Talking the Language of Tequila Selection

Dec 22, 2001 (Updated Oct 19, 2008)

The Bottom Line Understand the language of the label, know the reputations of the biggest brands, and get some practical recommendations for great tequilas. Read all about it!

Picking the best tequila for you is a matter of some personal taste. Some people like the more assertive flavor of young tequilas, while others prefer the more complex, smoother taste of aged tequilas. Some people buy according to brands they've heard of, others are adventurous and like to try new things. This review is intended to help you understand the language of tequilas so that you can more easily zero in on the brand that suits your tastes next time you visit your local liquor store.

When I'm shopping for tequilas, I look at the label to decide what type of tequila it is that I'm buying, and I like to know something about what the brands represent. I also like knowing what kinds of tequila are recommended by people whose tastes I respect and trust. These are the three big issues that I'm addressing in this review...

The Language of the Label...
When you're shopping for just the right tequila, you'll probably come across quite a few excellent tequilas that you've never heard of before, and you'll unquestionably find dozens of brands that aren't listed here on epinions. How do you know which ones will suit your tastes? The best way is to understand the language of tequila labels.

Label nomenclature is pretty standard, and the tequila production is tightly regulated by the Mexican government, who are well aware that a tequila industry that produces only high quality spirits will earn international respect and consequently, will command higher prices. This has certainly been the case in Scotland with Scotch whiskies, of which bad examples are hard to find, and it is to a large extent true now of tequilas as well.

Blanco, Plata, White, Silver
Basic, fresh, young tequila is usually referred to as either "white" or "silver" ("blanco" or "plata" in spanish). No matter what word is on the label, you could spot it anyway because it is completely clear. Clear tequilas represent some of the best selling and best-known brands on the market, but most connoisseurs will sneer at virtually every one of them. The reason they sneer is because these are the cheapest brands on the market, and because they usually have the most intense agave flavor without the complexity that comes from aging in wood.

A clear tequila can be made from 100 percent pure blue agave, but few are. Most contain sugars obtained from cane or other sources (piloncillo, a brown sugar, is commonly used). The clear tequilas are most often used for mixing, especially in margaritas.

Oro, Gold
Tequilas that are identified only as "gold" or "oro" are essentially the same product as a clear tequila, with the addition of artificial coloring. Some people swear that they can taste a difference between blanco and oro tequilas from the same distillery, but I suspect the differences are really in their own mind. Ask a distiller if there is really a difference between gold and silver tequilas, and most will tell you honestly that they are one and the same product.

Like their silver or white brothers, gold tequilas are usually used for mixed drinks.

When you see the word "reposado" on a label, it means the tequila has been "rested". This usually means it is stored in oak or other wood barrels for a period of up to one year (about 6 months seems pretty common). A "reposado" tequila is a step up from gold or silver tequilas. They are more expensive to make because of the resting process, and they are almost always more expensive to buy.

A reposado is usually a light to deep golden color, but the coloring is somewhat natural whereas a "gold" tequila is not naturally gold (a reposado may be adjusted with caramel colorings at the end of the resting stage to meet consistency standards).

Reposados are the tequilas that connoisseurs start to recognize as tequilas worth savoring, although they are often reasonable choices for mixing as a top-shelf brand.

The kings of the tequila world are the añejo brands. The word means "aged," which pretty much sums up why these tequilas are revered. They are aged for a minimum of one year, often for two, and sometimes for as much as three years before bottling.

Aging the tequilas in wood does the same kind of thing that aging wines, bourbon, scotch, or even beer do to those drinks. It mellows the sharp edges of young products and introduces soft complex flavors, especially hints of vanilla or spices like nutmeg or ginger. Past three years of aging, the tequila begins to decline, losing the sharp agave flavors that make it a tequila in the first place.

Almost all of the highest rated tequilas, either here or anywhere else, will be labeled "añejo" -- they will also be among the most expensive tequilas in your local liquor store.

100 Percent Agave
Look for tequilas that are labeled as "100 Percent Agave" or "Pure Blue Agave".

By law, all tequilas must be made with over 50 percent juice of the blue agave. The most expensive and sought after tequilas are usually made using only agave, but it is very common -- especially among the cheaper brands -- to use cane syrups or sugars for the remaining 50 percent. Because agave crops also vary from year to year, and it takes longer for new fields to be planted than it takes for brands to increase market demand, there are often reasons why distillers feel a need to cut back on the amount of agave they use.

Purists claim that only tequilas that are made from pure agave are worth drinking, and it is usually true that the best añejo brands are the ones that are made from pure agave, while the cheaper silver and gold brands are the ones that use the bare minimum amount of agave required by law.

As a general rule, you'll probably get the best quality drink by buying the brand with the highest percentage agave that you can afford.

Several years ago tequila suffered a serious image problem. It was the spirit to buy when you wanted to get drunk cheaply. That is no longer the case. (Well, not completely anyway -- you can still find cheap tequilas out there.) Tequila is now recognized as a drink that can be enormously variable and that can be of extremely high quality (and price!)

The growing awareness of tequila in North America and Europe has created a huge demand for new products, many of which are being provided by small craft distillers who observe traditional processes and techniques. These small distilleries are called artesanal distilleries, and you sometimes see the word on the label. Consider it the equivalent of "microbrewery" in the beer marketplace, or "boutique winery" and you'll be on the right track...

Tequila vs. Mezcal
The last point I'll mention about tequila is that it is not mezcal. Tequila is made only in Jalisco Mexico (and locations grandfathered in by law); mezcal can be made anywhere, but most often in Oaxaca. Tequilas don't have worms in the bottle -- that's mezcal! Tequilas are made only with blue agave; mezcals may use other plants.

