color for a reposado and another darker color for an añejo.
Adding caramel color can give a better indication of the age of each tequila and even out any differences between batches.
Suit Consumer Tastes
It’s easier to introduce the average drinker to a sweet, smooth drink with all the edges ironed out. If low quality tequila tastes rough and is hard to drink then high quality tequila must be smooth and easy to drink, right? Using additives can do just that.
Replace Flavors Lost Due to Industrialized Manufacturing
Modern, industrialized production methods are faster and convert more of the agave into tequila. The downside is that fewer qualities from the agave that remain and you are left with a more neutral tasting spirit.
Additives are used to make industrialized tequila taste more like tequila and add notes like vanilla, citrus and caramel.
Industrial methods include use of a diffuser and to a lesser extent a high pressure autoclave.
Replace Flavors Lost Due to Charcoal Filtration
Cristalino tequila has become increasingly popular and is made by applying activated charcoal filtration to aged tequila. This removes the coloring from aging, but also much of the flavor. Additives are used to add flavors lost through the filtration process. If this approach strikes you as somewhat redundant and wasteful then you are not alone.
Rules Around Additives in Tequila
There are a set of rules that govern tequila production, including where it can be made, how additives can be used, production process and labeling. There are rules regarding additives but these are best described as: “open to interpretation”.
These rules are known in Mexico as the Norma, or legal standards. The Norma relating to tequila is NOM-006-SCFI-2012.
The rules for tequila refer to “abocantes” which translates to something like “mellowing agents” in English. These refer to:
- Color caramelo (caramel coloring)
- Extraco de roble o encino natural (natural oak extract)
- Glicerina (glycerin)
- Jarabe a base de azucar (sugar syrup)
Any of these can be added to joven, or aged tequila without needing to be disclosed, so long as their weight is less than 1% of the tequila before bottling. This part is straight forward but there are different opinions on the following:
- Some say blanco tequila cannot have any of these additives, or it must be labeled as “joven” or “gold”, which seems to be in keeping with the spirit of the regulations. However, there are loopholes in the rules around this interpretation, and in reality some blancos definitely do use additives without disclosure.
- Some say the 1% limit applies to the total of all additives used, others say that the limit is 1% for each additive, so up to 4% total can be used.
The CRT’s standard tests do not pick up additives in blancos, nor do they pick up additive use up to 4% so there is nothing stopping producers bending the rules.
Disclosed vs Undisclosed Additives
The Norma for tequila allows for using other ingredients outside of the four listed above, and in greater quantities than 1% of the weight however these must be disclosed. These are known as flavored tequilas. Flavored tequila must still be within the ABV limits of tequila (35% to 55% ABV).
There are limits on extra flavoring under the rules. Drinks under this category must have:
- No more than 75 grams per liter of sugars
- No more than 85 grams per liter of dry extract
Where extra flavors, colors or aromas have been added, they must be named on the label. Common examples include fruit, spices and even sugars in higher quantities than 1%.
Tequilas with disclosed additives may have words like “infused with” on the label. Examples of tequila “infused with flavors”:
- 1800 Coconut
- 1800 Cucumber and Jalapeño
- Hornitos Lime Shot
For example, 1800 tequila offers a “tequila infused with natural coconut flavor” as well as a cucumber and jalapeño infusion.
Drinks Made with Tequila
A separate category, with its own rules, is drinks “made with tequila”. This category includes all drinks that have flavorings over the limits set out above. Tequila liqueurs fit into this category due to their high sugar levels. Drinks under this category do not have to be within the official ABV levels for tequila.
Examples of drinks “made with tequila”:
- Tequila Rose Strawberry Cream
- Patrón Citrónge Orange and Pineapple Liqueurs
- A minority of tequila seltzers (most are flavored with agave but not real tequila)
What Kind of Additives Are In Tequila?
Caramel Coloring in Tequila
Caramel coloring is added to many aged spirit categories, including tequila, to make it look like it has been aged longer, and to be more consistent across batches.
What is caramel coloring?
Caramel coloring is a widely used food coloring made by heating a variety of sugars. This process is known as caramelization. Caramel coloring is widely used in Scotch whisky production.
