As spirit sales have increased over the last few years, largely due to the growing consumption of high-end tequila and mezcal, there seems to be an idea among tequila aficionados that you should only drink bottles labeled 100% agave tequila. Tequila without that label—called mixtos—contains other forms of sugar, and there’s an assumption that it must be avoided because it’s of lower quality. But tequila makers are pushing back against that narrative, stressing that there is plenty of space for mixtos on the tequila shelves.
“All tequilas are good,” says Jorge Antonio Salles, with respect to the effort required for cultivating agave. Salles is the third-generation master distiller of El Tequileño, a brand founded in the Mexican town of Tequila in 1959 by Salles’s grandfather, Jorge Salles Cuervo. “People outside of Mexico, and even some in Mexico, see mixto as a low-quality product, which I don’t agree with.”
The truth is, a bottle of 100% agave tequila is no guarantee of a high-quality product, and to demand it seemingly denies an important part of tequila’s history: the products that have never been made with 100% agave. Salles’s grandfather’s tequila, El Tequileño Blanco, is a mixto, consisting of 70% agave and 30% piloncillo, a form of raw cane sugar. He says it’s the best-selling tequila in Tequila.
What Deserves to Be Called “Tequila”?
By definition, all tequila must be made in the Mexican state of Jalisco, though some definitions include those bottles produced in Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. The spirit must use only Blue Weber agave, though tequila isn’t required to be made from 100% agave. Only 51% is required, and up to 49% of the tequila may be made from other sugars, sometimes including low-quality sugars such as corn syrup. (For more details, read our beginner’s guide to tequila.)
The History of Mixto Tequila
Up until recently, the practice of adding additional sugars to the agave base was extremely common in tequila production. “When tequila first appeared, most tequilas were mixtos,” says Salles. “Back in the late 1980s, there was a shortage of sugar, and one kilo of sugar became way more expensive than one kilo of agave, so many people started switching to 100% [agave].”
According to data from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the regulatory body for tequila, as recently as 1995, mixto production outpaced 100% agave tequila production by nearly 50-fold. Consumers quickly developed a preference for 100% agave tequila since the rise in the last 20 years, and along with it, the rationale that it always indicated a higher quality product. But in truth, the origin of 100% agave tequila is rooted more in economics than tradition.
The Case for Mixto Tequila
Adding additional ingredients to tequila (like caramel color, glycerin and oak extracts) can adjust for color, flavor and body after fermentation and distillation processes have taken place. Mixtos are not automatically considered to have additives, however. (Though, tequilas are legally allowed to include 1% additives, which is different than using non-agave sugars.) In fact, fermentable sugars beyond agave are considered natural. El Tequileño Blanco, for example, is a tequila that qualifies as additive-free.
Scarlet Sanschagrin and her husband Grover, who have both received tequila “catador” tasting training, launched the Additive-Free Tequila list in 2020. The list aims to address transparency in tequila labeling, highlighting those brands that do not include additional additives as finishing agents. Having tasted and evaluated hundreds of tequilas through the project, Sanschagrin says that prejudice against mixtos exists should be put aside.
Creating the list has “made us give up our preconceived notions about things like mixtos and other processes that aficionados normally judge,” she says. “There’s talk about how only brick oven-cooked tequilas are good, for instance, but then if you blind taste enough, you realize that every piece of equipment is just a tool, and if the maker knows how to use it, you could end up with a really great product.”
The same holds true with ingredients, such as high-quality, added sugars in a mixto. During a blind tasting hosted by the Additive-Free Tequila project for a number of tequila aficionados, El Tequileño Blanco was ranked second overall in the flight, with experts citing its bright, citric flavor and notes of cinnamon.
Mixto tequila is also a more cost-effective choice in the current economy. “If a mixto is made well, you can have some really nice flavors, and it can be an alternative to 100% in a high-priced agave situation,” says Sanschagrin.
To her point, the price of agave has risen considerably with the growing demand for tequila. To visit Jalisco now is to notice how every scrap of available land is used to cultivate agave, including difficult-to-harvest spots such as steep ravines, or the sides of the highway. Whereas 100% agave tequilas grew in popularity in light of an increase in the price of sugar, now the reverse is true, with agave nearly double the price of piloncillo per kilo, according to Salles.
Additionally, mixtos represent a potential value proposition for tequila producers, not only because of the price of agave but also of the inconsistency of agave. Agave can be as volatile as wine grapes, with the added dimension that agave plants typically take five to seven years to reach maturity.
The Remaining Problem
While many mixto producers are advocating for tequila lovers to opt for their products, there is still some difficulty when it comes to standardizing the final spirit’s quality. Some tequila producers use methods to cut costs by harvesting agave too early, using low-quality sweeteners and including additives to help “improve” the final product.
This is because, in order to meet tequila demand, there is a growing concern that agave farmers are harvesting agave before they fully ripen. This practice then often leads to the inclusion of additional additives to correct for flavor and body. Salles worries, however, that the challenge of steering consumers toward mixtos as a more responsible option for the agricultural health of the region may be too great to overcome.
“Unfortunately, not many of us tequila makers [who are still making mixtos] are making quality ones,” he says, citing the use of cheaper sugars such as molasses or corn syrup, “and there are too many people that firmly believe 100% agave is a better product.”
Another challenge, he notes, is that current tequila regulations do not encourage makers of mixtos to declare the percentages of agave and other sugars on their bottles.
The big takeaway for tequila lovers? Don’t summarily dismiss mixtos. You might be missing out on a great bottle.
Last Updated: June 6, 2023