by Jacob Brower, Wine & Spirits Professional
Tequila is one of the world’s favorite spirits right now. In the United States, sales of the venerable Mexican sipper, shooter, and mixer nearly rival bourbon! But for many, tequila still has a negative association with bad nights in college or cheap, harsh spirits bought at the corner store. In reality, it’s an incredibly broad, versatile category with something for everyone, and knowing just a few key points of information will help you buy the ultimate bottle for your own home bar.
- Tequila is a protected geographic designation.
Just like calling a wine Champagne or a cheese Gruyère, the category of tequila is regulated by various rules, laws, and geographical boundaries. Tequila must be made in Mexico, but even more specifically, it must be produced in limited municipalities within the Mexican states of Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Guanajuato. On the American market, nearly all of the tequila available comes from Jalisco, which can be further broken down into the Highlands and Lowlands, each with their own unique geographic qualities.
- Tequila must be distilled from Blue Weber Agave.
Again, it’s easiest to think of this in terms of wine. There are many different varieties of agave, with significant differences in appearance and chemical structure, just like any other plant. Some grow well at altitude, some better in lower regions. Some are huge and can only grow in the wild, while others can be cultivated commercially. Some are native to a particular state in Mexico and don’t grow elsewhere. You get the idea. With Tequila it’s simple—just like Bourgogne Rouge must be Pinot Noir and Bourgogne Blanc must be Chardonnay, Tequila is legally required to be distilled from Agave tequilana, aka Blue Weber agave. (With the popularity and demand for Tequila, it’s also wreaking havoc on Jalisco’s biodiversity, and Blue Weber agave may very well be endangered before we know it—so treasure it while you can!)
- Tequila can be unaged or aged in oak barrels.
While many tequila and mezcal drinkers prefer unaged spirits for their freshness, purity, and the ability to taste the subtle differences in variety and terroir—just like wine!—other spirits aficionados prefer heavily oak-aged tequilas that combine the vegetal, saline freshness of agave with rich, spicy, caramel and vanilla flavors reminiscent of whisky. All you need to know is what the different age statements mean, and you’ll be able to pick out the right bottle for your personal tastes. It’s simple: Blanco means the spirit has not been aged in oak (resting in stainless steel or glass is permitted); Reposado means it has rested in oak for at least 2 months; Añejo must be aged at least 1 year (in barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 liters); and Extra Añejo must be aged more than 3 years in oak. (Gold comes in between Blanco and Reposado, but is often produced with artificial colorings and flavorants to mimic the appearance of longer aging, so you won’t typically see it in stores that focus on quality craft spirits.)
- Tequila and Mezcal are different.
I’ll keep it simple here, as this post isn’t about Mezcal—but it too is a distinct category, and not a ‘type’ of Tequila, as consumers sometimes believe. Again, wine is the perfect analogy. Think of it like Burgundy and Bordeaux—produced in the same country but in different regions, from different varieties, and often using different methods. Simple as that!
- If you see it advertised in lifestyle magazines and on TV, you shouldn’t drink it.
This applies to every category, not just Tequila, but with the popularity of Tequila specifically, new brands pop up every day, often spearheaded by celebrities. Even the old staple brands are marketed with multi-million-dollar campaigns. The problem with big brands is that they industrially mass-produce their products using inexpensive ingredients and choose to spend all their money on marketing; on the other hand, truly premium, high quality spirits are produced in small-batches, mostly by hand, and using high quality, premium ingredients. The money goes into what you're sipping, rather than the advertising that convinces you to buy it. This is true of Patrón and Casamigos—which are simply not very good tequilas—and it’s true of Veuve Clicquot, Johnnie Walker, Grey Goose, you name it. But I'll step off my soap box…the most important thing is this: whether it’s cheap & cheerful or ultra-premium, we have a higher quality spirit out there to meet your needs than the corporate, industrially manufactured brands!
I could go on and on—I love tequila that much—but I’ll leave you here, along with a few recommendations of outstanding, high-quality tequilas in a variety of styles and price points. As with all of our selection, these are traditional, small batch spirits made with integrity and the goal of producing a quality spirit, rather than a profitable brand. And that’s what we should be drinking!