If you’re shopping for a bottle of tequila for Cinco de Mayo this week, you’re not alone. Whereas you once would have only had the option to buy a bottle that would probably give you a hangover in the morning, the spirit has gotten a lot more refined in recent years. Sure, you can still find a cheap tequila best suited for drowning in a margarita, but there are also options that beg to be sipped neat. There are lots of nuances in the tequila space, but if you’re new to drinking the “good stuff” in the space, here’s a rundown on the basics:
By in large, you only want to purchase a bottle of tequila if “100% Agave” is written on the label. In order for a tequila to be a tequila it needs to be made using blue agave in the Jalisco region of Mexico. The agave has to be grown in the region, and the spirit also has to be distilled and matured there.
One thing that doesn’t have to happen in order for something to be a tequila is for it to be made entirely out of blue agave. To score the designation it just has to be 51% blue agave. That means that other 49% can be whatever the tequila maker wants, and they don’t have to tell you what that thing is. In some cases it could just be a different kind of agave other than blue agave, but it could also be corn distillate, or straight ethanol.
These “mixed” tequilas are typically the ones you shoot and immediately regret doing so. There also the ones that are most likely to give you a brutal hangover in the morning.
If you’re on a budget and just looking for something cheap for a pitcher of margaritas, sure, give these lesser tequilas a try. But if you can spare the extra few bucks for something that’s 100% agave you’ll be doing yourself and your head a favor.
Blanco tequila is, for the most part, un-aged tequila (although some distilleries do age it for a few months). It’s clear, but if you hold it up to the light you might get a silverfish hue from it, thus the “silver” designation. Blanco tequilas are typically what you find in mixed drinks like margaritas. You can sip on these, and some of them are great for doing so, but most of them are built for mixing. These typically have notes of fresh agave, citrus, and honey.
Reposado tequila has been aged at least two months and up to 11 months in an oak barrel. The oak gives it a bit more of a refined flavor, and the tequila itself will take on a golden hue. Reposado tequilas will typically have hints on vanilla or caramel from the wood, as well as some of the citrus and agave flavors that were in the tequila when it was in Blanco form. You can still put these in margaritas, but you can also sip on them like you would a whiskey. They’re also a bit more expensive than their Blanco counterpart, so you might not want to waste their unique flavor on a marg, but you do you.
Añejo tequilas are where you start to really get into sipping tequilas. They’re aged between one and three years in oak barrels, which often gives them a deep hue. These often come with a pretty steep price tag that on its own should be a deterrent from using them in a margarita or shooting them. If you’re absolutely determined to mix one of these tequilas, try creating a tequila-based Old Fashioned rather than something with a lot of juice or other flavors. You want this spirit to stand on its own.
Extra Añejo tequila is the longest-aged tequila out there. The tequila has to be aged at least three years and a day in barrels, but is often aged much, much longer. These often come at a hefty price (and always a price significantly higher than that Blanco you’ve been drinking) and have strong wood flavors, as well as a vanilla sweetness. This is the tequila you want to pair with a piece of chocolate cake, and savor because you probably dropped a lot of coin on it.