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Are Tequila Additives That Big of a Deal?

Are Tequila Additives That Big of a Deal?

Is additive use in tequila that big of a deal? Some industry experts seem to think so. Conversation around the issue has heated up in recent months as tequila sales skyrocket in the United States; tequila is now the fastest-growing spirit category in the country and the second-most popular spirit, behind vodka. With so much tequila being poured—and so much potential profit on the table—the debate around how tequila is made and marketed has never been more pointed.

Perhaps nothing better encapsulates this than when, in early March, Mexican police raided the home of Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin, two vocal advocates for the disclosure of additives in tequila. Writer-at-Large and spirits reviewer Kara Newman wrote about the event in her recent article for Wine Enthusiast, “Following a Mexican Police Raid, the Fight Over Additive-Free Tequila Heats Up.”

We caught up with Newman about the raid and why additives in tequila are so divisive in the first place. It turns out that Newman doesn’t think that additives are inherently bad—they include sweetening syrups, caramel coloring and oak extracts intended to make a tequila seem smoother, older or sweeter—but the lack of transparency about their use is problematic. She also suspects that there’s more to the raid than meets the eye.

“I always believe you have to follow the money,” Newman tells us in the episode. 

Listen as Newman goes deep on additive use in tequila and why, for some, it’s so concerning. She also talks about additive use in other spirits, like whiskey, Cognac and rum, and why branding a product as “additive-free” has the potential to be a powerful marketing tool. So powerful, perhaps, that it sparked an encounter with law enforcement.

You May Also Like: Is That Tequila Additive-Free? Odds Are Not

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Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Kara Newman, Rachel Tepper Paley

Rachel Tepper Paley  00:08

Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast. Your serving drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Rachel Tepper Paley, Digital Managing Editor here at Wine Enthusiast. Tequila is the fastest growing spirit category in the United States. In 2021, it officially surpassed whiskey and retail sales, making it the second most popular spirit in the country behind vodka. But as interest and tequila heats up, so does the conversation around additives like sweetening syrups, caramel coloring, glycerin, and oak extracts intended to make a tequila seem smoother, older or sweeter. In a recent article for Wine Enthusiast, Writer-at-Large and spirits reviewer Karen Newman wrote about how this debate recently came to a dramatic head when Mexican authorities raided the home of two vocal advocates for the disclosure of additive use in tequila. Today Kara joins us to talk about the raid and zoom out on the big picture of what it means for your next bottle of tequila.


Rachel Tepper Paley  01:10

Hi, Kara. Thanks so much for being here.

Kara Newman  01:13

Hi, Rachel. Glad to talk with you.

Rachel Tepper Paley  01:16

Before we get into, let’s explain what went down on March 27. Here’s what we know. That day Mexican authorities raided the home of Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin. They are the co founders of Tequila Matchmaker, which launched a program now known as the Additive-Free Alliance in 2020. The voluntary program essentially allows the group to inspect the distilleries of participating operations and do analyses to prove they’re not using additives. The operations that pass tests get to put the Alliance’s, “Zero Additives” stamp on their bottles. During the raid, hundreds of pieces of equipment were confiscated from the Saschagrin home under the accusation that they were being used for illegal distillation. Many in the spirits community feel that there’s something fishy about all of this. The Additive-Free Alliance has for some time been at odds with the Mexican government’s Tequila Regulatory Council, also known as CRT, which recently announced a similar initiative for an additive free verification program and making things fishier, local reports suggest that CRT officials were present on the scene of the raid. This sounds like a startling scene and certainly not something we see everyday in the spirits industry. Kara, can you tell us a little bit about why people care so much about additives and in tequila in the first place and how widespread is their use?

