For too many people, the word tequila conjures up memories of college drunk fests and the nasty hangovers that followed. This reputation is undeserved. A well-made tequila can be as delicate and nuanced as a Grand Cru, smooth and sweet enough to sip plain, even for folks who usually prefer their spirits mixed. A margarita made with fresh lime and good, young tequila tastes nothing like the cloyingly sweet concoction served in most bars. With flavors that vary widely from bright and citrusy to aged and smoky, tequila is fun to taste-test, to discover which you like best. But there are a few things you should know before you get started.
Read the Fine Print
Reject any bottle that doesn’t read “100% Agave.” All tequila is distilled from the spiky-leaved agave plant, specifically the Weber blue agave, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. After maturing to maximum sweetness for 6 to 10 years, the plant’s heart, or piña, is pulled up and stripped of its leaves. Weighing as much as 200 pounds, the piña is roasted, mashed, and milked of its sweet juice. That liquid is fermented, distilled, and, if it’s being made into aged tequila, stored in oak barrels.
Anything that doesn’t say “100% agave” is what’s called a mixto. That is, it’s a bastardized version of the real deal: a mix of fermented agave juice and up to 49 percent “neutral cane spirit”: fermented sugarcane with its flavor stripped out. Mixing the two is a cheaper way to make tequila, but the resulting flavor is less complex. Its yellow color will more than likely be artificial, only there to imitate the natural infusion of wood that aged tequila gets.
Anything that says “oro” or gold, is a mixto. So what’s that Cuervo Gold you’ve got in the back of the cabinet? The headache maker? Now that you know how to read the label, you know the answer. Get rid of it.
The Three Tequilas
There are three styles of tequila made with 100 percent agave. Just as you will get more out of wine tasting if you know the difference between a Syrah, a cabernet, and a merlot, so you should know your three tequilas.
Meaning white or silver tequila, this style is not aged. Clear in color, it tastes strongly herbal and vegetal, like the agave plant it was made from. Flavor notes include pepper, citrus, sea salt, and floral. The concept of terroir (that the soil the product comes from influences its taste) applies to tequila. Tequilas made from agave fields in the mountains, referred to as “highland tequilas,” have a gentler, sweeter, and more flowery flavor; you might find them more approachable. Lowland tequilas have a more pungent flavor: The agave is stronger, which leads to a richer, rounder, earthier taste. Use an affordable Blanco in a top-shelf margarita. The bright, fruity notes will complement the orange liqueur and fresh lime juice.
The Good Stuff
Highland: El Tesoro Platinum, Siete Leguas Blanco, Corzo Silver.
Lowland: Cabo Wabo Blanco, Hacienda del Cristero, Partida Blanco
Less expensive for margaritas: Herradura Blanco, Don Julio Blanco
Meaning “rested,” this style has been aged from two months to just under one year in oak barrels. It has a golden color and a mellow, smoky flavor. However, Reposado is still young enough to allow the agave flavor to shine through. If your tastes in other spirits run to the smoky, oaky, wooden flavors, you may prefer this style. Although some people like to use Reposado in margaritas, the more traditional way to drink it is to sip it at room temperature, neat.
The Good Stuff
Highland: Don Julio Reposado, Siete Leguas Reposado, Pueblo Viejo Reposado
Lowland: Herradura Reposado, Gran Centenario Reposado, Arette Seleccion Suave Reposado
Translated as “aged,” this style sits from one to just under three years in oak barrels. Anything more is “extra Añejo,” which is gilding the lily. The smoky, woody flavor is more evident in Añejo tequila than in Reposado, and the agave taste is nearly imperceptible. In fact, the flavor can be very much like that of a light cognac. This is a sipping tequila, at room temperature, neat. It’s also the most expensive. If you use this in a margarita, you’ll be throwing your money away; its complexity will be lost in a cocktail.
The Good Stuff
Highland: El Tesoro, El Charro, Pura Sangre
Lowland: Los Abuelos, Normal Arette Añejo, Partida Añejo