For Scotch, only a specific type of coloring can be used, E150A, which is essentially flavorless. When it comes to tequila, there is no specific coloring set out in the rules, meaning caramel coloring with any flavors desired could technically be used.
Caramel coloring is created by heating sugar (like glucose, sucrose, or corn syrup) alone or with certain food-grade acids, alkalis, or salts. This process causes the sugar to undergo chemical reactions that result in a change in color and the formation of various flavor compounds.
Why add caramel coloring to tequila?
Caramel coloring is added to tequila mostly for aesthetic reasons or to cover over shortcuts in production.
- Make it seem like the tequila has been aged longer than it actually has
- Add color when reusing barrels multiple times
- Create more of a difference in the color of different classes of tequila, for example to make añejo much darker than reposado
- Create consistency between batches
- Potentially to introduce additional flavors using the caramel coloring as an agent
What else is caramel coloring added to?
In the spirits world, caramel coloring is added to many aged spirits, especially Scotch, Cognac and rum. Caramel coloring can also be used in Japanese and Irish whisky, but not Canadian whisky or anything labeled with “straight” in the US. Bourbon cannot use caramel coloring, nor any other additive.
Caramel coloring is also added to colas like Coke, soy sauces, beers and candy.
Sugar Syrup in Tequila
Tequila producers often use jarabe, or sugar based syrup to sweeten the tequila. There are no restrictions on sweeteners (apart from being approved for human consumption) and these can include:
- Agave nectar
- Corn syrup (including high fructose corn syrup)
- Cane sugar
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Piloncillo (a less process sugar from sugar cane)
Agave nectar may sound harmless, and quite in keeping with an agave based spirit. However, most agave nectar is highly processed.
A wide range of sweeteners can be used, and just about any flavor can be “smuggled in” using sophisticated techniques.
Why add sweeteners to tequila?
Adding sweeteners can cover over harsher flavors, and make young tequila taste like it has been aged more. Sweeter tequilas can also appeal to a wider range of people who maybe haven’t developed a taste for agave flavors.
Another reason to add sweeteners to tequila is for when tequila is designed to be drunk with ice or chilled. Chilling tequila dilutes most flavors and aromas, so adding sweetener brings flavor back. Think how much sweeter a Coke at room temperature tastes.
Glycerin in Tequila
Glycerin, glycerol or E422 is a substance added to just about everything. Creams, syrups, toothpaste, lubricant, fruit juice, and wine. And also in tequila.
What is glycerin?
Glycerin, also known as glycerol, is a clear, odorless, viscous liquid that is naturally sweet and non-toxic. It’s made from natural sources like vegetable oils or animal fats, and can also be made artificially. Glycerin is special because it draws water from the air, which is a property called being ‘hygroscopic’
Why add glycerin to tequila?
Glycerin is used to soften tequila and to add sweetness. Glycerin makes tequila taste smoother. It makes tequila fuller bodied, or thicker. In other words it improves the mouthfeel and makes tequila stay on the tastebuds longer and to feel less like water. Adding glycerin counteracts the alcoholic sensation in the mouth.
Tequila that is made using shortcuts (especially a diffuser and/or immature agave) can taste rougher than tequila made using more traditional methods. Adding glycerin covers over some of these shortcomings.
Adding glycerin makes younger tequila taste and feel more like older tequila. Aged tequila produces naturally occurring glycerin. By adding glycerin, producers try to replicate the qualities of tequila that has been aged longer.
What else is glycerin used for?
Glycerin is used in many things. In foods and drinks, it keeps them moist, dissolves ingredients, and adds sweetness. In medicine, it helps make liquids thicker, dissolves other ingredients, and can be used as a lubricant. In skin care products, glycerin is a popular moisturizer because it helps keep skin hydrated.
Oak Extract in Tequila
Oak extract is added to tequila to mimic the effects of aging.
What is oak extract?
Oak extract is a concentrated substance made from oak wood. It contains many of the same elements found in oak barrels, such as tannins, lignins and vanillin.
Why is oak extract added to tequila?
Oak extract is added to tequila to artificially simulate the aging process. This allows tequila producers to lower their costs by:
- Aging tequila for less time, meaning fewer barrels are required
- Using larger barrels, which impart less flavor
- Reusing barrels multiple times – less barrel flavor is imparted with each use
- Not having to re-char barrels
What else is oak extract added to?
