Yes, 100% agave spirits and liquors are gluten-free. Agave is a plant native to Mexico and produces a sugary sap that can be fermented into alcoholic beverages. Since agave does not contain any gluten, products made purely from agave are safe for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
What is agave?
Agave is a succulent plant that grows in hot, arid climates like Mexico, South Africa, and the Southwestern United States. There are over 200 species of agave plants, but the most common one used to make agave nectar, spirits, and liqueurs is the Agave tequilana, or blue agave.
To make agave-based alcoholic beverages, the heart of the blue agave plant (called the piña) is harvested when it is 6-8 years old. The piñas weigh anywhere from 20 to 150 pounds each. They are steam-cooked, then crushed to extract the sugary agave juice (called Aquamiel). The juice is fermented, usually with yeast, to convert the sugars to alcohol. It is then distilled into the final spirit or liqueur.
Types of agave spirits
There are several popular agave liquors:
- Tequila – Made primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila in Mexico. Must be made from at least 51% blue agave.
- Mezcal – Like tequila, mezcal is made from the agave plant. But it can be made from any type of agave, not just blue agave.
- Raicilla – From the Mexican state of Jalisco, raicilla is made from various wild agaves.
- Bacanora – Hails from the Sonora state of Mexico and is distilled from blue agave.
- Pulque – A traditional Mexican fermented (not distilled) drink made from agave sap.
- Agave nectar – A sweet syrup made by filtering and concentrating agave juice. Used as an alternative natural sweetener.
So in summary, many Mexican agave liquors are derived from the blue agave plant. But the term “agave spirits” encompasses alcohol made from any agave species.
Why is 100% agave gluten-free?
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. Since agave is not a grain but rather a plant, it does not contain gluten. 100% agave spirits like tequila contain no ingredients besides blue agave, so they are inherently gluten-free.
However, some tequila and mezcal producers add small amounts of grain-based alcohols during processing. So “100% agave” is the key phrase to look for when choosing a gluten-free agave liquor.
By law, tequila must be made from at least 51% blue agave. But the remaining 49% could potentially contain glutenous grains. Only tequila labeled “100% agave” is guaranteed to be gluten-free.
Why add grain alcohols?
Some distillers will add small proportions of grain alcohol (like corn) during processing. There are two main reasons for this:
- Cost reduction – Grain alcohols tend to be cheaper than agave, so adding them brings down costs.
- Flavor profile – Some distillers feel the grain alcohols contribute additional aroma and flavor notes.
However, many traditional tequila producers pride themselves on using 100% pure agave with no added grains. This ensures a gluten-free product.
Other gluten-free Mexican spirits
In addition to 100% agave liquors, there are some other gluten-free spirits originating from Mexico:
- Sotol – Made from the wild Desert Spoon plant, native to northern Mexico.
- Bacanora – Mexico’s own version of mezcal made from blue agave plants.
- Raicilla – Produced in Jalisco from various species of wild agave plants.
- Charanda – A sugarcane liquor from the state of Michoacán.
Again, be sure to look for the “100%” designation on these Mexican spirits to ensure they do not contain added grains.
Is all tequila gluten-free?
While 100% agave tequila is gluten-free, not all tequila necessarily is.
By law, tequila must contain a minimum of 51% blue agave sugars. The remaining 49% can come from other fermentable sugars.
Some distillers will use corn, wheat, or other gluten-containing grains to make up the difference. So those tequilas would not be gluten-free.
That’s why it’s important to look for the 100% blue agave or 100% agave designation when selecting a gluten-free tequila.
What about flavored tequila?
Plain, unflavored tequila containing 100% agave does not contain gluten. However, flavored tequilas introduce the possibility of added gluten:
- Fruit flavors – Most fruit-flavored tequilas like mango, strawberry, or citrus are gluten-free. They obtain flavor from real fruit, fruit extracts, or natural flavors.
- Spice flavors – Spiced tequilas like jalapeno or habanero are also generally gluten-free, getting flavor from infused peppers and spices.
- Sweet flavors – Tequilas with added sugars like caramel, honey, or chocolate may contain barley malt or wheat-derived glucose syrup as sweeteners. These would not be gluten-free.
If you need to follow a strict gluten-free diet, it’s best to stick to unflavored 100% agave tequila. Or double check the sweet flavored tequilas for any glutenous ingredients.
Cross-reactivity between agave and gluten
Some individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity have reported reacting negatively to agave products, even though agave does not naturally contain gluten.
This may potentially be due to cross-reactivity between antigens in agave and glutenous grains:
- Agave contains fructans called inulins. Inulins have a similar structure to gluten and may trigger a reaction.
- There are protein similarities between agave and certain gluten-containing cereals.
- Processing equipment used for agave may also be shared with gluten-containing grains.
However, several studies have found no immunological basis for agave cross-reactivity in celiacs: The negative reactions could be due to FODMAPs and individual sensitivities.
If you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, the only way to know if you react to agave is to try it. Start with a small amount and discontinue use if you have any symptoms.
Is agave nectar gluten-free?
Agave nectar (also called agave syrup) is a popular liquid sweetener made from the agave plant. It has a mild flavor and can be used as an alternative to honey or maple syrup.
Since agave nectar comes straight from the agave plant, it does not naturally contain any gluten. Pure, 100% agave nectar is gluten-free.
However, some commercial agave nectars may contain added ingredients:
- Preservatives like citric acid
- Stabilizers like xanthan gum
These additional ingredients could potentially introduce traces of gluten, depending on their source. As with agave spirits, it’s important to look for “100% Agave” on the label when buying nectar.
Substituting agave nectar in recipes
In recipes, agave nectar can often be used as a 1:1 replacement for other liquid sweeteners like honey, corn syrup, or maple syrup. However, it is 1.5x sweeter than sugar so you generally need less volume.
When baking with agave:
- Reduce liquids in the recipe slightly to account for the added moisture in the nectar.
- Lower oven temperature by 25°F, as agave causes foods to brown faster.
- Use 1/2 to 2/3 cup agave per 1 cup of sugar.
Overall, agave nectar can be substituted for any other common sweetener like honey, sugar, or corn syrup in most recipes.
Verdict: 100% agave is gluten-free
- 100% agave tequila, mezcal, and other agave spirits contain no gluten and are safe for celiacs.
- The key is looking for “100% agave” on the label to avoid potential added grains.
- Pure agave nectar is also gluten-free, but check labels for possible added ingredients.
- A small number of people may react to agave due to cross-reactivity, but it contains no actual gluten.
So if you have celiac disease or are avoiding gluten, you can confidently enjoy liquors, nectars, and syrups made purely from the agave plant.
- Comino, I. et al (2011). Diversity in oat potential immunogenicity: basis for the selection of oat varieties with no toxicity in coeliac disease. Gut, 60(7), 915-922.
- Real, A. et al (2014). Molecular and immunological characterization of gluten proteins isolated from oat cultivars that differ in toxicity for celiac disease. PloS one, 9(12), e115581.