Sipping on your reposado in an upmarket bar, or shotting back a pricey blanco as you hit the club; it’s payday and you’re making it rain top-shelf tequila. Dressed to the nines, you’re ready to sample the finer things in life, you’ve a mischievous anticipation of friends making fools of themselves later, and not an inkling that the fool might actually be you.
Because tequila has a problem. Actually, it has a few. And the result is that many of us don’t know what we’re drinking.
The image that we have of artisanal tequila-making is romantic. Sure, there’s the red hat variety, the production for which we don’t really linger on because it’s cheap and usually has the intended effect of getting people very drunk, very quickly. But for the sort of tequila that you sip with intention, take as a dinner party offering, or treat your friends to, most of us have a specific vision of its birth: Deep in the hills of Jalisco, fields of blue weber agave plants reach maturity. Closely guarded family recipes are consulted, piñas are pressed by tahona, brick ovens caramelise the sugars, all of it painstakingly presided over by a seasoned maestro. You’re imagining that the liquid in your glass has been lovingly curated, hand-reared and fattened like a Wagyu calf, attended to as it ages, like a riddler daily turns each champagne bottle. And you’d be right. There are plenty of tequilas still made in this way, or in some variation on this general theme. But many, many are not.
From chemically accelerating the agave’s ageing process and diluting the product with low-cost sugar-based spirits, through to reliance on undisclosed synthetic additives to mimic natural flavour profiles, there are widespread tequila industry practises that you might not be aware of. And throwing money at the situation is no guarantee that the tequila on the table is additive-free or made in the traditional way that you pictured. There’s every possibility that your favourite top-shelf tipple was mass produced in a factory along with 20 other brands. And the flavours that you had assumed were unique to the plant, process or ageing barrel are actually artificial.
While none of this is illegal, certain tequila activists have begun voicing their concern about implications for health, the environment, the preservation of Mexican culture and the spirit of transparency.
The Problem of Demand
As with most industries that enter a phase where some engage in corner-cutting, the problem stems from supply versus demand. And demand for tequila is growing at an incredible rate. The industry was worth £7 billion in 2020 and is expected to exceed £10 billion by 2028. ‘So many people want to start a brand of tequila, because tequila has become so popular, but agave plants are a commodity – they take years to grow, they are harvested and they have to be replanted’, explains Nitzan Marrun, founder of Satryna, a brand of tequila made using an ancestral recipe perfected over 60 years.
According to the CRT, tequila’s Mexican regulatory council, there are presently 1,500 tequila brands in production, which puts huge pressure on the supply of agave. ‘Right now, the agave is not ready to be harvested, but people are starting to pull the plants out of the ground early,’ Marrun continues. For plants that typically require between seven and twelve years to ripen, uprooting them before they’re fully-grown has consequences. ‘If you harvest the agave at an early stage, it won’t have enough sugar in its core for fermentation, which is why people have begun to add things in order to accelerate the process, to make everything cheaper and faster.’
The sequence of ‘adding things’ to tequila begins soon after this harvesting phase, and continues all the way through to bottling. At this stage, instead of ripe plants being put into a brick oven to cook, too-young plants are being added to a machine called a diffuser, which uses either high pressure water blasts, or in some cases chemicals like hydrochloric acid, to convert the starches into sugar. Marrun likens this to a thermomix - ‘You put all the ingredients in and suddenly your dinner comes out.’
If you still haven’t got the yield required, or are keen to further commercialise the process, technically you can then dilute your tequila with another sugar-based spirit, so long as it doesn’t exceed 49% of the volume. You do then have to mark your product somewhere on the bottle as ‘mixtos’ (mixed), but it’s legal in the eyes of the CRT.
So, demand is high, the land is overburdened and to meet demand, tequila is being mass produced using chemicals, low-cost ingredients and industrial equipment. So far, so predictable. You might expect your typical well tequila to come from a production line as cheap as the afterburn suggests. You get what you pay for, hey. But you might be surprised to find that some of the more expensive brands of tequila aren’t too different, at their essence, from the paint-stripper shot you so badly need a lemon to chase. In fact, they might be exactly the same spirit, made in the same factory - just one is in a fancy bottle with a different label - and taste different only artificially.
The Problem Of Additives
‘The truth is that so much tequila is actually produced in factory-style distilleries, serving 60 plus brands, with just one master distiller,’ says Matthew Hechter who, together with partner Chris Brandon of Tepozan tequila, is campaigning for greater transparency in the industry.
In these factories, ‘they’re often using the same agave, the same water, the same yeast and what they call their ‘recipes’ are actually different mixtures of additives,’ he continues. ‘So, some might use a little more vanilla, some might use a little bit more oak extract. And that's really the only way to differentiate between some of the brands.’
