The Ultimate Guide to Buying Tequila Beyond Don Julio or Patrón
Tequila is unique in its versatility. Open-air fermented blancos can have the wild essences of mezcal, while extra añejos are smooth and as pleasing as sweet, woody XO cognacs. But tequila is an often-misunderstood spirit in the United States, despite the fact that a staggering 80 percent of the tequila from Mexico’s five tequila-producing regions is sold and consumed in the U.S. In fact, stateside bars have larger selections of regional mezcal made with agave tequilana variedad azul (or blue agave) than you’ll find in Mexico. The dizzying array of options is perhaps why interested drinkers facing a wall of tequila behind a bar or the well-stocked aisles of liquor warehouses are often lost when venturing out from Don Julio or Patrón.
Getting to know the various styles of tequila is key to choosing the right bottle for all occasions, whether drinking palomas at your Mazatlán beach condo, sipping aged tequila as a digestif, or slowly savoring fruity, smoky ancestral tequila at the end of the day. And as the pandemic increased demand for premium tequilas, including artisanal productions that are turning back the clock to pre-industrial methods, now is a particularly exciting time to expand your tequila shelf. Here’s everything you should know to shop for tequilas in the four main categories — silver, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo — plus a few recommendations for the best well tequilas for mixing up any tequila cocktail you desire.
A tequila primer
Tequila is a regional style of mezcal, traditionally called tequila de mezcal, or vino de mezcal. To make tequila, producers bake the hearts of the agave plant in an oven or autoclave. The juice is then extracted by a stone wheel called a tahona, or a roller mill, and is fermented in stainless steel or wood tanks, and, typically, distilled twice.
The most popular tequilas fall into a few categories: silver, unaged tequila, called blanco; and reposado, añejo, and extra añejo, aged in new oak or used whiskey casks. For all of these, blue agave must mature between seven and eight years before jimadores (agave farmers) remove its leaves with a coa (agave-harvesting tool) to send to the distillery. Less popular are mixto tequilas made with 51 percent blue agave and 49 percent sugars, and tequila joven, or gold tequila, which are adulterated blancos. The latest trend is pricy platinum tequilas, which are aged, triple-distilled, then filtered to remove the color, producing a smooth, white spirit.
Tequila is actually a denomination of origin comprising all of Jalisco, and some municipalities in the states of Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, and Guanajuato. To qualify as a tequila, Mexico’s most famous spirit can only be made with agave tequilana Weber azul, or blue agave, from this region. The finished tequila must have a minimum of 51 percent blue agave, although the majority of tequila is 100 percent blue agave, allowing for up to 1 percent additives. Tequilas must also be a minimum of 35 percent to 55 percent ABV, and bottles sold in the United States require a minimum ABV of 40 percent (water is used to lower the proof to the desired number).
These strict regulations do still offer considerable variations to the tequila consumer. There are some 1,377 brands registered by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the regulatory board that upholds the standards of tequila manufacturing tracked by the Norma Oficial Mexico (NOM) for the Appellation of Origin. But the system is not without its flaws. In recent years, the CRT has allowed brands to add up to 1 percent additives to 100 percent blue agave tequila without disclosure. It has also allowed celebrities to easily release tequilas, including George Clooney, Xzibit, and Kendall Jenner, who has faced backlash for cultural appropriation over the launch of her 818 Tequila. It’s a practice that seems at odds with a legal body tasked with preserving tequila and Mexican tradition.
The CRT also draws criticism for primarily benefiting the largest tequila producers in Mexico, and standardization has handcuffed small distilleries looking to employ ancestral methods like pit-roasting and hand-maceration. Agave distillates that use such nonstandard production methods or aren’t produced in one of the denomination of origins, including mezcal, tequila, raicilla, and bacanora, are labeled “destilados de agave.” But while the label might deter some customers, destilados de agave, tequila, and raicilla are all in the family of mezcal, a drink that was born long before the DO.
