For most of us, tequila is associated either with pitchers of margaritas on the patio, or two or three too many shots followed by spending the wee hours in the morning leaning on the porcelain throne. That kind of tequila, however, is the cheap stuff, and there is a lot about tequila that is far from cheap.
Unlike a spirit like vodka, which can be made anywhere and from just about anything that ferments, tequila mostly gets made in the Mexican state of Jalisco and only from blue agave. This plant takes up to a decade to mature, and the huge, pineapple-like core that is used to make tequila must be harvested at just the right time and, by and large, by hand. These are then baked, and then crushed to extract the juice, which is then fermented and distilled to between 55% and 60% ABV.
At that point, the liquid is blanco, or clear tequila, and even at that most basic point you have a spirit based on a plant that takes years to grow and requires skilled labor to get the most out of at harvest. Next, a tequila-maker can add more expense to their product in the form of barrel aging. When tequila is matured in wood, it becomes either reposado (“rested) after two months, anejo (“aged”) after at least a year, and extra anejo, which is tequila that has been aged even longer. The size and origin of the casks used for aging tequila can vary, but ex-bourbon barrels from the U.S. are the most common.
Interest in higher-grade tequila has grown in recent years, and with it has come craft tequila. If pursuing good tequila is your aim, then your central concern is the native flavors of the blue agave. So, the first thing you want to avoid are mixto tequilas, which are not 100% agave. Another trap to watch out for is the gold tequilas, because while some are mixtures of silver and reposado, most just have some caramel coloring and/or oak extract added.
Here are some factors to look for in assessing the craft and quality of a tequila.
Was the agave baked in a horno? In traditional tequila making, the agave is slow baked in a masonry oven, rather than fast-cooked in a pressure cooker. Many experts feel that pressure cooking the agave homogenizes them, which is great for making a consistent product, but not so much if you are trying to maximize things like terroir.
Was it distilled in a copper pot? Likewise, most believe industrial column stills strip out the oils and other compounds that allow the agave spirit to retain its native flavors, and prefer tequilas made using copper pot stills instead. It’s an idea any Scotchophile will recognize, with column vs. pot stills being one of the major distinctions between malt and grain whisky.
Aged, but not too aged. Tequila can pick up some good qualities from barrel aging, but too much of it is usually a bad thing, with the oak flavors smothering the more delicate agave. In this respect, tequila is more like wine than whiskey, as wine is rarely barrel aged for more than two years.
Look for terroir. Agave grown in the Highlands, south of Guadalajara, is slower growing but sweeter. Agave from the Lowlands is earthier and/or herbal. Some brands base their identity on using just Highland or Lowland agave, while a handful narrow down to agave from a particular estate.
So, the next time you are out for margaritas or palomas, check out what your local upscale cocktail bar has on offer and what they are using as a base. If a Manhattan can be improved by using $75 bourbon, why not other drinks and shots by using upscale tequila? Here are five craft tequilas to get you started.
Don Julio is a big, Top 10 selling tequila brand, but relies heavily on old school techniques, such as their masonry ovens and the wild yeast used in fermentation. They are also famed for the care taken on the agricultural side of things, from growing to harvesting their Highland agave. Their 1942 Anejo and Extra Anejo are worth a look, but their Reposado is a showcase for what just a little barrel aging can do for a Highlands style tequila: sweet and backed up with vanilla, spices and a touch of nuttiness.
The creation of Guillermo Sauza, a fifth-generation tequila distiller whose family name adorns a wholly separate major brand, Forteleza was conceived as a throwback to the Sauza clan’s foundations. The Lowland agave is baked in brick and stone ovens, crushed under a stone wheel, fermented in small, wood vats and double distilled in copper pots. To get to the essence of what all that means, go straight to the Blanco (unaged), sip it neat, and dig into the citrus sweetness with notes of pepper, mint and olive earthiness.
If you want to get acquainted with the Highland rather than Lowland flavor profile, then Siembra Azul Blanco is a good way to get there. Agave grown in family estates and baked in clay ovens? Check. Double distilled in copper pots? Check. The final product is light, fruity with vegetal notes and a bit of a peppery finish.
Tapatio Tequila is a joint project between the Camarena family of Mexico, old hands in the tequila business, and the Charbay winery and distillery in Napa Valley, California. Made from agave coming from a single estate and copper pot distilled, the tequila is aged in ex-bourbon barrels for 18 months. A balance of agave with crème brulee, rounded out with a dash of pepper and a whiff of smoke, Tapatio Anejo is a solid choice for moving off of familiar unaged tequila and into aged territory. What’s more, it comes in larger, one-liter bottles.
Once you’ve dabbled with aged tequila, try Tears of Llorona, which is an excellent example of something more aged. Not only is it five years old, but it ventures into the question of cask stock by blending tequilas aged in Scotch, sherry and cognac casks, rather than the more usual bourbon barrel. Master Distiller German Gonzalez’s goal with all that aging and blending was to achieve a level of complexity for tequila that is usually only found in fine single malts and cognacs, and it is widely thought that he succeeded.
Richard Thomas turned his Kentucky upbringing and eight years as a European expat into cheese, whiskey and wine writing. Booze-wise, he owns and edits The Whiskey Reviewer and writes freelance, including authoring the book Port: Beginners Guide To Wine and contributing to The New Single Malt. When he isn’t scribbling in a bar, he is hauling a ruck in Red River Gorge.