I have to start by saying, I have learned to love tequila. There I said it! I’m not really a terribly big drinker but I have come to very much enjoy a shot of good sipping tequila with a cold cerveza. Now that I’ve been here for a few years, I guess that qualifies me as an expert, so I’m going to tell you all you need to know about tequila, but were too drunk to ask. Call it, Tequila 101 and I’ll throw in my list to end all lists for the best tequila you can get in the states.
Tequila is, unfortunately, a very misunderstood spirit in the US. We all came to know tequila at college parties, congressman I believe refer to them as “youthful indiscretions”, with lots of salt and lime to hide the nasty taste. It was usually cheap “blended” tequila or even worse, mezcal, which is really not tequila but a similar product distilled in the same manner. (That is the stuff with the worm in the bottle) There are several similar liquors distilled in Mexico, similar in that they use the same process but with different ingredients. Cactus for mezcal for example, or sugar cane for chiranda, a much better cousin to tequila and made in the state of Michoacan. Some are good, some are bad but none are tequila. To be sold as “tequila”, the product must be distilled in the state of Jalisco. To be exported as “reposado”, “añejo” or 100% Agave, the government even has to approve the appearance of the bottle, as it is considered more like a symbol for the nation, than a bottle of hooch. Walk down the tequila isle at any liquor store in the US and you will always see the most beautiful bottles in the store.
Tequila is made from agave, specifically from the root portion which looks like a giant pinaeapple. Like so many things here in Mexico, I can’t get a straight answer to whether or not real tequila is 100% agave or mostly agave. I think it is the latter but no matter, tequila is a product of agave. If it is 100% agave, that has to be good I suppose and it is the golden rule of tequila. Occasionally though, I have found a blend that is actually good too. I have also tasted 100% agave tequilas that taste like diesel fuel, so that is no guarantee of quality.
Blended tequila is usually used in maragaritas or for cheap shots. It is made from various types of agave from all over Mexico, often even mixed with sugar cane to cheapen the process, which in most cases, results in very low quality and inconsistent tequila. Typically, this is “blanco” tequila, clear in color or a very light golden color. Blanco or blended tequilas are usually the cheapest and often used for mixed tequila cocktails.
Premium tequilas are almost always 100% agave with the greatest difference in taste coming from consistency in the raw agave and how it is handled after it is distilled. Typically, premium tequilas are either “reposados”, which means rested or “añejo”, which means aged. Reposados are rested in oak barrels for short periods, usually less than 18 months. Añejos stay longer than 18 months and are therefore considered aged. These tequilas tend to have a stronger flavor and often a bit darker color. Single malt scotch guys often love añejos because of their more robust flavor and color. They are certainly my favorites these days!
Some new, and often very good “tequilas”, are the now popular non-Jalisco distilled agave spirits. These are tequilas but because they are distilled outside the state of Jalisco, the only region in Mexico where tequila can be produced, they can’t be sold as “tequila” or exported outside of Mexico. They are in Mexico, much like the micro-brewed beers are in the US, where a newer, more intimate process and science is producing an often superior product to the old originals, producing often better bottles of “tequila” than the Jalisco originals. Many new distilleries are popping up around the country and producing 100% agave spirits that are cheap (they are not hit with the Jalisco tequila taxes) and very nice and consistent tasting products. It is not unusual to find wonderful bottles of 100% agave “tequilas” here for under $5 US. Enjoy them while you are here or take some back, but you can’t buy them at your local liquor store in the US. The companies that produce them can only sell them to the domestic market.
So what should you drink and which are the best? If you just want to get drunk cheap, well … don’t do it with cheap tequila. You thought I was going to say drink a blended tequila, get lots of salt and lime so you don’t have to taste that crap, and let her rip. The problem is it makes you loco and the hangover is the absolute worst. So just don’t. Take her to a chick flick or something. You never know??
If you are not a big lover of alcohol but want to try one for the group or whatever, stay with a clear reposado. These tend to be very smooth and some are almost tasteless. Patron is one like this in the US and popular because it is so smooth, it is almost tasteless. If you enjoy the flavor and taste of good tequila though, go with the añejo. You can’t beat a good one!
When you walk down the tequila isle, keep it simple and just take my list below. Any of these you will enjoy:
Hornitos by Sauza. A clear reposado that rivals Patron for smoothness but is about $25 a bottle. Has a bit more flavor though.
Tres Genaretions by Sauza. A 100% agave añejo that is both smooth but has some oak flavor. About $45-$50 for a beautiful bottle you’ll want to save.
Corralejo Reposado. I think this is an independent company but it might also be a Jose Cuervo company. Cuervo is the largest in Mexico and have been buying smaller companies quite a bit in the last few years and this might be one of those. Not sure. No matter, an excellent tequila. Also 100% agave and very smooth. It has just a tiny smoke flavor that reminds you of mezcal but not offensive. Look for the tall blue bottle. About $25-$30.
El Compadre. This is one of the non-Jalisco 100% agave products and really the best. Smooth and almost tasteless but does have a small tequila finish that most enjoy. This is the “coca-cola” of the non-Jalisco tequilas these days and the distillery has a process that rivals all the big boys in terms of maintaining quality and consistency from bottle to bottle. With the exception of Suaza’s products, who control the growing of all their agave from a single genetic strand to assure consistency in their product, El Compadre is the most consistent tasting of any tequila I have drank. Very high quality and gringos love it when they drink it in my restaurant. The only tequila we sell by the bottle and we sell lots.
The Top 3 List:
#3 Tres Mujeres Añejo. I don’t know much about this tequila but I know good when I taste it. 100% agave and has a slight sweet flavor. About $45 a bottle and worth every penny but the bottle has to be a large part of the price. Like so many of the tequilas, the bottle is beautiful.
#2 Conmemorativo by Sauza. Without a doubt, the best tequila I’ve tasted for money. If you see it on the shelf, stop looking. This is an añejo but is not 100% agave. Yes, I just said the second best tequila in Mexico is a blend! And it is about $25 a bottle if you can believe that. It is a blend but not in the ordinary style I described above. It is made from Sauza’s premium agave cactus but they use a small amount of sugar cane in the process to give it a slightly sweet flavor. So technically, it is a blend but unlike the normal blend, the recipe requires it, not the price. The result is a full bodied flavor, very gold color and a nice sweet finish. Look for the tall rectangular brown bottle. If you can find a store that sells it, you’ll never buy another.
#1 Don Julio Añejo. It does not get better than this tequila at any price. Ask any Mexican and 9 out of 10 will tell you this is the best bottle in Mexico. It is a Jose Cuervo product and their top of the line. Not sure the cost in the US, but a ¾ liter bottle, costs over $40 in Mexico so my guess is it is closer to $60 in the US. Kinda pricey but worth every penny. If you want to know what good hooch taste like, no matter what your favorite is, scotch, bourbon whatever, you will love this stuff.
If you decide to try one of these, do not do the salt and lime thing. It is like putting catsup on an expensive steak. Good tequilas are even better when poured into a sniffer or similar glass and swirled to work the liquid, like a cognac or a red wine. Sip it alone or even with a cold beer on the side. Muy bueno!!