We must briefly acknowledge, at this point, that it is possible to make a uniquely distilled, additive-free tequila in a factory beside other brands. ‘With care and dedication,’ says Sergio Mendoza, founder of Don Fulano, ‘it is possible to achieve lots of amazing flavours and nuances from a single distillery. There are different ways to cook the agave, to extract the juices, of fermenting, as well as different kinds of stills and barrel types for maturation.’ Particularly in a distillery where there is more than one maestro, varying these techniques between brands makes it possible to produce one-of-a-kind tequilas without the need for anything synthetic.
‘Possible, but not probable,’ continues Mendoza. ‘About 85% of brands going to market are contracted out to distilleries, and big distilleries making too many brands are likely putting the same juice in different bottles, but with different flavour enhancers.’
Additives are permitted by the CRT, in volumes of up to 1%, and they don’t have to be disclosed on the label, so a brand can legally claim to be 100% blue agave, when it’s not. They were introduced to allow for ‘rectification.’ In other words, to correct minor inconsistencies – usually colour - between bottles that were expected to sit next to each other on shelves. The irony is that additives are now used to do exactly the opposite: to be the only defining feature separating large batch tequilas from each other in the eyes (and palate) of the drinker.
‘These artificial flavours have become so sophisticated, so potent that you can literally get a toothpick, dip it into a little vial, put it in a bottle of blanco [the white, freshly distilled tequila spirit] and in seconds, it looks and tastes like a reposado [a tequila that requires some time ageing in an oak barrel],’ says Hechter.
It’s worth noting that from 2013, it became illegal to colour a blanco tequila, to have it masquerade as a reposado or añejo (the most aged of the tequila spirits). And this does seem to have stopped that particular problem. But there is less legislation preventing young reposados, for example, from being given the veil of something that took longer to develop. So that extra añejo that you’ve shelled out £50 to sip by the glass, might not be quite as mature as the price tag suggests.
Consumers increasingly obsessed with ‘clean’ (chemical-free) food products have raised concerns that with this lack of transparency, we might be swigging back ingredients that are actually harmful to health. Christina Jax, Food Scientist at Lifesum, one of the world’s leading nutrition apps, digs into this idea. ‘There are only four categories of legal additives, according to the CRT: glycerin (‘for mouthfeel’), oak extracts, caramel colouring, and sweeteners,’ she clarifies. And it doesn’t look like any of these pose any major threat to your system, especially considering the low volume that you would be consuming them in.
‘The research varies on oak extract and health,’ Jax explains, ‘It has actually been studied as a supplement, especially in the form of Robuvit®, where it found benefits in increased energy and decreased pain. Other studies have reported that even low levels of oak extract can result in headaches. When taken by mouth, glycerin can cause side effects including headaches, dizziness, bloating, nausea, vomiting, thirst, and diarrhoea, but given that most additives in tequila are under 1% of total volume, this would be considered a lower quantity. The artificial brown colouring in food and beverages products is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites, resulting in the formation of 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole, which in government-conducted studies has been linked to lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats. The levels of caramel colouring considered carcinogenic have not been studied in humans, and the FDA is currently reviewing data on levels deemed safe for the food supply.’
In summary, it’s not likely that these additives could cause any real harm to your health in the volume that they’re being used. Plus, alcohol in any great measure isn’t especially good for you either, so maybe if you’re already doing shots, you’re not that bothered by E-numbers. But the point stands that in the case of some tequila, you could be supping on the equivalent of a blue Smartie, duped into thinking it’s Hotel Chocolat.
The Problem Of The NOM
For those beginning to get wise to these sorts of activities, there used to be a good first line of defence. On the back of every bottle of tequila there is a number, called the NOM, which helps to identify where it came from.
‘If I spot a new tequila I've never seen before,’ says Brandon, ‘I'll Google the NOM and it’ll show me every other brand that's made at that specific NOM. So I can make sure it's not mass produced.’ As we’ve delved into, not every instance of mass production leads to reductions in quality, age or refinement, but often it is an indicator of a tequila that was produced without the artisanal care and process that you might find at a single-brand, smaller distillery.
A quick look at one particular NOM, reveals that 18 brands are currently in production there, including three globally-recognised labels. Reviewing this NOM’s history shows that another particularly famous tequila brand - one often marketed using the terms ‘artisanal’ and ‘family’ - was also formerly manufactured there.
Unfortunately though - knowing that artisanal versions, made on a farm by hand, are looked upon so favourably - tequila companies are learning how to better make it look like this is what’s going on. Speaking to Grover Sanschagrin - co-founder of Tequila Matchmaker, a database which categorises and ranks tequilas based on reviews of distilleries and production practises – he says we’re beginning to see more NOM-based trickery.
‘Most people think the NOM is something assigned to a distillery, as if it were a building. When actually, it is assigned to a legal entity or a business that is responsible for the contents of the bottle. With that in mind, it has become easier for brands to register themselves as a business somewhere in Mexico and then have a contract with a distillery where lots of other products are made. They then use their own NOM number on their bottle, making it look like they have their own distillery, when in fact they do not.’