Most cognac produced also uses oak extract. In France it is known as boise.
Are Additives in Tequila Bad?
Hating on any tequila with additives is a cultural rite among most tequila aficionados. If you’ve ever mentioned to one of these people that you like Casamigos or Don Julio 1942, be prepared for a scoff and a lecture.
Arguments Against Additives in Tequila
- Promotes unsustainable practices by allowing use of immature, flavorless agave
- Promotes non-traditional methods of production, disrespecting the artisanal and cultural heritage of tequila
- Disrespects the inherent flavor qualities of agave itself
- It just tastes bad/fake
- Lack of transparency so consumers cannot make an educated choice about what to drink
Arguments in Defense of Additives in Tequila
- Helps with product consistency
- Many other spirits use them too, even Cognac
- Smoother tasting tequila is a good gateway to introduce new drinkers to tequila
- When used modestly, can make tequila taste better
- More efficient than waiting on aging to get desired taste profile
What I Think
Hipsterism always needs an enemy, and needs some way to look down on others. The additive discussion certainly provides this in the tequila world. I personally enjoy most additive free tequilas more than heavy additive tequilas but not always. If I’m drinking it in a margarita I might actually prefer tequila with additives.
- Additive free tequilas are usually more complex, varied, have longer finishes and are generally more interesting than tequila with additives.
- What’s important to me (complexity, length, “interestingness”), isn’t important to everyone, or even to most people.
- Most people don’t think about what they are drinking as much as I do, and don’t want to over-analyze every taste. Tequila with additives are generally more “easy drinking.”
- The sustainability aspect is overplayed. Whether you harvest an agave at three years or seven years it won’t be able to cross pollinate because you are harvesting before it flowers. Using immature agave with additives does not add to the genetic diversity problems.
- It is true that once you’ve tried a range of tequilas with and without additives, you are more likely to appreciate additive free, and even grow to dislike tequilas you previously enjoyed.
- If you much prefer tequila with heavy additives, maybe you just don’t like tequila. You could probably find good rums that suit your taste for much less money.
Is Your Tequila Additive Free?
There is currently no labeling for tequila that tells you if the tequila is additive free or not. You can’t tell just by looking at the bottle. Sometimes labels and certifications can just make things more confusing. For example:
Is 100% Agave Tequila Additive Free?
No, tequila labeled 100% agave can still contain additives, and does not need to disclose this. Most 100% agave tequila does have additives.
Are Blanco Tequilas Additive Free?
No, some blanco tequilas do contain additives. There is a general understanding that additives/abocantes are not permitted in blanco tequilas under the tequila rules. While this may be the intention, the rules are not sufficiently clear and are not enforced.
Firstly, the CRT does not test blanco tequilas to rule out having additives. The CRT’s position is that blancos should not include additives, but they do not test or enforce this position. Because there is legally a gray area, brands can justifiably use additives with blancos without disclosure, even if it is against the spirit of the law.
Tequila Matchmaker has found additives in samples of several blancos using liquid chromatography tests.
Is Organic Tequila Additive Free?
No, tequila can be certified organic and still contain additives. The additive certification applies to the agaves.
Is Kosher Tequila Additive Free?
No, tequila can be certified Kosher or even Kosher for Passover and still contain additives.
The Brand Rep Says They are Additive Free, is this Right?
Unfortunately, many brand reps and even brand owners do not know how their tequila is made. If they are only relying on what their manufacturer says, this is not good enough.
There have been several cases of brands being tested for additive free verification with Tequila Matchmaker and the results coming back positive for additives. I.e., they were under the impression that they were additive free, but the results proved otherwise.
How to Know if Your Tequila Has Additives
How to tell for sure if your tequila doesn’t have additives:
- Check Tequila Matchmaker. See if the brand is listed on the Tequila Matchmaker app or website as additive free. If it is listed, it definitely does not have additives.
- Check my list of additive free brands, including many more not on TMM’s list.
How to indicate if your tequila does have additives (not 100% accurate)
- The Rub Test. Rub a few drops of the tequila between your palms. If it evaporates leaving no residue it is most likely free from additives. If it leaves a slimy residue then it probably contains additives.
