Tequila Matchmaker, The CRT, And The Battle Over Additive-Free Tequila

On March 27, Mexican news sources reported the execution of a search warrant on a residence in the city of Guadalajara for the alleged illicit production of alcoholic beverages. According to the article, federal authorities were acting on information given to them by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the state-sanctioned regulatory body of Mexico’s tequila industry. No arrests were made, but hundreds of items were confiscated, including two stills and over 500 glass bottles. What makes this story newsworthy is that the home belongs to Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin, the driving force behind the Additive-Free Alliance.

Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin

What Is The Additive-Free Alliance?

Founded in 2020, the Additive-Free Alliance (AFA) is an independent consortium of tequila and agave spirits producers, retailers, and enthusiasts that believe tequila is at its best when it’s made using traditional methods and natural ingredients. The group was founded by the Sanschagrins, a married couple who run the websites Tequila Matchmaker and Taste Tequila. Both promote additive-free tequila and provide detailed information about how tequila is made.

Additive Free Tequila Certification

The AFA advocates for transparency in the production process of tequila, mezcal and other agave spirits. In 2023, they began certifying brands that could prove their products are devoid of artificial ingredients, which they illustrate to consumers by placing a sticker on the bottle. To date, over 100 brands have joined the AFA or been certified additive-free by the organization. These actions have brought the AFA into conflict with the Consejo Regulador del Tequila.

Understanding Tequila Regulation And The CRT

The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), also referred to as the Tequila Regulatory Council, oversees every aspect of Mexican tequila production and certifies which agave spirits qualify as tequila. Founded in 1993, its official purpose is to ensure quality standards across the industry and promote tequila as a national product. The CRT isn't a federal agency, but it is funded by the Mexican government, which grants it the authority to enforce government policies.

According to CRT policy, in order for a Mexican agave spirit to be considered a tequila it must meet the following standards: It can only use blue agave grown in one of the designated "Appellation of Origin" regions. The agave plants must meet required maturity and sugar content levels before harvesting. The entire production process - including cooking, fermentation, distillation, and aging - must adhere to the Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) standards. Finally, a product's packaging and labeling must accurately reflect its authenticity and origin.

Despite the CRT's stringent criteria, there's a loophole that permits the use of additives in aged tequila like reposados and anejos. According to the NOM, this amount can be up to 1% of the total volume. For people who side with the AFA, the 1% loophole compromises the purity of tequila. Additionally, the CRT allows for agave processing and tequila production on an industrial scale, which replaces traditional methods tequila producers have been using for nearly 300 years.

What Additives Are In Tequila And What Do They Do?

The use of additives runs parallel to tequila's increased popularity outside Mexico; particularly in the United States. The natural zest and bite of tequila is often perceived as "harsh" by those unfamiliar with the distinct characteristics of fermented agave. In an attempt to appeal to American tastebuds, sugar-based syrups and artificial sweeteners, including aspartame and stevia, were introduced to tone down the spirit's natural flavors.

According to the Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM), tequila production also permits the use of other additives like caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin and flavoring agents. Coloring is used to darken the liquid and oak extract adds wood notes to the smell and taste. These additives make tequila look, smell and taste like it's spent more time in a barrel, and is older than it really is. Glycerin makes the liquid more viscous. Vanilla and other flavorings direct a tequila’s aroma and flavor towards recognizable Americanized taste profiles that can be found in processed foods and sweets.

It should be noted, tequila isn't the only liquor that uses additives. Rum, Cognac and certain whiskeys are known to use coloring and sweeteners. In Japan, for example, distillers often use coloring so their whisky has a consistent color, even though maturation may vary from release to release.

Tequila Tradition Vs. Industrial Tequila Production

The CRT faces significant criticism within the spirits industry from a multitude of parties. Some, like the brands Caballito Cerrero and Chacolo, argue that the organization imposes overly restrictive criteria for classifying tequila, prompting them to reject the designation altogether. Others criticize the CRT for operating without federal oversight and functioning autonomously. Critics point to the CRT's close ties to large tequila producers and international beverage conglomerates, suggesting that these connections influence the CRT's decisions. This perceived alignment with industry giants raises concerns that the CRT prioritizes commercial interests over the preservation of traditional tequila-making methods and Mexican cultural heritage.

