How to Buy the Healthiest Tequila Possible

While there's no confusing it for, IDK, a green juice, there's a definite difference between high-quality tequila and stuff that will give you a hangover. Here's the scoop.

For too long, tequila had a bad rep. However, its renaissance in the last decade — gaining popularity as a mood "upper" and low-cal spirit — is slowly convincing consumers that's nothing but a misinformed stereotype. By now, if you still associate tequila with cringe-y shots responsible for your next day's hangover, you're likely drinking the wrong kind of tequila. That's right: Not all tequilas are created equal. Some might be hiding additives — or even high fructose corn syrup — that you might not want to be drinking.

To find out how healthy tequila is really, and ensure there's no weird shit in your booze, get tips from industry experts on how to pick the best tequila.

What Exactly Is Tequila, Anyway?

Let's start with the basics: In order for a spirit to be classified as tequila, it needs to be produced from 100 percent blue weber agave grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco or in certain parts of Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. These states comprise tequila's denomination of origin (DOM) — which defines a product as being exclusive to a particular geographical area — as regulated by Mexican law, explains tequila expert, Clayton Szczech of Experience Agave.

For anyone who's ever been to Mexico and driven past fields of agave, you'll recognize that agave isn't only grown in these five states. When agave spirits are produced in states outside the DOM, they can't be labeled tequila. So, mezcal or bacanora (which are made of agave as well) become the equivalent of what sparkling wine is to champagne — all tequila is an agave spirit, but not all agave spirits are tequila.

A Little Bit About Agave

Agave is a succulent that was once considered the most sacred plant in Mexican pre-Columbian cultures (before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492), explains Adam Fodor, founder of the International Tequila Academy. "Its leaves were used to create roofing, clothes, ropes, and paper," he says. Out of more than 200 species of agave, nearly 160 species can be found in its native Mexico. (Outside of Mexico, agave grows in the Southwestern U.S., particularly California, and at high altitudes — above 4500 feet — in South and Central America.) "The middle part, which we refer to as 'piña' or 'corazón' can be cooked and chewed on," says Fodor. Tequila is derived from cooking the "piña" before distilling it at least twice.

ICYDK, raw agave is prized for its nutritious health benefits. "Agavin, the natural sugar found in the sap of the raw agave plant, is believed to behave like a dietary fiber (which means it's not absorbed in the same way as other carb-derived substances) — which may improve glycemic control and boost satiety (feelings of fullness)," says Eve Persak, M.S., R.D.N. Preliminary studies suggest raw agave sap also contains modest amounts of prebiotics (which stimulate gut microbiota), saponins (which may alleviate inflammation), antioxidants (which support immunity) and plant-based iron (an essential mineral for individuals following plant-based diets), she says.


How Healthy Is Tequila?

Sadly, because agave is fermented in order to distill tequila, most of the healthful qualities are eliminated in the process. Even so, tequila experts and nutritionists do praise the spirit as being a "healthier" alcohol. "Tequila is one of the liquors I suggest to clients who like an occasional tipple but would rather not completely undo their overall wellness and nutrition efforts," says Persak.

Tequila has about 97 calories per jigger (aka shot) and no carbohydrates, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, as do other spirits such as vodka, rum, and whiskey. This gives it an edge over wine, beer, and hard ciders, which contain more calories, carbohydrates, and sugar per serving. (FTR, spiked seltzers have about the same number of calories as tequila per serving, but contain a few grams of carbs and sugar.) Tequila is also gluten-free, as are many distilled spirits — yes, even those that are distilled from grains. And, since it's a clear spirit, tequila is generally lower in congeners (chemicals that result from the fermentation process and that can make hangovers worse) than darker liquors, according to the Mayo Clinic.

It's worth noting that, when it comes to cocktails, the mixers are where extra calories and sugar can sneak in, so if you're looking to keep your drink super healthy, opt for something such as sparkling water or a squeeze of fresh fruit juice, which are generally low in calories, sugar, and carbs, says Persak.

Different Types of Tequila & Additives

While all tequilas generally offer the same amount of calories and nutrients, there are different classes of tequila that dictate how it's made and what's inside.

Blanco tequila, sometimes called silver or plata, is the purest form of tequila; it's made with 100 percent blue weber agave with no additives and is bottled soon after distillation. Its tasting notes often include freshly cut agave (a scent that mimics green or unripe plants).

Gold tequila is often a mixto, meaning it's not 100 percent agave, and in those cases is often a blanco tequila with flavor and color additives. When it is 100 percent agave (and thus not a mixto), it's likely a blend of blanco and aged tequila, according to Experience Agave.

Aged tequila, labeled reposado, añejo, or extra añejo, are aged for at least three months, one year, or three years, respectively. Up to one percent of the total volume can be additives such as flavored syrups, glycerin, caramel, and oak extract, explains Szczech. "Additives are harder to detect in aged tequilas, and many of them mimic what barrel aging does," he says.

While that doesn't sound so great, it's actually somewhat normal in the realm of alcohol. For reference, wine can have 50 different additives, per EU legislation, and more than 70 additives are regulated within the U.S., including acids, sulphur, and sugar, which are generally included as stabilizers and to preserve flavor, says Fodor. "Compared to that, tequila is a very modest drink in regard to additives," he says.

So what do these additives do? They typically enhance flavor, whether making it sweeter (syrup), a more rounded mouth feel (glycerin), to make it seem as if it's been aged longer than in reality (oak extract), or impart color (caramel), explains health coach and bartender Amie Ward. Additives can also be used to amplify fermentation rates, create consistent tasting profiles, and rectify undesirable characteristics or deficiencies in the final product, she adds.