Kara Newman  02:38

Okay, well, it’s hard to tell exactly how widespread the use is, according to the folks at Tequila Matchmaker upwards of 70% of tequila producers are using additives in one way or another. But really, the reasons for the objections really has a lot to do with transparency. I mean, just like in food, people have allergies, or they have aversions, they might want to steer clear of those additives. For example, some of the artificial sweeteners used in tequila, in addition to things like agave, I mean, they also use stevia, saccharin, aspartame. And people might just want this information disclosed so they can make their own educated decisions. But there’s also a different debate as well. I mean, within the tequila world, some advocates object to the use of additives at all, and one of Grover’s comments has been that using additives creates I’m using air quotes creates “unrealistic expectations.” And by that he means that using additives can create what appears to be a canvas that might not necessarily reflect what the tequila is actually is like one of the primary uses of these additives is to create consistency, and tequila, for example. So maybe one batch might be lighter or another might be darker, one might be sweeter one might not be and adjusting with additives can create the perception that is much smoother and much more consistent across the board. And there’s also one of the other objections. So the final objection is has to do with a process called using a diffuser. And this is a product used by larger scale industrial producers to extract raw agave juice instead of cooking whole agaves is and this process makes tequila faster and cheaper and often much younger agave plants are used instead of allowing allowing agave to mature a typical seven years and is diffuse create a much more neutral product that some actually call it agave vodka. And then some producers will then use additives to create these flavors or textures on this otherwise neutral canvas and that really gets a lot of people very upset, the use of diffusers.


What are your personal thoughts on tequila additives and diffusers? Is this something that you care about?

Kara Newman  05:08

I personally don’t think that using additives is necessarily a terrible, evil nefarious thing. But it is sometimes used to cover up subpar tequila. And I do think it ought to be disclosed for food safety reasons, not for transparency reasons. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. There’s actually a community of very passionate, deep-dive agave nerds, they’re intense. They’re they’re vocal. And there’s a lot of uproar. There’s definitely a lot of pushback, especially now against using these additives.

Rachel Tepper Paley  05:46

Do you think that the conversation around additives and tequila is at all related to, for lack of a better word, the wellness movement, like we’re seeing people demand transparency in other parts of the food system? Is this the natural evolution of that in the drinks space?

Kara Newman  06:02

Absolutely. There’s definitely been a halo effect similar to that of organic or or natural. For some reason tequila is always described these days as “cleaner.” Again, I’m using air quotes “cleaner” than other spirits. And I mean, that makes no sense. But the conversation around additives really flies in the face of that. And I think sometimes people forget that fermented and distilled beverages are part of the broader universe of, of food products and things we ingest, and they’re deserving of consumer protections as well.


It’s really fascinating. I’m curious to know more about the differences between the Sanchagrin’s Additive-Free Alliance and the CRT? How do they interact with one another? How are they different? What was sort of like the situation behind this big blow up at the raid?

Kara Newman  06:55

Alright, this could take a long time, I’ll try to encapsulate it. I mean, the easiest way to describe the difference between these two, I mean, it’s a David and Goliath situation. On one hand, you have this independent, two person, organization. And on the other you have a large, powerful government agency. That’s the CRT. And it’s a voluntary program to kill a matchmakers voluntary program to kill makers will hire them and grant them access to their distillery to observe their practices. And then they test at multiple points in the production process along the way. And they’ll then compare those results to what you might purchase at the liquor store and just make sure that everything matches up. And it’s labor intensive, time intensive thing to do and they get paid for doing it, quite frankly. And my opinion, is that the the CRT, one of their objections is that somebody else is going in and, and making money profiting off of what’s going on in the in the tequila world by and large and I’m sure that raised some some hackles. And, you know, I always believe you have to follow the money. And I really do believe that’s what’s going on here.

Rachel Tepper Paley  08:11

And just to be clear, it’s correct. Like the brands pay for the, the analysis. And, and they need to renew the certification annually.

Kara Newman  08:24

Yes, yes, yes. It’s ongoing source of revenue perhaps. Yeah. And there’s some pretty big brands in there, too. So it’s not like it’s just a handful, and lots of them also will pay for the evaluation process. And then they they sail on, they might come back again, or they might not.

Rachel Tepper Paley  08:44

I think that’s really interesting what you said about following the money, especially considering tequila is such a huge moneymaker these days, as we said, at the top of the episode, tequila is the fastest growing spirit in the United States. And I have a suspicion that being able to claim that a tequila is additive free, is a powerful selling point. I can tell you, Kara, that as the digital Managing Editor of Wine Enthusiast, your story on this raid, generated quite a bit of traffic, which, you know, maybe was because of the dramatic nature of the story. But I suspect also it suggests that the notion of tequila additives, is a subject matter people are really paying attention to.

