Put down the shot glass (for now, at least). In America, tequila’s had a longstanding reputation for being a party booze, but bartenders and clued-in drinkers are here to tell you there’s so much more to the agave spirit, which can stand up to the priciest Cognacs and finest whiskies.
So how do you choose a good tequila? First things first, let’s take all 51% agave tequilas off the table: simply check the label on the bottle before you buy and make sure it says “100% de agave” or “100% puro de agave.” The 51% varieties are tequila mixtos, or tequilas where the blue agave has been cut with corn or sugarcane. “It’s cheap tequila,” says Brian Van Flandern, bartender and co-author of Tequila Cocktails. “It’s going to give you a headache.”
Sticking with the 100% blue agave bottles, the styles of tequila—blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo—refer to the aging process. Blanco or silver, for example, refers to the clear tequilas which spend between 0-59 days in oak barrels. Reposado, or rested, tequilas must be stored for a minimum of 60 days, while añejo spends a year and extra añejo spends 3 years or more.
If these aging periods seem short in comparison to those of their grain-spirit counterparts, it’s because of agave’s longer growth period. “Agaves are cultivated at 7-10 years,” explains Van Flandern. “Mother Nature is doing all the flavoring in the ground, and then, after distillation, it’s aged in the barrels for a shorter period of time.” After factoring in growth time, an aged tequila is comparable to a 10-12 year old Scotch whiskey.
97% of tequilas are produced in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, notably in the highlands of the region due to good soil and climate, where they have been made using traditional methods for hundreds of years. America’s love affair with tequila didn’t really kick off until about 20 years ago, according to Van Flandern: “The renaissance started in the 80s when Don Julio revolutionized the industry and set a standard that had never been seen before.” Julio’s work opened the door for dozens of other producers to enter the market, building off his product to create even better tequilas.
Bobby Heugel, owner-bartender at The Anvil Bar & Refuge and The Pastry War in Houston, Texas, believes the surge in popularity is also in-part due to new attitudes towards Mexico and Mexican foods. “People are starting to recognize that Mexico produces great spirits,” says Heugel. “We’re really getting over this ethnocentric mindset where tequila is only intended to be shot or put into frozen margaritas.”
Nowadays, tequila’s lower calories and bold flavors makes it one of the fastest growing spirits categories. “In 2015, Americans ordered 185,000 margaritas per hour in the United States,” says Van Flandern. Looking to join your fellow Americans in celebrating the wonders of agave? Whether you're celebrating Cinco de Mayo with tequila cocktails or looking for the best tequila to sip alongside your favorite Mexican recipes, we've rounded up 15 of our personal favorites and bartender darlings to try this year.
“There’s not a better tequila for $20 on the planet,” says Bobby Heugel, who uses Pueblo Viejo as the well tequila at Houston’s Anvil. Arguably one of the best value blanco tequilas on the market, it delivers a smooth, herbal flavor accented with notes of caramel and fruit, rounded out by a long-lasting finish. Pueblo Viejo’s creator, Carmen Alicia Villarreal Treviño, is a true tequila pioneer in a field dominated by men.
Lunazul Blanco is one of the most fruity tasting blanco tequilas. You’ll get a nice whiff of fresh agave layered with tropical fruit and apple. “What really makes Lunazul stand out though is that it makes for a great cocktail tequila,” Nick Bennett of Porchlight NYC says, “I love using it in margaritas and palomas, cocktails with a lot of citrus and little sugar so the fruitiness of the agave can really shine.” You had us at margaritas.
We dig how fresh this blanco tastes with hints of mint to brighten up the spice. It’s bottled within the first 24 hours of its distillation, so it loses none of its stunning mineral flavors. According to Alex Quesada from Local Edition in San Francisco, El Tosoro makes for a great gateway tequila because you can really get a taste of the product in its unaltered state. “I typically drink El Tesoro neat, or with a Cerveza,” Quesada says, “However, it's great in everything from a classic Tommy's margarita to a Mariachi.”
