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, 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 can adjust for color, flavor and body after fermentation and distillation processes have taken place. These 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 with respect to other ingredients that can be legally added to tequila, like other sugars. 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. In fact, Wine Enthusiast even currently has four mixto products rated quite highly.
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.