Ah, tequila! A distilled liquor loved by millions and misunderstood by many more. If you’ve kept tequila at arm’s length or you’re ready to move beyond the sad slurry served at most “Mexican” restaurant chains, you’ve come to the right place.
First, let’s dispel some myths and misinformation. Tequila is a mezcal, an umbrella category for any distilled spirit made from Mexican agave. Agave is a succulent but not a cactus. In fact, agave plants are a close relative of the lily and are indigenous to the Americas. Because tequila comes specifically from the blue agave, all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals can be called tequila. The Mexican government has also designated an area of the country where tequila can be made, most of which lies in the state of Jalisco. Yes, Mexico has states.
Like any alcoholic beverage, tequila can knock you for a loop if you overindulge. Despite rumors to the contrary, however, tequila is not an actual hallucinogenic. That myth probably started when some drunk dude confused mezcal with mescaline and ended up on a seriously jacked bender. Mescaline is an hallucinogenic substance derived from the peyote cactus.
Speaking of myths: there are not now nor have there ever been dead worms at the bottom of tequila bottles. Don’t make yourself look like a jackass by asking to drink the worm that never was, especially if the bartender or person you are hitting on is of Mexican descent.
THE FIVE TYPES OF TEQUILA
BLANCO: Clear, unaged and often bottled immediately after being distilled. Also known as silver or white tequila. This is the variety you’re probably most familiar with. There are a lot of really bad blancos out there and you’ll find them ruining margaritas from coast to coast. If you’ve had a bad experience with tequila, a cheap blanco or joven (gold) is probably the culprit.
JOVEN: Also known as gold tequila. Don’t be fooled by the color: this is still a young tequila to which a color or flavoring has usually been added. It’s often easier to find a cheap joven than it is a blanco because of our incorrect assumption that gold is always better than silver.
REPOSADO: Aged anywhere from two to twelve months, a reposado (or rested) tequila is where you should start exploring if you want to increase your odds of enjoying a great cocktail experience. Reposados must be aged in wood barrels and each brand will have its own unique flavor depending on the type of wood used. A good reposado doesn’t need much fuss or help, making it the perfect spike in uncomplicated mixed drinks.
ANEJO: Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Anejos (or vintage) are aged under strict guidelines that limit the size of the barrel and mandate at least a year of rest. Really fancy anejos will spend as long as three years in the barrel. Darker than reposados, a good anejo is a smooth, sexy and sublime drinking experience. This is a sipping tequila, not one you drink as a shot or mix with anything.
EXTRA ANEJO: This is an ultra-premium tequila aged a minimum of three years. They tend to be every expensive and, honestly, most of us will be just fine topping out at the anejo level. If you do decide to treat yourself and ever do anything with an extra anejo other than sipping and savoring it solo, a good bartender will (and should) give you the stink eye.
TEQUILA TIPS FOR BEGINNERS
Some good news: you don’t have to spend a ton of money to enjoy a great tequila. Start experimenting by the glass. Find a respected local bar staffed with people who know their stuff. A good bartender will want to know a little about your taste preferences before making a recommendation. You should also eyeball the top shelf. If Cuervo, Sauza and Patron are the featured bottles, look elsewhere.
You can also start your journey with my “tried and true” favorites. Most are available at any decent liquor store. If your local retailer doesn’t stock these brands, introduce yourself to the purchasing manager and ask them to do something about that. Good beverage managers are very customer savvy and pride themselves on sourcing top quality wine and spirits. Besides, it never hurts to ask.
CORAZON: THE RELIABLE FAVORITE
Corazon one of my go-to tequilas. Always reliable and no sticker shock. The reposado is especially strong and a great alternative if you can’t afford the fine anejo. Of my four favorite brands, Corazon has the most bite but it’s balanced out by a wonderfully complex flavor palette. A 750 ml bottle (with a signature wooden cork) will set you back anywhere from $30 (blanco) to $45 (anejo).
DON JULIO: NO MIXERS NEEDED
Don Julio can be a little pricey, but it’s worth every penny. Personally, I never mix Don Julio with anything. Even the blanco is almost refined enough to sip. The reposado and anejo are both divine taste experiences. A 750 ml bottle starts at about $40 (blanco) and runs as high as $60 for the traditional anejo. There’s also a 1942 reserve edition that prices out well north of $100 a bottle.
HERRADURA: THE SMOOTHIE SPIKE
Herradura is typically more expensive than Corazon, but the lower end of the line is a better option in mixed drinks. The silver makes a fine margarita or “adult” smoothie. Fill your blender with ice, water, fresh fruit (tropicals or dark berries work best) and a full shot of tequila for every adult who will be drinking. The reposado and anejo are also a treat, though I like the slightly more complex notes in Corazon, especially at the anejo level. A 750 ml bottle of Herradura starts in the $35 neighborhood for the blanco and runs as high as $60 for the anejo.
CORZO: THE GIFT OF LUXURY
Corzo is a line of premium tequilas owned by Bacardi. I discovered it courtesy of a savvy bartender in New York City. It’s my favorite “special occasion” brand. Unfortunately, Corzo can also be hard to find. Of the four brands highlighted, Corzo is the smoothest and most refined thanks to a unique triple distillation process. At every level, is a bit sweeter and more well-rounded than is typical, with the silver (blanco) making a truly mind-blowing margarita. As a sipping tequila, it’s hard to top the reposado or thrilling anejo. A 750 ml bottle starts at about $50 for the blanco and tops out at $70 for the anejo.
Incidentally, the Corzo bottle is a true work of art and makes a great gift for the tequila lover. Designed by Fabien Baron, the stopper is cork and metal and the waterfall mouth pays tribute to the works of renown Mexican architect Luis Barragan. No mere gimmick, the artistry of the packaging extends to the wonderful contents inside.