The Problem Of Celebrities
If you’ve been living under a rock, you might not know that Kendall Jenner recently put her name to a tequila. After many Instagram posts about ‘taste testing’ and a campaign featuring a pigtailed Jenner wearing a cowboy hat and mincing through fields of agave with somebody’s horse (sparking frenzied calls of ‘cultural appropriation,’ to which she has yet to respond), 818 has been conferred upon the world.
According to Tequila Matchmaker, 818 is made at NOM 1137, along with tequilas from 63 other brands. And while there’s nothing technically wrong with Jenner hitching her carriage to the mass production engine, it feels a little dishonest for the brand to be pitching itself as being produced by a ‘close family’, trying to ‘keep it as traditional as much as we can.’ (ELLE reached out to Kendall Jenner’s team for comment and a representative said: '818 is in the process of switching to a new NOM and their distillery remains a family-owned and operated group.')
Jenner isn’t the only one though. She joins a long line of A-listers to launch a tequila. George Clooney had Casamigos, which he founded with Rande Gerber and then sold to drinks giant Diageo. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has Teremana which, interestingly, has its own distillery and by all accounts takes great pains to respect the land and the Mexican people. Even Rita Ora has a tequila, called Próspero.
Superstar tequila isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, depending on how they go about it. ‘I feel like if these celebrities are as conscious as we are, regarding the matter of harvesting and the Mexican landscape and additives, then I think it’s fine,’ considers Marrun.
‘Regardless of who you are, your brand should have certain values. It would be amazing if people with so much public presence used it to explain a little more about Mexican culture and what our concerns are in the tequila industry,’ she continues. ‘But a couple of them are making tequila just to make a tequila.’ For the record, Casamigos claims to be produced using a ‘traditional’ brick oven method, and Próspero is presided over by Stella Anguiano, one of Mexico’s premier female Master Distillers, who they insist takes ‘care’ in the process and is ‘committed to paying tribute to Mexico’s heritage.’
On balance, though, there is enormous potential for celebrity tequilas to exacerbate existing issues, by pushing up demand and enabling further short-cutting, while not doing much to protect the traditions or the environment. That mass production causes environmental issues is a fact. Agave cultivation is responsible 15,955 hectares of deforestation each year. Every person entering the market avoiding the slower, more careful artisanal methods in favour of too-early harvesting and high turnover, is contributing to the ravishing of Jalisco’s farmlands. Beyond that, as is the enduring trend, we in the rest of the world seem to enjoy Mexican exports while showing total disregard Mexican people and if we’re not careful, our appropriation of tequila could leave them much further disenfranchised.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, with news of all this shadiness and artifice, you might be feeling a bit disheartened. A once guilt-free pleasure suddenly tugging on your conscience. The answer is not, of course, to stop enjoying tequila. Heaven forbid. But just to be maybe more mindful about what you’re tossing down your gullet.
Of the 1,500 tequila brands in production, it would be impossible to say for sure how most of these are distilled, or whether they use anything synthetic, because there is no legal requirement for these companies to make this known.
In fact, you might not even consider additives to be a huge deal. If you’re the type of person to chase shots with a Red Bull, aiming to chow down on a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese at the end of the night, then what’s a bit more sucralose and some E105a? Live your best life.
But if you’re prone to paying top dollar for a drink of quality and maddened to think you could be sipping on the same nauseating firewater as your Maccy D loving friends, damaging the planet in the process, there are ways to look into what you’re paying for.
The first and, currently, the best way to do this is to look up the tequila and the distillery on Tequila Matchmaker (TM). At the click of a button you’ll have a considerable amount of information about provenance, manufacturing process, and ingredients beyond what it says on the bottle. Following that, you can consider TM’s additive-free certification programme. It is an entirely voluntary programme, so the brands on the list are by no means an exhaustive look at who is or isn’t using synthetic ingredients, but for those who do invite TM to review their distillery, the methods of certification are robust.
‘When we first announced our programme,’ says Sanschagrin, ‘We were bombarded with interest from brands who wanted to go through our process. We then sent them all of the detailed information as to what it is that we look at and what it is that we do in each distillery visit to confirm that there are no additives in their product and about 80% of those that had got in touch initially, never responded again.’ So if a tequila has been awarded TM’s ‘additive free’ designation, you can be sure that it is.
Beyond that, develop your palate. Try a series of well curated tequilas and see if you can’t begin to identify the natural flavour profiles. Instead of quaffing back gut-rotting hootch at every opportunity, become a fine tequila connoisseur, and get thee a glass of something that is, genuinely, excellent. In the long run, you’ll be contributing less to Mexico’s big tequila problem, and in the short, you’ll no longer be a fool.
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