Tequila: It isn’t just an ingredient for margaritas, nor is it just for shots during happy hour.
Tequila is a spirit with a rich history and a wide diversity of styles, production distinctions, and flavor profiles. Just as you have to keep tasting wines, gins, or whiskeys to find the ones that are right for you, so it is with tequila.
Once you do, you’ll discover a spirit that’s subtle, playful, and full of flavor—with none of the cheap burn you may remember from your youth.
READY TO BECOME A TEQUILA EXPERT?
This tequila guide will cover what makes a tequila a tequila and go over some basic definitions so you can dazzle yourself and others with tequila knowledge. I’ll provide some recommendations for tequilas that are widely available so you can begin to stock your home bar and ensure the best tequila experience for your next party or quiet night at home.
WHAT IS TEQUILA?
Just as French law states that champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of France using specific ingredients and methods, Mexican laws detail what is and is not a tequila. These laws are recognized by more than 40 countries through various trade agreements.
Mexican guidelines state that tequila must meet the following guidelines:
- Tequila can only be distilled from only the blue agave plant.
- Tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
Fun fact! The name tequila comes from the city of Tequila, which was established in 1666, though tequila was produced long before the town was born.
HOW IS TEQUILA MADE?
While grapes, wheat, or corn can be harvested a few months to a few years later before being processed and distilled into alcohol, the blue agave plants used to make tequila are different. They take about 10 years to grow before they’re ready to be harvested for tequila.
The labor-intensive harvesting is done by hand by agave farmers known as jimadores. Here are the main steps for turning agave into tequila:
- Agave harvesting: When ready to be harvested, the spiny leaves and roots are cut off the main plant body, called the agave heart or piña, which goes to processing.
- Process the agave: The hearts are slowly baked, which can sometimes take days. The slow cooking reduces caramelization and prevents the juices from turning bitter, thus maintaining the flavor of the agave.
- Crush the agave: Afterwards, the cooked hearts are crushed to release their sugary juices. This can be done by a mechanical crusher and grinder, or by the traditional way using a volcanic stone wheel called a tahona. Historically, a mule pulled the tahona, but these days an electric motor does the job. In theory, this slower practice of extracting agave nectar that will be fermented and distilled creates a more robust and complex flavor.
- Ferment the agave into tequila: The extracted juices are then fermented and twice-distilled as dictated by regulations. The distilled alcohol can then be bottled straight away or aged in wooden containers.
MIXTO TEQUILA VERSES 100% AGAVE TEQUILA
A tequila can be organized into two categories, mixto tequilas and 100% agave tequilas.
Mixto tequilas are made with no less than 51% agave, with the other 49% usually being fermented sugar cane juice. The result is a tequila that’s very sweet in both smell and taste. However, the flavor usually stops there.
These mixto tequilas are often harsh in flavor, burn on the way down, and thus are inferior to other tequilas. Golden-colored mixtos are called joven (young) or oro (gold) tequilas and have oak flavoring and coloring added. The reason these are made in the first place is because they’re affordable to make for producers and, frankly, they sell well in stores due to their low price point.
Mixtos aren’t ideal and I generally don’t recommend buying them. But if you’re planning a big party with a tequila-based punch that has a lot of juices and flavors to help mask the mixto, then a mixto is a practical option.
If a tequila is labeled as “100% agave,” this means that the tequila in question was made with only blue agave. Generally, it’s recommended by most bartenders and tequila enthusiasts (and by your friendly Simply Recipes team) that you only buy tequilas which clearly state this on the label, as it will guarantee you a much better product that has a more complex flavor and significantly less burn.
LET’S TALK ABOUT AGING TEQUILA
The amount of aging and the amount of agave used to make a tequila are what create the different varieties. Each variety has a different type of flavor, aroma, and price point.
These are blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo.
- Blanco: Blanco means “white,” but these tequilas are also known as plato (silver) tequilas. These tequilas are bottled right after distillation, or they are rested in wood barrels (both French and American oak barrels are used, but some companies even use old Spanish sherry barrels) for up to 60 days. The flavors and aromas of these tequilas can be herbal, floral, citric, and a bit fruity. Vegetal notes of poblano and green pepper can predominate.
- Reposado: Reposado translates to “rested,” and these tequilas are aged in wooden barrels anywhere from 2 months to a year. Their color is usually a softened, amber color. The flavors will be a bit woodier and less herbal, with hints of vanilla, butter, and brown sugar.
- Añejo: Tequila aged for 1 to 3 years are añejos, which translates to “old” or “aged.” The colors will be darker and more golden from the extended time spent aging in wood. Expect a much smoother tequila with big notes of spice, earth, smoke, vanilla, caramel, and peat. Añejos are generally more expensive than reposados due to the extended aging, though for most cocktail purposes the two are interchangeable. I recommend you start with reposado and see how you like it before dropping the extra cash for an añejo.
