It’s astonishing how many new tequila brands are popping up these days. Especially considering that it takes nearly a decade for agave plants to mature enough to be distilled into tequila and rendered into those frozen concoctions that help us hang on. The recent explosion in tequila’s popularity has made it a particularly hard category to navigate. And it can be pricey, so it’s important to know before you buy what the different categories are, and how they might work with the way you plan to enjoy your tequila.
Robert Simonson is an excellent person to guide us through. He’s a cocktail writer for the New York Times, author of several spirits books including Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails: Mixed Drinks for the Golden Age of Agave, and producer of the cocktail-centric newsletter, The Mix with Robert Simonson.
“It goes without saying that tequila should be 100% blue agave, no mixtos!” he says as his first piece of advice, referring to poor quality “mixto” tequila that uses other fermented sugars in the mix, such as corn syrup, and leads inevitably to the infamous hangovers that unjustly gave tequila a bad rap. By definition, tequila must be made with blue agave, and it must be produced in specific regions within Mexico. But there is ample room for variation and experimentation beyond those rules.
“When it comes down to it, I am a cocktail man, and the place I like my agave spirits best is in a cocktail,” says Simonson. “That said, people often do drink them neat, and that is the way they are largely consumed in Mexico.”
Whether you prefer to sip it neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, each of tequila’s different styles will strongly influence your experience. Here’s what to know about the different categories of tequila, as well as some of the best bottles of each to get your hands on.
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Blanco | Plata | Silver Tequila
When it comes to tequila, the terms blanco, plata, and silver are interchangeable. They all refer to tequila that is unaged or aged less than two months. Tequilas in this category have floral, bright, peppery characteristics that make them perfect for citrus-forward cocktails.
“For a margarita, you want an affordable silver tequila of quality pedigree,” says Simonson. He makes the same recommendation for the grapefruit-centric Paloma. “They are both simple drinks, and the juice and sugar in them will mask the characteristics of whatever spirits are inside to some extent, but quality always shows, so it pays to use a good tequila.”
A favorite of Simonson, El Tesoro Blanco is made from agave grown at 6,000 feet above sea level. It’s cooked in a traditional brick oven, ground with a stone made of lava rock, distilled twice in copper pot stills to proof strength, then bottled unaged to preserve the essence of the agave flavor.
La Adelita is named in honor of the women fighters of the Mexican revolution, from the famous tale (corrido) of the same name. This blanco is twice distilled in small, Cuban copper pot stills brought to the estate in the 1920s. Because of its brightness and balance, it would be great simply on the rocks. But it also would make a mean margarita.
Reposado tequila is aged from two to 12 months in oak barrels. It has a noticeable yellowish color, but nothing near the whiskey-brown color of añejo. The subtle aging makes it a perfect middle ground between the bright and peppery character of silver tequila, and the darker, sweeter vanilla notes of añejo. Perfect for a margarita with much softer edges, and for a smooth sipper.
When I was a bartender, Casa Noble was a favorite of mine for a nightcap after last call. Made from certified organic agave, triple distilled, and then aged for 364 days in new French oak barrels, it has an incredibly rounded flavor profile that makes it a wonderful choice for sipping neat or on the rocks.
Anejo and Extra Anejo Tequilas
Añejo tequila is aged between one to three years in oak barrels, which tones down the brighter grassy and citrus notes and adds new dimensions of subtle smoke, vanilla, and caramel. This makes añejo ideal either for sipping neat, on the rocks, or for mixing in cocktails as a whiskey alternative, like in an añejo old-fashioned.
Aged 12 months in charred American oak, El Corralejo Añejo is an exceptional value. Because of the charred oak influence, this is a great añejo for bourbon drinkers. The bottle looks a bit like a prayer candle, so I converted mine into a citronella tiki torch. It’s a perfect bottle to bring to a dinner party in lieu of wine, if your hosts are cool enough.
Aged 18 months in ex-bourbon casks and made with water from a volcano (literally called Tequila Volcano) that adds a layer of volcanic minerality, Severo has a strong dry-sweet balance that would make it great for a cocktail because it wouldn’t get lost among other ingredients, nor would it lose its distinctive character if enjoyed on the rocks.
Extra añejo tequila is aged three years or more. This exquisite Avión is aged 44 months — 43 of those spent in oak barrels — and then it’s finished with one month in small oak barrels that are rotated daily, which maximizes the exposure to the wood for a richer flavor. This is the most memorable aged tequila I’ve had in recent memory, with a depth of flavor rivaling my favorite Scotch, but with a pleasing sweetness that is uniquely agave-esque.
A hybrid category, Cristalino is aged for one to three years and then charcoal-filtered back to a silver color, which brings back some of the bright citrus notes it knew as a young tequila. The result is an exceptionally smooth tequila with añejo roundness and depth.
A mix of European-oak-aged reposado, añejo, and extra añejo tequila that is double-filtered for color, this is labeled as reposado, but the fine print identifies it as the world’s “first cristalino.” I’ve long enjoyed Maestro Dobel Diamante, either as a sipper or for a particularly indulgent margarita.
Aged 15 months in American white oak barrels before charcoal filtration, I took my first sip neat and was instantly impressed by the delicate balance and complexity of the 70. It’s perfect to drink as a highball with soda and a slice of lime, to let the flavor take over the drink — it’s that good.
A mix of an extra añejo aging combined with charcoal filtration makes for a cristalino with exceptional depth. Yet, because it retains a bright, peppery finish, it would stand up well in a shaken tequila cocktail served straight up, such as a tequila sour. (The stone bottle topper is also a class act.)