If you really want to get a sense of how terroir can affect agave, look to Tequila Ocho, an estate-grown offering that’s notable for being the first to carry a “tequila vintage” designation signifying the year, harvest, and location of its agave. Showcasing the unique agaves of the Arandas and the Camarena "Ranchos” near the Lerma river, Ocho emphasizes the personality of that soil by focusing on the nuanced differences, rather than the consistency, from batch to batch, bottle to bottle. “For an entry-level tequila, I love Ocho blanco,” say Ivy Mix, owner-bartender at Leyenda in Brooklyn, New York. “It comes out annually with different vintages and is always spectacular. A great one to collect and learn about terroir in agave.”
A fun, easy-going highlands tequila, Cazadores' blanco is fresh, citrus-forward, and crisp. Ideal for clear-spirits drinkers who don't want to be overwhelmed with the funk of bolder tequilas, it plays excellently with other citrus flavors, honey, and liqueurs. Donna Francis, bartender at Tough Luck Club, the basement cocktail lounge of Reilly Craft Pizza in Tucson, Arizona, says, “Cazadores really shines in the classics and yet is able to really rise to the creative challenges of newer, more complex cocktails.”
Flavors of honey, buttery-sweet cooked agave, and a hint of citrus and saltiness greet you when this tequila goes down. But thanks to its smoother-than-glass finish, this tequila is delightfully understated and works well in cocktails. It’s served up at Prohibition nightly. "The cocktail I currently have on my menu is called the Packing Heat,” Tristan Colton, bar manager of Prohibition in New York, says, “It's made with Casa Noble Crystal, Cointreau, fresh squeezed lime juice, blood orange juice and jalapeños. It's essentially a spicy blood orange margarita. It's one of best sellers.”
For all those rose lovers, you’ve met your tequila match in this Código 1530 Rosa. It’s a blanco tequila that rested for one month in an uncharred Napa Cabernet French White Oak barrel. What does that do for the tequila? Give a brilliant color, of course, not to mention an enrichment of the agave flavors without completely dulling the floral notes already present.
Jeremy Strawn of Beverage East in New York says, “I was lucky enough to be introduced to Codigo Rosa by a fellow industry friend, I love the color and aroma it gets from being rested in Cabernet barrels. I found that it is elegant to sip all on its own and that its natural softness makes it an amazing cocktail tequila.” Plus, this tequila has been around for more than five decades, though it only recently has been named. When it’s been one of the best kept secrets of families and friends from Mexico for this long, you know it has to be good.
You may know Casamigos because of its celebrity status: it counts Rande Gerber, Mike Meldman, and the George Clooney as creators. Luckily, the star power has translated to street cred in the bartending world: the aged-for-7-months reposado is notable for its extra-slow, 80-hour fermentation process. "Casamigos Tequila is our friend because of its versatility,” says Lucinda Sterling of Middle Branch (disclosure: where I tend bar). “While easy to drink on its own, it has the perfect balance of wood, vanilla, pepper and caramel to stand up to the tannin and acidity of various ingredients found in many classic and modern cocktail recipes.”
While many tequila brands tout their highlands origin for its terroir, Fortaleza is actually a lowland tequila that uses agave from the Tequila Valley, which is often sweeter and also takes longer to grow. As such, its spice is offset by a subtle sweetness that can alter the nature of a cocktail. The excellent, smooth-sipping reposado is barrel-aged for six to nine months.
While Tequila Fortaleza was officially founded in 2005, owner Guillermo Sauza comes from a long line of tequila makers. In 1873, his great-great-grandfather Don Cenobio founded the Jalisco distillery that would later become famed Sauza Tequila Import Company. To Sauza’s dismay, his grandfather sold the family business in the 1970s. Now, with Fortaleza, Sauza returns to his roots making authentic tequila: traditional methods include using a Tahona stone mill to crush agave, and small copper-pot stills to distill the agave.