Kara Newman  09:29

I think so. I think so. I mean, again, in the spirit of follow the money. I’ll tell you just just between us between between you and me and everybody listening to the podcast. Since that article came out, I’ve been getting bombarded with pitches about additive-free tequilas. And there’s there’s clearly a commercial case to be made. I mean, one of the people I interviewed for the article was Ivy Mix. She’s a bartender, she’s the owner of Fiasco!, a retail store in Brooklyn. And she said that additive-free tequila, she looks for additive-free when she’s made her purchasing decisions for the retail shop and also for her bar Leyenda, also a tremendously influential bar also in Brooklyn. And the fact that she’s out there saying, “Well, I’m not going to bring in these bottles unless they’re additive free,” that’s, that’s meaningful, and other people will, will follow her, her lead. And I do think that consumers, you know, they’ll be watching, they’ll vote with their feet, they’ll vote with their wallet. And I think it says something that even PR reps are sitting up and taking notice, and every company now wants to be additive free, whether they are or they aren’t. I mean, there’s, for the moment, there really aren’t any more arbiters are there. I mean, we’ll we’ll see what happens.

Rachel Tepper Paley  10:54

I think that some people would want to make the case that added a free tequila tastes better. Do you think that’s true? Do you think it’s sort of besides the point because people are interested in additive-free tequila for other reasons? Or is it more convoluted than that?

Kara Newman  11:12

Here’s the thing about additives in tequila. I mean, they, they do impact how it tastes, I attended a seminar where we tasted side by side, tequilas with additives and tequilas without additives. And you see that the difference? The ones with additives, there’s kind of this, this yummy kind of cake, better flavor sometimes or there’s glycerin as this kind of, like smoothness that’s very appealing. And, again, it’s I think the problem isn’t that additives are being used, but that they aren’t being disclosed. And a true story, one of the one of the reviews, more than one of the reviews I’ve done for for Wine Enthusiast, I will receive tequilas, I will taste them. I’m tasting them blind. I don’t know what’s in the glass until later. And then when I go to do the unveil, I don’t know that there are tequila that there additives, it’s not always listed on the bottle. Maybe it says caramel color, maybe it doesn’t. And more than once I’ve been caught out interviews saying, I’ll rate something, let’s say a 93. And it’s a tequila that was, you know, it was it was something I enjoyed, I thought somebody else might enjoy, you know, it tasted good. And I’ll find out later in a fairly public semi-embarrassing way that that bottle did indeed include additives. And some of those same, you know, deep-dive agave nerds I was talking about earlier. They will you know, they’ll call me out in forums and say how, how dare you give this bottle a 93. When we know that it was made with a diffuser, you know that the evil word diffuser, and it was flavored with additives. And I fell for it hook line and sinker. And it doesn’t mean that those are necessarily bad. But it means that, you know, if I can be duped, other people can be duped.

Rachel Tepper Paley  13:13

So it’s a matter of transparency. Really, in your mind.

Kara Newman  13:16

It is. I think so. I mean, I would like to know, before I go out on a limb and say hey, this is great. It’d be nice to know what it is. I’m saying. What it is I’m recommending and drinking.

Rachel Tepper Paley  13:27

I’m curious how prevalent is additive use in other spirits like vodka or whiskey or whatever.

Kara Newman  13:35

It’s also pretty, pretty prevalent. Yeah, you see caramel coloring a lot in the rum world in particular, you see a ton of caramel coloring of additives, and the brandy world and Cognac, they talk about the use of boise to just sweeten the brandy, you pick up a bottle of vodka sometimes you’ll see glycerin listed. I mean, it’s pretty prevalent. But I do think across the spirits industry, it ought to be disclosed. And within tequila, what we have now is this groundswell of attention in one particular spirits category, because it’s one of the top sellers, because there are these two entities that are kind of coming head to head this David and Goliath situation. And it’s kind of enticing to watch from the outside, though I assume it’s probably not very fun to be experiencing on the inside. And again, it just all comes down to this enormous market that is now going through this very public battle. And I like to think that we’ll get through this. And there’ll be maybe some regulations put into place in the tequila industry that other spirits industries can follow. It would be nice to have something a little more broadly applied.