Traditional tequila-making is an artisanal craft, rooted in generations of experience, with techniques that often involve pains-taking labor. Independent and traditional tequila makers accuse the CRT of obstructing their efforts to maintain traditional practices, which they argue preserve authentic Mexican craftsmanship. Others, such as the non-profit SACRED, say the CRT doesn’t do enough to protect workers or hold the industry accountable for its environmental impact.

Meanwhile, advocates such as Tequila Matchmaker have made additive-free tequila their primary focus. In an interview with the website Punch, Scarlet Sanschagrin claimed "at least 70% of all tequilas sold contain additives," adding, that was a low estimate due to the lack of transparency in the tequila industry.

The CRT’s Response To AFA Certification

The CRT has been vehement in its contention that tequila isn’t big enough for two certifying bodies, especially when one of them has no formal relationship with the Mexican government. According to the website Bottle Raiders, the CRT sent out an email in January 2024, stating, "We consider that any scheme offered in the market to ‘certify’, ‘verify’ or ‘confirm’ in any language that a certain trademark is ‘ADDITIVE FREE’ represents an act contrary to good customs and practices and induces error or confusion to the tequila consumer." While not mentioned by name, it’s clear the target of their wrath was the AFA.

In a nod to consumer pressure and the AFA’s inroads, the CRT has begun their own additive-free certification program, however tentative. In October 2023, it was announced the CRT certified Patron Tequila additive-free. The designation was noted using a sticker affixed to the Patron bottle. However, it's unclear if this is part of a broader initiative to certify more brands. The CRT’s website offers no information on how to apply for certification.

The CRT’s alleged involvement in the raid on the Sanschagrin’s property raises the stakes for all parties. Though the raid was ostensibly related to illegal spirits production, the equipment seized can also be used to inspect and analyze the composition of alcoholic beverages. In its defense, the AFA has noted that the seized equipment was an essential part of its services and was used to determine if agave spirits are additive-free.

The Aftermath

To date, no charges have been brought against the Sanschagrins, and the couple are holding their cards close to their chest. "We are not talking about it at this time under our lawyers’ advice," they said in a statement to Wine Enthusiast, adding, "We hope it will be resolved soon." The CRT have also refused to comment on the situation.

Grover Sanschagrin

The incident has helped publicize the cause for additive-free tequila and agave spirits, but it also raises concerns about the movement as a whole. Many within the tequila industry have joined the AFA, including distillers like Codigo 1530 and Don Fulano. The distillers who support the AFA view it as an opportunity to expand their market presence while remaining true to their commitment to quality, traditional methods, and cultural origins. But not everyone views the AFA as underdogs on a sacred mission to improve the tequila industry.

Detractors suggest "additive-free" is a marketing buzzword, like "farm to table" and "organic," and the movement is driven by Americans who have their own agenda. The circumstance does beg the question: what gives an American-led organization the right to dictate which tequilas are authentically Mexican? Considering Americans extensive track record of profiteering from cultural appropriation, it's also reasonable to ask if capitalism and racism are at play.

There's no indicator that advocates for additive-free tequila are insincere, but an argument can still be made that non-Mexicans shouldn't be allowed to regulate tequila. After all, in what other global scenario is a foreign country allowed to position itself as the authenticator of spirits it doesn't produce? The Scottish govern Scotch. Americans govern bourbon. The Japanese govern sake. The French govern cognac... And so on. Other countries would never allow a foreign entity to have a say in the production and classification of their heritage spirits. Why should Mexico be any different?

In 2021, tequila surpassed whiskey as America's #2 spirit. It hasn't looked back since. This year, tequila's projected to generate over $32 billion in revenue globally. As tequila consumption continues to grow, so will the tension between preserving Mexican heritage and meeting global demand. As for the feud between the CRT and AFA, that story is only beginning to be told. 

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