Additives in tequila? I bet you’ve never thought about it. But whether you are for or against additives it’s useful to know how they are used, the rules that govern them, and how to sleuth them out.

Tequila SchoolWe asked Sergio Mendoza, of Don Fulano Tequila, and Clayton Szczech, of Experience Tequila, to talk about the use of additives in tequila. (See the video at the bottom of this story to hear their discussion on additives, shot in the laboratory at the Tequileña distillery (NOM 1146), where Don Fulano is made.)

First off, the use of additives in tequila is completely permitted under the rules (Norma) governing tequila production, but there are a few caveats.

The rules state that a producer can use additives, and this does not need to be disclosed on the label, as long as it does not exceed 1% of total volume. Otherwise, it must be labeled as a “licor” or a “crema.”

When additives are used, there is no requirement to notify the end consumer, as long as the amount added does not exceed 1% of total volume. For this reason, brands that put additives into their product will often make claims that they are not using any at all. Although this is perfectly legal, it is a bit dishonest.

And, as of February, 2013, the NORMA Oficial Mexicana banned the use of additives in blanco tequilas. (Thanks to Clayton Szczech for providing such a detailed explanation.)

Tequila Additive KitThis is a sample kit from Bell Flavors & Fragrances, one of the largest suppliers of additives for use in tequila.

There are 4 types of additives allowed by law for use in 100% agave, non-blanco tequilas:

1. Sugar-based Syrup
Syrup, or “jarabe”, is a mixture of different ingredients, primarily for the purposes of creating a sweeter product. Agave nectar, corn syrup, cane sugar, aspartame, sucralose (Splenda), and stevia could all be used as a sweetening agent for tequila. The jarabe can also contain natural fruits and herbs to add aromas and flavors, too.

2. Glycerin
Glycerin is a natural byproduct of fermentation and distillation. Additional glycerin can be added in order to create a more rounded mouth feel. It is one of the most common additives used in tequila. It makes a tequila that is “thin” or watery feel fuller and thicker in your mouth.

3. Oak Extract
This adds aromas and flavors found in an oak barrel to the finished product. When using oak extracts, it’s possible to make a tequila smell or taste as though it is aged longer than it actually was.

4. Caramel Color
Used primarily for the purposes of adding color to the finished product. Caramel coloring has a mildly bitter taste, and is used for aesthetic purposes.

Additives are used at the end of the process, and are generally meant for rectification and to maintain consistency between batches. But they can also be used to cover up mistakes, or mask deficiencies in the final product.

Tequila Caramel Coloring

Additive makers, such as Bell Flavors & Fragrances, are able to replicate aromas and flavors in a very sophisticated way. The Norma allows for 1% by volume, so the additives have become very concentrated and intense compared to additives used many years ago when the 1% rule was established.

As a test of just how capable these additives can be, we used the sample kit (photo, above) to turn a blanco tequila into an “añejo” using just a toothpick. By dipping it into the additive sample bottle and adding one drop at a time to a 2-ounce pour, we were able to make it darker, sweeter, and smell and taste like a charred oak barrel within about a minute. The result was a passable “aged” tequila that could easily fool most experienced tequila drinkers.

[Turning a blanco into an aged product without the use of barrels and time is against the rules, and we are not suggesting that any brands are actually doing this.]

Additives used in tequila can be difficult to detect when used in a subtle way. However, many producers tend to go overboard, and build their flavor profile by relying heavily on the use of additives. These can become obvious because the aromas and flavors are very prominent, and dominate the drinking experience.

“I always describe them as transparent,” Mendoza said about naturally-occurring aromas and flavors. “You feel them, but you can kind of go through them.”

“When you have a product with added flavors, they’re kind of in-your-face. You hit them and you cannot go through them. They are too evident,” he said.

“If you taste many different tequilas from many different producers, you sort of develop a facility of what the natural range of aromas and flavors are,” Szczech said. “When you taste something that is completely outside of that, that’s sort of a red flag for me.”

“The only way to really get into it is by tasting a lot of tequilas,” Mendoza said. “You start to understand what the real flavors of the plant, or the process, of the yeast, of the fermentation, even of the soil of the region. It starts becoming quite evident when flavors are imposed into the product.”

Here are a few signs that additives are in use: if a tequila is extremely sweet, or smells like cake batter, cotton candy, fake fruit, or tutti-fruity candy. These are not aromas and flavors that occur naturally during the tequila making process.

Oak Extract Additive for Tequila

Diffuser-made tequilas have an additional reliance on additives for two main reasons. First, they tend to use younger agaves that have not fully matured. And second, the aromas and flavors that come from the traditional cooking process are not developed. These are two of the main reasons are why diffusers produce a more neutral spirit. The naturally-occurring aromas and flavors are lost.

“To make up for that loss in the process, I think that additives are heavily used to bring back the flavors and the nuances that tequila has naturally in a process that has not been respected completely,” Mendoza said.

So, is it possible for a distillery to produce a variety of aromas and flavors without using additives? Mendoza says, “yes.”

According to him, the Tequileña distillery (NOM 1146) does not need to use additives in order to create different flavor profiles. Instead, they can make adjustments to the process in a way that can achieve their flavor profile goals. For example, blending batches of tequila made with a copper pot still with another batch from a column still, or using agaves grown in different elevations or in different soil types.

Products made with a copper pot still tend to have a bolder, more rustic feel. They create an oily texture that can have aromas and flavors of mint, olive, and brine.

A column still will bring a crispy dry vibrancy to the finished product, and showcase green agave aromas and flavors. This is useful when looking to produce a softer, more dry and refined tequila.

Since Tequileña has a variety of equipment on site, they are able to create new flavor profiles by using different equipment, and by blending batches together.

“We have created an alphabet of base tequilas,” Mendoza said. “We can use certain qualities of a batch of tequila and play by blending with other qualities to obtain what we want. In that way our ‘additives’ are 100% agave tequila of different characteristics, from which we compose our specific profiles for each brand.”

Mendoza says that they use both subjective and objective tests to verify a flavor profile. This is done first by smelling and tasting a batch of tequila, and taking notes of what they think is present. Secondly, these findings are checked through the use of Gas Chromatography, which provides an objective chemical readout of what’s creating those profiles that we humans may refer to as “pear” or “oregano”, for example.

This process represents an admirable dedication to the art of creating a diverse, natural range of tequila aromas and flavors, but not all producers take this approach. Some stick to cooked agave, water and yeast alone and let their process and terroir dictate the results. Others take a more active approach in manipulating their tequilas through the use of additives. This is legal and not necessarily bad, but for tequila purists it’s worth learning the difference.


Additives in Tequila: A Conversation
Sergio Mendoza, of Don Fulano Tequila, and Clayton Szczech, of Experience Tequila, talk about the use of additives in tequila.


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