While the real root of any hangover is the consumption of alcohol in general (you know the drill: Enjoy in moderation and have water between drinks), these additives can contribute to your crappy next-day feelings, explains tequila expert Carolyn Kissick, head of education and taste experience for SIP Tequila.For example, aged tequilas have oak extracts from sitting in barrels, which "adds flavor but also infuses the tequila with microscopic bits that can add to your headache," she says. And while oak can be a result of the natural barrel aging process, oak extract can also be included as an additive, says Szczech. "Part of what's happening is extraction of those color, aroma, and flavor elements from the wood, which the addition of an extract is meant to mimic." The general takeaway here is that additives (i.e. oak extract) aren't inherently evil, but you should be aware that not all tequila bottles are filled with solely pure, 100 percent agave.

And on that note, let's talk about tequila mixto. "If it doesn't say '100 percent agave tequila' on the label, then it is a mixto, and up to 49 percent of the alcohol in there was fermented from non-agave sugar," says Szczech. You might be thinking, "But how can that be true when tequila is supposed to be 100 percent agave?!" Here's the thing: If the agave included is grown in the DOM, a mixto can still be referred to as tequila.

Manufacturers aren't required to disclose the ingredients within their mixto tequilas, says Ashley Rademacher, former bartender and founder of the women's lifestyle blog, Swift Wellness. And "these days, that 'other' sugar is likely to be high-fructose corn syrup," says Szczech. This is often done to keep up with demand. Because agave takes five to nine years to reach full maturity, substituting in another sugar can allow a manufacturer to produce more tequila at a quicker rate. And, that's not ideal: Concentrated forms of fructose, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are linked to health concerns including fatty liver disease and abdominal adiposity (metabolic disease), says Persak. So if you're looking for healthy tequila a mixto is not the way to go.

How to Pick a Good Tequila

1. Read the label.

For starters, if you're looking for a healthier tequila, go for 100-percent agave. "Just as you might look for 'organic' or 'gluten-free' on a label, you should look to purchase only tequilas that are labeled as '100 percent agave,'" says Rademacher. She also notes price can often be an indicator of quality, but not always. And when it comes to additives, unfortunately, there are no legal obligations to disclose the use of them in tequila, says Szczech. That means you'll have to do some research.

2. Check for sweeteners.

Outside the liquor aisle, you can use this trick from Terray Glasman, founder of Amorada Tequila, to find out if a tequila uses sweeteners. "Pour a little bit of it in your palm and rub your hands together," says Glasman. "If, when dry, it's sticky, then that tequila is using sweeteners."

3. Take expert advice.

Szczech suggests using Tequila Matchmaker, a tequila database from the tequila education platform Taste Tequila, to find certain distilleries and brands that are producing their tequilas without the use of permitted additives. While this list is not exhaustive — and contains many smaller brands that might be trickier to find — some big ones, such as Patrón, make the cut. Fodor says Viva Mexico, Atanasio, Calle 23, and Terralta are just a few of his favorites.

4. Know this about organic tequila.

In order for a tequila to be considered organic, the agave needs to be organically grown (without fertilizers or pesticides) and organic farming is difficult, says Fodor. If a tequila is USDA-certified organic, it will clearly appear on the spirit's label, so it's a little easier to identify than the presence of additives — but just because a tequila is organic doesn't mean it is free of additives, which means it doesn't necessarily make a difference on how healthy it is or isn't. However, if buying organic is part of your lifestyle, seeking out "smaller, craft distillers who are producing in the same way they have for generations, you're much more likely to find sustainable and organic practices being used," says Kissick.

In the grand scheme, it's better to seek out an additive-free tequila over certified organic because the certification process is expensive and lengthy, so some companies forgo it even if they have a quality product and meet most of the qualifications.

"To be included on the Tequila Matchmaker list you must have your distillery inspected, which I think is more sound than the organic certification (as there are so few on the market [with that certification], and if a different tequila is being made at the same distillery non organically, you can't claim to be organic on the bottle," emphasizes Maxwell Reis, beverage director of Gracias Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood, California.

5. Consider ethics and sustainability.

Aside from what's actually in the tequila, it's also important to remember the ethics behind a brand. "When it comes to buying a 'healthy' tequila, I'd challenge you to dig into how it's made by the producer and if they're ethically and sustainably sound," says bartender, consultant, and drinks writer Tyler Zielinski. "If the brand treats their employees well and lists their distiller's name on the bottle, has a sound plan for farming their agave and ensure the soil is healthy and agave are able to reach full maturity (which takes five to nine years), and is 100 percent blue weber agave tequila with a NOM on the label (the Norma Oficial Mexicana number denotes the bottle is authentic tequila and which tequila producer it comes from), then you can trust that the brand is producing a product worth drinking."

When in doubt, research a tequila distillery or email them to ask about their cultivating and distilling process, says Glasman. "If they're reluctant to answer your questions, then it's most likely that they're hiding something."

Reminder: Your spending power helps can help make an impact, even in its own small way. (And that goes for supporting small tequila manufacturers as well as supporting small, POC-owned businesses for your wellness and beauty needs.) "The brand you choose can shape the industry as a whole," says Fodor. "Do you want to drink cheap but overpriced additive-heavy tequila or traditional ones capturing the essence of the agave made by passionate, small, local businesses? By buying these bottles, you're supporting an indie traditional and local tequila producer directly for producing a unique ,authentic tequila."

So while ordering a round of house tequila shots at the bar always seems like a "good" idea at the time, do some research before your next night out (or next liquor store run) and specify a brand of quality product that not only tastes good and does good, but embraces the traditions of what the spirit is all about.

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