Distinguished as Atlanta, Georgia’s only tequila producer, Goza, which translates to “enjoy” in Spanish, has grown a following for its totally integrated approach: They oversee the entire process from the growing of the agave to the distilling, aging, and bottling. Goza’s tequilas are all made from agave grown in the highlands of Arandas in Jalisco, Mexico—the reposado is aged for six months in white oak barrels, yielding a mild hint of smoke.
“What I am most impressed with by Goza is that they’ve created a true single-estate tequila, with a completely vertically integrated production process,” said Evan Hawkins, beverage director of Street Taco in New York. “They’ve cut no corners, and you can taste it in their tequilas, especially in their aged products—their reposado and añejo.”
We’d grab this tequila off the shelf for its elegant, handmade decanter alone, but luckily, it’s more than just pretty packaging. Clase Azul’s reposado is a silky, sweet, caramel-accented tequila made with Jalisco blue agave in the traditional fashion: slow-cooked for 72 hours in stone ovens, fermented using a proprietary yeast strain, and double-distilled in a copper still. It’s then aged for a minimum of 8 months in a second-use oak barrels. Fun fact: Clase Azul also has an ultra-ultra-premium tequila, aged for five years in used Spanish sherry casks, that will run you $1,699 for a 750ml bottle.
As mentioned, Don Julio was among the first tequilas to raise the bar for the entire category, paving the way for the next generation of producers. Nowadays, the dizzying number of options can be overwhelming, but we’ve found that the Don Julio reposado—a whiskey-whispered smooth number aged for just under a year in repurposed bourbon barrels—is still a workhorse as good as any for sipping neat or stirring in complex, spirits-forward cocktail laced with notes of dark chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon. Tequila old-fashioned, anyone?
Using agave farmed primarily in Tamaulipas, Mexico, Chinaco is one of the few producers outside of Jalisco, Mexico—throughout the 1970s, they fought larger Jalisco-based distillers and successfully lobbied the government to award Tamaulipas Denomination of Origin status. In 1983, they also became the first premium tequila to enter the U.S. market. “Chinaco is the tequila that brought Scotch whisky and cognac drinkers to the tequila category—that’s a fact,” says Julio Bermejo, creator of the world-famous Tommy’s margarita recipe at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco's Richmond District.
Tamaulipas, which is close to the ocean and whose soil boasts a higher mineral concentration, yields a rich and intensely-flavored agave. It’s añejo offering, aged for nearly 3 years in oak barrels and bourbon casks, is stunningly smooth, rife with floral and baked-fruit notes that end in the spicy-smoky finish that defines the style. Bermejo adds, “I have always enjoyed Chinaco's reposado and añejo expressions and I would recommend that bartenders try and use them in any spirit-led tequila cocktail they wish to make.”
Based in Guanajuato, Mexico, Corralejo is another producer granted the right to produce outside of Jalisco. Corralejo is also notable for using the 400-year-old Charentais method, best known in the Cognac world, which calls for a second distillation to take place in an Alembic copper-pot still.
Easily spotted by its distinctively tall and skinny bottling, Corralejo’s añejo comes in a red-hued bottle to signify prosperity in Mexican culture. Aged for 12 months in American oak barrels charred on the inside, the finished product is full-bodied with lovely notes of smoke and pepper, though noticeably subtler than others.
Tequila behemoth Patrón made a splash when they announced in 2014 that they’d be launching an even higher-end Roca Patrón line, which spotlights the “roca,” or two-ton volcanic rock traditionally used to press the juice out of agave. While most producers no longer employ this centuries-old method, the Roca brand honors that spirited tradition, fermenting both juice and fiber for a more full-bodied product.
A more expensive offering, coming in at around $90, Roca’s añejo is aged in used bourbon barrels for roughly 14 months. Vanilla and spice come together in a distinctively pepper-forward pour that makes for excellent sipping.