- Extra Añejo: Añejos that are aged in wood for more than three years. These are the priciest tequilas and, generally, should only be sipped so as to appreciate the nuanced flavors, aromas, and craftsmanship. The flavor is intensely woody, with a more pronounced burnt caramel flavor similar to very aged whiskey or even rye. If you find yourself striving to become a tequila connoisseur (aka: a Maestro Tequilero, or Tequila Master/Expert) then these are worth the investment.
- Mezcal: While all tequilas are mezcals, not all mezcals are tequilas. Tequila can only be produced using blue agave, but mezcal can be made from up to 28 different agave varieties. The agave is usually cooked for a few days underground over hot rocks or in cone-shaped fire pits. The result is a spirit defined by smoky flavors and aromas. Mezcal is often a bit heavier and sweeter than tequila. If you’re a fan of peaty scotch and the aroma of smoky BBQ pits, then mezcal may be for you.
Keep in mind that añejo doesn’t mean “best,” it just means “oldest.” If you prefer the flavor of blanco, then buy blanco. Extra añejos are often the most expensive tequilas.
A BUYING GUIDE TO TEQUILAS
The tequilas recommended here are by no means a comprehensive list, but rather suggestions for widely available tequilas across many price points.
Some good buying guidelines are:
- Avoid anything that is packaged in plastic or that costs less than $15 as these are signs of cheap tequila that’ll burn like hellfire down your throat and taste like lighter fluid.
- Buy only tequila that states “100% agave” on the bottle.
- It’s perfectly reasonable to find a smooth, flavorful tequila for $25-$30 that’s great for shots, cocktails, or sipping. A high price does not always indicate high quality.
- If there’s a worm or scorpion or, really, any animal in the bottle, then don’t buy it. It’s a marketing gimmick used to sell cheaply produced tequilas (likely a mixto) and it’s almost guaranteed to be dreck.
The only mixto on the list, meaning it’s not 100% agave. Its affordable price point and general smoothness make it a good workhorse tequila.
- Aroma: Sweet, sweet, sweet.
- Taste: Very sugary followed by notes of citrus and pepper. Light and mild. If you don’t drink tequila too often then this may give you a bit of burn on the way down. Mixtos are best served well-chilled to keep their sweetness in check.
- Good For: Cooking purposes and punch bowls. If you’re going to use a tequila for cooking or marinades, then Jose Cuervo Especial is an ideal candidate. It’s not recommended for shots or for sipping, but great for a Long Island iced tea or other cocktails where the flavor of the tequila is negligible and other ingredients will lessen the sting of the tequila, such as this Long Island Iced Tea.
- Price: Around $20-$25.
1800 Silver Tequila
1800 Silver is a smooth tequila that spends 15 days resting in American oak barrels with a little bit of French oak added in. The name 1800 comes from the year tequila was first successfully aged in oak casks.
- Aroma: The aroma is reminiscent of oak with hints of citrus.
- Taste: Not as sweet as other tequilas; a predominant lime flavor. If you enjoy dry white wines such as pinot grigio or enjoy quality vodka then this is the tequila for you.
- Good For: Tequila shots, punch bowls, and tequila-based cocktails. An all-around good tequila and wonderful in a watermelon margarita. Consider swapping out rum for this tequila in a mojito.
- Price: $20-$35, depending on bottle size and where you purchase. This brand occasionally goes on sale for $15; when it does pick it up for a future party or to use as a gift.
Don Julio’s distillery steam-cooks their agave for 72 hours before being fermented and then going through two distillations, resulting in a richer and sweeter flavor. The tequila sees zero wood aging and goes straight to the bottle.
- Aroma: Pineapple, lime, and sage.
- Taste: The flavor starts with pineapple and lime before relaxing into sage and green bell pepper. Very smooth on the way down. If you’re trying to re-introduce someone to tequila who had a bad experience with it in their youth, this is a great one to start with. The herbaceous, peaty flavor at the finish makes this a good tequila for fans of scotch.
- Good For: Don’t cover up the flavor of this tequila in complicated cocktails. Serve over ice for sipping or use in a classic margarita.
- Price: $35-$40. The tequila to use for dinner parties and serving to friends who appreciate good food and drink.
Introduced in 1989, Patrón Silver Tequila is often associated with premium tequila due to aggressive marketing in the 1990s, which branded Patrón as a sophisticated spirit. The slow-roasted agave is processed using half tahona-crushed agave and half modern roller-mill crushed agave before fermentation in wooden vats. Fun fact: this brand was co-founded by John Paul DeJoria of John Paul Mitchell hair products.
