in Elegant Style
They say the first tequila was made by the Aztecs over a thousand years ago—but we’ll spare you the long history and skip to 2016, when it’s safe to say tequila has surpassed its reputation as a party liquor and earned its status as a sophisticated spirit.
If you’re still associating it with pitchers of margaritas and shots at the college bar, then let me remind you that tequila now comes in artisanal and organic, with plenty of high-end options out there. Not only is P.Diddy in the game with De Leon, now even George Clooney has Casamigos, the elegant brand he co-founded with Cabo neighbor Rande Gerber.
The tequila buzz is in the air, so you can imagine how my curiosity peaked while in Mexico earlier this year. I’ve always enjoyed the occasional margarita on-the-rocks with salt by the pool as much as the next girl, but compared to my knowledge of wine I realized I knew little about the production and classification of Mexico’s native spirit.
I like to be in-the-know (as I’m sure you do too), so I decided it was time to find out how to truly appreciate fine tequila. To catch us all up on our current tequila moment, we’ve put together everything you need to know in this month’s Girl’s Guide. Cheers!
What is Tequila anyway?
Like champagne and cognac in France, tequila follows certain rules and regulations. True tequila must be distilled specifically from the blue agave, native to western Mexico, which is actually not a cactus but a flowering succulent. The Mexican government limits production to only certain states in central Mexico, though most is produced in the western state of Jalisco and near the city of Tequila.
Go for 100% Agave, never Mixto
A lot of the lower end tequilas you’ll find at the super market and in the well drinks at your average bar are labeled “Mixto,” which means they’re only 51% real blue agave. The rest is sourced from other sugars, and often there will be caramel coloring in there as well. Bottles labeled 100% Agave are of much higher quality and flavor, with more body and a stronger agave aroma.
Here’s the deal with Mezcal
Tequila is a mezcal, but not every mezcal can call itself a tequila. While tequila has to have at least 51% blue agave, mezcal can be made with over 30 different types of agave plants. Whereas tequila production is centered in Jalisco, 90% of mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca. Another big difference is the process. Mezcal’s smokey flavor originates in a wood fire pit, where the agave hearts are caramelized over several days—as it has been made for centuries.
As we noted, when you order a tequila drink at the bar, unless the brand name is listed, you’re probably getting a mixto, mid-grade tequila. To do better, go for a Top Shelf Margarita, made with a 100% agave tequila (see our recs below), or a Cadillac Margarita, which adds Grand Marinier en lieu of Triple Sec. However if you’re going to drink something really fancy, you might not want to go the cocktail route—the best tequilas are sipped like scotch.
Oro aka GOLD, JOVEN
“Gold” labeled tequilas are usually a mixture of blanco and reposado. These are typically lower-end bottles that have the harshest flavor and the highest alcohol content. Don’t mistake them for true reposado!
Blanco aka PLATA, SILVER, WHITE
Clear tequila is only allowed 60 days to make it from press to bottle. Never aged, it has the simplest flavor and is popular for mixing. High quality bottles can be super smooth, ideal for those just beginning on their tequila journey. Some tequila fans also love its pure agave flavor.
The most popular and easy-to-drink tequilas are usually Reposado. These take on a light honey-gold color after being aged in oak barrels for 2-11 months. The process creates a complex flavor that’s not too strong for mixing and not too bland for sipping.
Aged for at least a year in a small oak barrel, añejo (which literally means aged) takes on a pronounced smoky flavor. Extra-añejo takes it to even greater lengths with over three years in the barrel, boasting exotic floral and fruit notes. If you already love the taste of tequila then you’re ready to indulge in a little añejo on the rocks.
El Tesoro Platinum Tequila Plata
Arette Artesenal Blanco Sauve
Casa Dragones Tequila Blanco
123 Organic Tequila Blanco
Partida Reposado Tequila
De Leon Reposado Tequila
Clase Azul Reposado
Milagro Reposado Select Barrel
Casamigos Tequila Añejo
Riazul Tequila Añejo
Qui Platinum Extra Añejo
Cabo Uno Reserva Extra Añejo