All tequila collections should include at least one affordable mixer for making margaritas and palomas, or for when a dozen of your friends show up and want to do shots. The moment they ask for salt and lime and slam the empty caballito on your table, you’ll be glad you didn’t pull out the Casa Dragones.
It’s rare to find such a reasonably priced tequila that uses agave steamed in ovens and not an autoclave, which has a faster cooking time but produces less caramelized flavor and complexity. In the highlands of Jalisco, maestro tequilero Jesus Hernandez partially extracts the agave’s sugars with a tahona and distills the tequila in copper pots. With ample notes of citrus, pepper, and green herbs, this might be one of the best utility tequilas in the $20 range and works just as well as a sipper as it does for mixing.
This industrial tequila (meaning it’s made entirely with industrial tools, including an autoclave, roller mills, and steel tanks) from a small distillery in El Arenal is a solid everyday sipper, full of earthy agave. You almost don’t want to pour it into a cocktail, but at this price, you can make premium cocktails on the cheap.
From the well-respected Tequila Centinela S.A. de C.V, NOM 1140 distillery comes this old-school highlands tequila that’ll earn you respect from your abuelo and tio’s table for its agave-forward flavor and value.
Silver (Plata) tequila
Silver tequilas are both valued as sipping tequilas before a meal and for making cocktails. For purists, this is tequila in its truest form, and for aficionados, this is the tequila category to watch, as more and more next-generation distillers turn to artisanal practices, such as cooking in ovens and earthen pits, crushing the piñas with a tahona, open-air fermentation, and distilling with copper stills, the go-to for master distillers for its superior heat conduction. In the last two decades, master distillers like Carlos Camarena (Tapatio, Tequila Ocho), and Fortaleza owner Guillermo Sauza (grandson of Javier Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila) have led the way, with semi-artisanal productions, using ovens along with heavy machinery like roller mills. Today, there are several labels producing high-proof (45 percent ABV and above), ancestral expressions of unaged, silver tequila worthy of the names mezcal de tequila or vino de mezcal.
Cascahuín Plata 48%
There is perhaps no better example of the future of artisanal tequila than Salvador Rosales Briseño Jr.’s high-proof tequila, made from select lots in El Arenal and never exceeding 2500 liters of production. Those bottles are full of sweet agave with a buttery finish, accented by pepper, herbs, and light cinnamon. This is one of the distilleries to watch for the finest tequilas in Mexico.
Fortaleza Still Strength
Guillermos Sauza’s high-proof (46% ABV) tequila blanco delivers a long caramellic, nutty roasted blue agave taste and finish from select agaves roasted in brick ovens, crushed with a tahona, fermented in wooden barrels, and distilled twice in a copper pot still.
Tapatío Blanco 110
Legendary master distiller Carlos Camarena never changes the recipe for his 55 percent ABV blanco distilled in a copper still, allowing each production to express the terroir and seasonal variations of this famed highlands label. It’s a well-balanced expression of pepper, grass, and green fruit-flavored blue agave that’s a benchmark tequila blanco and affordable enough to make premium margaritas and cocktails.
Reposado tequilas, which have been rested in new, used, or neutral barrels (barrels that have been used three times) for a minimum of two months and up to just under a year are the ideal sipper for agave lovers who want some complexity from wood. New, toasted oak barrels from France or America can impart vanilla flavors and smoky notes. Neutral barrels, meanwhile, are great for softening the tequila while maintaining its blue agave profile. If you’re getting American rye whiskey, bourbon, or Jack Daniel’s (hello Partida) in the nose and on the palate, your reposado was rested in used barrels, which mostly come from the U.S.
Siembra Valles Reposado
From the esteemed Cascahuín distillery, NOM 1123, maestro tequilero Don Salvador Rosales Briseño applies a touch of vanilla accent to the robust baked agave in this tequila, which is rested in proprietary oak barrels fashioned from Missouri white oak. The pale-yellow-colored expression is aged a mere three months, making this mint- and citrus-tinged reposado an ideal choice for blanco lovers who prefer that distinct agave flavor.