- Aroma: Almost zero aroma.
- Taste: Patron Silver is clean tasting, with hints of citrus and white pepper. It has what most would consider to be a classic tequila flavor. Some love Patrón because it’s what they grew up with, while others find it a bit harsh.
- Good For: Patron Silver is a standard-bearer tequila. Great for sipping, shots, or cocktails, but there are better options for each of these purposes. It’s a jack of all trades, but master of none. Try it in a blueberry margarita or pomegranate paloma.
- Price: $35-$45. A fine tequila, but its high price can be off-putting. Best to buy when on sale.
Leyenda del Milagro Reposado
A triple-distilled tequila, this brand’s iconic tall, skinny bottle has made it a popular choice for tequila. The hay-colored reposado spends six months aging in American oak whiskey barrels. Leyenda also produces an excellent silver tequila worth trying, as well as a wonderful and affordable añejo.
- Aroma: Very oaky, with hints of straw and baking spices.
- Taste: The taste is buttery from the oak with flavors of citrus, butterscotch, and vanilla. There’s also a natural saltiness to this tequila that makes the sweeter flavors even better; it’s very smooth to drink. If you love California chardonnays or are a fan of whiskey, this is your tequila.
- Good For: Substitute this tequila for whiskey in cocktails. Pairs well with lime, orange, and tropical fruits such as pineapple. A phenomenal reposado for shots and for cocktails. Fantastic in a pineapple and jalapeño margarita.
- Price: $20-$25. Can’t go wrong here. (Leyenda del Milagro also makes an añejo that goes for about $30-40. The flavor is woody and grassy, and it is very smooth.)
Casamigos Tequila Reposado
Casamigos (loosely translated to “house of friends”) is the popular tequila created by George Clooney. Celebrity brands of alcohol are often disappointing; however, Casamigos tequilas are all solid (they come in plato, reposado, and añejo). The reposado is aged for seven months in whiskey barrels. Most tequilas are 76 proof (38% alcohol) but this one is 80 proof (40% alcohol). However, it’s so smooth you’d never know it.
- Aroma: Tropical flavors of pineapple and passionfruit backed up with vanilla.
- Taste: Almost opposite to the aroma, this reposado bursts in your mouth with the taste of mint, sarsaparilla (root beer flavor), and vanilla. Extremely smooth and goes down dangerously easily. Strangely, it almost doesn’t taste much like tequila.
- Good For: This is the gateway spirit for the friend who doesn’t like tequila. Use in a tequila hot toddy (yes, that’s a thing!) or serve over ice for sipping. Cocktail-wise, the classic margarita is probably the best way to go.
- Price: $30-$45. It’s a popular brand and goes on sale often so keep your eyes out. (Casamigos also makes an excellent añejo that has hints of cocoa and caramel, but it runs about $50-$60. If you fall in love with their reposado, it’s worth considering the splurge.)
Olmeca Altos Añejo
A strange origin story for tequila, Olmeca Altos was started by two UK bartenders and an expert tequila master from Mexico. The agave is slow roasted in brick ovens and tahona-crushed before a double-distillation in copper stills. The tequila is aged for 18 months in bourbon oak barrels.
- Aroma: Vanilla and almond are predominant. In a way it’s almost Christmas-y.
- Taste: Roasted flavors of vanilla, caramel, brown sugar, and brown butter. The tequila is the smoothest one on the list and slides down with zero burn.
- Good For: Elegant and perfect in a pineapple margarita, or served over ice with a slice of orange and sipped on a hot afternoon.
- Price: $20-$30, depending on where you buy. With this price, you could even use it for guilt-free shots.
There aren’t a lot of widely available mezcals on the market, but you can usually find Vida at liquor stores and certainly online. Mezcals are a love-it-or-hate-it spirit, and how much you enjoy the flavor of smoke will be the deciding factor for you.
- Aroma: Smoke, smoke, and smoke. Oh, and some poblano pepper.
- Taste: While all mezcals are smoky, this one is particularly so. The smoke is reminiscent of eucalyptus. This tequila has an oiliness to it that’s characteristic of mezcals and so it feels heavier on the tongue and finishes with a citric flavor. No burn and goes down easily.
- Good For: Use in cocktails, punches, shots, and sipping. You can swap mezcal for tequila in most recipes. (To mix up your next brunch use it in place of vodka in a Bloody Mary.) If you enjoy the smell of a good cigar, then you’ll love mezcal.
- Price: $30-$35. A fine price for a mezcal. Not too cheap and not too pricey.
TRY THESE COCKTAILS WITH TEQUILA!
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