- The Morning After Test. After you finish a glass of the tequila, leave the glass out overnight. In the morning, have a smell of the glass. If the aromas are still fairly evident, and in particular if it smells of oak, cotton candy, vanilla or coconut, then it’s likely to have additives. Thanks to Mike Morales from Tequila Afficionado magazine for this one.
- Unnatural flavors. This takes a bit more practice, but if you detect any flavors like these, your tequila may have additives: cake batter, frosting, strong vanilla (especially in reposados or blancos), strong sweetness. Any flavors from aging in unaged blancos should also raise suspicion (vanilla, oak, caramel, raisin etc)
If none of these methods are conclusive you may have to seek out the opinion of someone with an educated palate and experience tasting different tequilas. Sometimes additives can stand out a mile away, sometimes they are more subtle.
Tequila Matchmaker Additive Free Program
The website and app Tequila Matchmaker launched a voluntary additive free confirmation program in 2020. The program is now known as the Additive Free Aliance. Brands submit to rigorous production observation and product testing to certify that no additives are used during any phase of production. Products that pass this test are listed on the website and in the app.
When it was launched the program credited 35 brands from nine distilleries as additive free. In January 2024 there are 112 brands on the additive free list.
The program is not official, and is not recognised by the CRT. Under the rules, producers are not able to use the words “additive free” printed on their labels. However they can use cardboard notices around their necks if they like, and stores can use the terms however they like.
The certification can be for a brand, or for the entire distillery, which covers all brands produced there.
Have a look at the best cheap additive free brands here.
CRT Additive Free Program
In October 2023 Patron tequila announced that they were premiering an Additive Free endorsement from the CRT. Their core range of tequilas would now have a sticker with “Additive Free, Endorsed by Consejo Regulador del Tequila”. No announcements were made by the CRT, nor have they provided any details about the program.
The only information available seems to be a trademark application by they CRT for the phrases:
- NATURALEZA LIBRE DE ADITIVOS PRODUCTO CERTIFICADO, and
- EXCELENCIA LIBRE DE ADITIVOS PRODUCTO CERTIFICADO
These translate to “Natural free of additives certified product”, and “Excellent free of additives certified product”.
The trademark application states the following:
“The certification mark, as used by persons authorized by the certifier, certifies that the goods are manufactured in Mexico from a specific variety of the blue agave plant grown in certain regions of Mexico, are manufactured in Mexico in compliance with Mexican law and standards, and do not contain any softeners or additives such as sweeteners, coloring, or flavor softeners.” Emphasis added.CRT’s trademark application for certified additive free tequila
Time will tell if this program expands in details or brand take up.
Additives in Mezcal
Additives are not permitted in the official rules for mezcal. However, some producers definitely work around this. If you’ve ever tried Casamigos mezcal you can tell that additives have been used somewhere along the way.
Additives in Other Spirits
Tequila is not alone in permitting the use of additives. Many other spirits also use a range of additives. However, notably mezcal does not permit any additives.
(only sherry and wine,
if wet barrels are used for finishing)
|✅ (sherry or wine only)
The most common additive used in aged spirits is caramel coloring, specifically E150a. It is frequently used in Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky and Cognac.
American whiskey can have any kind of additive up to 2.5%, in theory as long as it doesn’t significantly change the flavor. In practice this is not enforced. Products labeled as “straight”, e.g. “straight whiskey” or “straight rye” cannot use additives.
Canadian whisky allows up to 9.09% additives but the additives are restricted to wine, sherry or aged whisky.
Cognac is more liberal with what additives can be included. Caramel color is usually added to Cognac. Cognac can also add sugars up 2% of the total volume (typically from sugar beets). Cognac can also use oak extract additive called boise, which is made by boiling wood and reducing the liquid into a thick syrup.
Rum brands often use additives liberally, especially sweeteners and glycerin.
Most vodka worldwide also uses additives, despite being a supposedly neutral spirit. Sugar, honey, glycerin and citric acid are commonly used in vodka to improve mouthfeel and taste. There are regional exceptions, for example Polish vodka cannot have any additives.