Rachel Tepper Paley  14:52

I’m just curious if you think that the way that tequila has been marketed, which is like something of an ancestral product has anything to do with like, why ire over additives has been so extreme and tequila versus other spirit categories that use additives?

Kara Newman  15:11

Oh, that’s a good question. I wonder how this would have played out if it had been the Mezcal industry instead of tequila? Yeah, tequila has a lot of, of smaller players, for sure. And a lot of growers, I mean, basically like, like anywhere else across the industry, they’re farmers. They’re raising tequila. And they’re raising agave. But I think one of the key differences between agave and other crops like, like corn or rye used to make whiskey is that the stakes are so much higher for Agave because it takes so long to grow. It’s not an annual crop. Like I said, it can take anywhere from seven to even 10 years for agave to fully mature. And now that it’s such a huge market in the US and across the world, it’s getting a lot more attention. There’s a lot of pressure to plant and harvest more Agave more quickly, in turn that’s led to some of those, those diffuser tactics, because often, younger Agave is used to create a neutral product, which then goes through the process of having additives to make it tastier or make it seem more old, smooth premium, I guess premium is definitely a good word to apply here. And in the end, I know there’s a lot of money at stake, there’s a lot of livelihoods at stake. And people just want something that they can pour at home and and enjoy. Do you think that there’s an argument to be made for sort of restrictions, or at least like the need for transparency around additives is like being protective of tequila’s identity? I don’t know. But I think it probably would be a good idea.

Rachel Tepper Paley  17:03

It’s kind of crazy to imagine a future where you have a tequila in like every flavor of the rainbow like you have with vodka, like cotton candy flavored tequila, you know, sherbert flavored tequila? Like is that you know, you have to ask yourself is that the world we’re trending to if you know, additive use isn’t regulated or or disclosed. I think that’s well said. You reached out to Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin when you were recording out this article. They said they were declining to comment on their lawyer’s advice. What do you think the path forward here is?

Kara Newman  17:24

You bring up a really good point, there is a burgeoning corner of the tequila world called cristalino. And basically, it’s aged tequila that has the color filtered out, you know, hence crystaline, cristalino. And often it’s sweetened with agave. But it’s usually disclosed. I mean, that is the description of the product. It’s filtered, it’s usually sweetened. It is what it is. It’s controversial. Not everybody loves it. You know, not everybody has to be a tequila purists. But it’s a growing section, and a lot of people really enjoy it. And as long as you know what it is, you’re getting, I certainly don’t have any objection. You know, it takes all types. I have a lot of respect for the people who produce tequila. And it’s nice that there’s such a variety within that category alone. I mean, everything from blanco, reposado, anejo, extra anejo. I mean, that’s great. But for example, I don’t think that extra anejo should be amped up with lots of extra color and consumers not told about it. That would be deceptive. That’s where I have problems. I don’t have a problem with cristalino existing or being marketed even though lots of people may disagree. That’s fine. But I like that it’s yet another option and if, as he put it, cotton candy flavored tequila becomes a reality one day, I don’t think I’ll be lining up to drink it. But I will gladly respect, I’ll stand up for your your right to enjoy it. I want you to know what you’re getting. Well, since that article came out, there hasn’t been a whole lot else to say. The Sanschagrins are not saying anything. Don’t blame them. The CRT is not saying anything. And the only thing I’m really hearing on the grounds a lot of drumbeats from press rub saying no write about all our additive-free tequila. And the path forward… what happens next really depends on how much noise consumers make. Similar to the the organic movement or the wellness movement, if people say they value additive-free tequila and make purchasing decisions accordingly, the tequila industry is likely to listen.

Rachel Tepper Paley  20:14

Thanks so much for sharing your insights into this Kara. I really appreciate you being here.

Kara Newman  20:18

No problem. Good talking with you. Thank you

Rachel Tepper Paley  20:25

The debate over additives in tequila adds a new dimension to the spirit’s increasing popularity and what it means for mainstream drinking habits. We want to know:  Do you care about additives and tequila? Email us at podcast@Wine and we might share your feedback on the podcast. We love hearing from you and appreciate your support. Please rate and review us wherever you listen to podcasts. Remember to visit us at for content and products that bring your love of wine to life.

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