Volcán de Mi Tierra
In 2017, the brand moved from an industrial workroom in a sugarcane field near Huaxtla in the Tequila Valley to the Moët Hennessy portfolio. This also came with investment in the distillery, allowing for a more traditional production for this fruity, grassy reposado, which was previously cooked in an autoclave, an entirely industrial process. It was good then and has only gotten better.
El Tequileño Reposado Rare
Founded in 1959 in the pueblo magico of Tequila by Don Jorge Salles Cuervo, the La Guarreña distillery continues under Don Jorge’s grandson, Jorge Antonio Salles. This intense, woody reposado is fermented in cement tanks, cooked with copper pot stills, and aged six years in giant wooden tanks, making for a truly rare high-end reposado. The extra time and production methods yield big natural vanilla, caramel, and spice flavors and aromas.
Wood aging between one and three years lessens the characteristic blue agave taste in añejo tequilas as they gain considerable qualities from the barrel. Like other aged spirits, añejos are an ideal drink for celebrations and special occasions, enjoyed by many for their smooth taste.
Tequila Ocho Transatlantic
Master blender Alexandre Gabriel uses copper stills and open-air fermentation to draw bacteria into the tequila, which is aged in rum and cognac barrels sourced from Trinidad, Fiji, Panama, and across the Atlantic.
Caballito Cerrero Chato Añejo
Caballito Cerrero, founded by Don Alfonso Jiménez Rosales, a co-founder of Tequila Herradura in Amatitán, has rejected the tequila Appellation of Origin so it can make this unique mezcal de tequila, officially labeled destilado de agave, free of the limitations and costs imposed by the powerful bureaucracy. The key to this exquisite añejo is a combination of estate-grown blue agave, water from an uphill spring, and open-air fermentation.
From the El Llano distilleries, one of the oldest in the Tequila Valley, this well-respected good-value añejo is distilled in a stainless steel still with a copper coil, and gets its signature vanilla and caramel sweetness from a blend of white American oak, bourbon barrels, and used barrels.
The DO established this fourth category of tequila in 2006 for tequilas aged in wood for three years and beyond, and it’s seen more growth than any other category as demand for premium tequila has soared in recent years, stoked by sleek advertising and marketing campaigns. A rival to fine cognacs, whiskies, or rums, EAs are ultra-smooth, rested in a range of barrels. They tend to attract collectors and sippers seeking luxury, and are accessible to all for their ease of drinking. However, agave lovers often miss the core flavors of tequila, as the vanilla, caramel, and sweet flavors of wood dominate.
Reserva de la Familia Jose Cuervo
It would be hard to find a better EA at this price, an approachable splurge to sip on special occasions and the perfect gift for a tequila collector. Jose Cuervo, the biggest tequila brand on the planet, located at the La Rojeña distillery in Tequila, uses only the hearts of select, mature blue agaves, aged between 10 and 12 years. The agave hearts are then baked in ovens at the La Rojeña distillery and aged in both French and American oak — some charred — with older batches blended in to maintain consistency. There’s a nice balance of smoke, vanilla, sweetness, and whiskey, while the process has preserved enough blue agave in the glass to remind you it’s a tequila.
El Rey Sol
Carmen Villarreal Trevino’s San Matías distillery ages El Rey Sol in French oak for six years. The result is a luxurious mouthfeel, full of nuts, butterscotch, and layers of sweetness and an attractive burnt sienna color that lights up the smiling sun decanter, designed by Mexican artist Sergio Bustamante.
Patrón en Lalique
This collaboration between the French glassmaker and master distiller Francisco Alvarez combines tequilas aged an average of seven years in French and American oak and sherry casks. The blend of fine, aged tequilas has a long, buttery finish, with a nose that bursts with sharp citrus, and tropical fruit, all bottled in a hand-crafted crystal vessel.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.
Michelle K. Min is a food photographer based in San Francisco.