Mezcal sometimes suffers an image problem, but the fact is that mezcal can be a much more varied, interesting, and sophisticated drink than tequila can. There are many mezcal producers (particularly in the state of Oaxaca) who produce world-class drinks of stunning complexity, but that are never exported more than a few miles from their origin. Read more about these artesanal mezcals.

The Language of Brands...
People are sometimes funny about brands. The name on a label can often be more important than knowing about the qualities of a specific product. Brands represent some measure of the level of quality you should expect in a product, although it is certainly the case that tequila distillers that produce outstanding aged brands can also produce mediocre mainstream products (or vice versa). Nonetheless, here are my impressions of what some of the major tequila brands stand for:

Jose Cuervo is one of the biggest names in the tequila business, and one of the oldest and most venerable brands in Mexico. The company is based in the town of Tequila and its old La Rojeña distillery is a sure stop on any tequila lovers visit to Jalisco. Cuervo was established in 1795 and is widely credited as being the first distiller to cultivate their own agave fields instead of relying on whatever nature chose to provide and the local population chose to harvest, which was how things were done prior to 1795. Most connoisseurs sneer at Cuervo's silver tequila, but grudgingly admit that the 1800 Añejo is a smooth drink.

Sauza is probably Mexico's second biggest name in tequila, and is also among its more venerable brands. Sauza's La Preservencia distillery was established in the town of Tequila by Don Cenobio Sauza in 1873. Whereas Cuervo was the agricultural innovator, Sauza was the technical innovator. Sauza is credited with being the first distillery to use steam to indirectly fire the stills.

Herradura is one of the most interesting of the big distillers. They maintain their own hacienda and the old distillery is preserved as a monument and museum to the industry's time-honored traditions. Besides the Herradura label, look for El Jimador.

Some of the other well-known distillers include Tres Magueys with their Don Julio brand, Patron, Porfidio, Gran Centanario, El Conquistador, Centinela, and many others.

There's a tequila for everyone, but not any one tequila that's right for everyone all the time. I enjoy sampling different tequilas, and I've built up a reasonable collection of tequilas over the last few years. Here are a few that I tend to keep coming back to, and that I think you'll also enjoy. I'm dividing them up as either tequilas for mixing, or tequilas for savoring.

For Mixing...
When I'm making margaritas or other drinks where the tequila character is just part of a mileau of flavors, I don't want to use my most expensive artesanal añejo tequilas. I save those for doing shots with people who also want to taste the tequila for its own merits. When mixing drinks, I look for a reputable name brand that may or may not be pure agave, but that I know will deliver a well-made tequila. Here are some of the most widely available brands that I tend to use for mixing.

Jose Cuervo Especial sometimes gets a bad rap from connoisseurs, as well as from those who tend to, shall we say, over indulge. The fact is, that Cuervo is a reputable distiller with a very long tradition, but being by far the largest distiller, they are also an easy target for pot shots. I can't say that I spend a lot of time sampling this tequila, but it's a staple in my bar and I use it often for making margaritas, tequila sunrises, and any other rail drink. Cuervo Especial is a reposado and is aged 6 months. That aging gives it a smooth soft character with just a little bit of a vanilla edge to it, but at the same time, it retains the distinctively sharp bitter agave flavor I find in the silver tequilas. It's a good tradeoff, an inexpensive name brand, and a solid, servicable tequila for casual drinking. I use this brand as my basic default tequila. Ask for a margarita in my house without specifying a type of tequila, and you'll get one made with Jose Cuervo Especial. I haven't heard any complaints yet...

I doubt very seriously that Sauza Silver (also labeled Sauza Blanco) is pure agave, but it is fairly inexpensive yet flavorful with an assertive agave flavor and with just a bit of an oak-like edge to it. I always keep a bottle on hand and use it in margaritas or other drinks whenever visitors tell me they prefer a light tequila.

My standard "top-shelf" brands are El Jimador Reposado, which is made by Herradura, and Sauza Hornitos. Both of these are pure agave and are reposados -- good, solid, tequilas.

For Savoring...
Most of the tequilas that I buy are intended to be slowly sampled or at least drinken straight up so that they can be appreciated for their own merits. Of course you can mix these too, but I don't see the point in doing so because they are often much more expensive than other tequilas, and you won't be able to fully appreciate their qualities and often subtle characteristics which can be overwhelmed by lime juice, orange, or any of the other strong flavors that people often mix with tequilas. Here are a few brands that I come back to time and time again...

La Cava de Don Agustin Reserva is a reposado tequila made with 100% blue agave. It is aged 8 months in new oak, which tends to make it a little softer, I think, than some of the tequilas aged in whisky barrels. It's a very smooth tequila that has a little bit of a pine-like edge to it, especially in the aroma.

I like most of the Centinela tequilas, although my local liquor store doesn't seem to have them, so I buy them when I'm in Mexico. One of my favorites from this distillery is Centinela Añejo, which is aged over one year in white oak barrels. The tequila is nice and smooth with soft caramel flavor and something of a sharp spicy pepper edge.

I bought the Chinaco Reposado solely because it's the only distillery far outside the state of Jalisco that is allowed by law to make tequila. The distillery is located in Tamaulipas -- which is on the border of Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. The tequila is excellent and is 100 percent blue agave. It's got a very soft, light body with a hint of fruity aroma and flavor.

El Tesoro de Don Felipe is fairly widely available, yet it's from a distillery called L'Altena that sees itself as an artesanal distillery rather than a big corporate distillery. The result is a wonderfully complex tequila with some soft vanilla tones that marry beautifully to the delicately spicy notes of nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon.

I've always had a lot of respect for the Tres Magueyes disillery, and I love their Don Julio Añejo, which is soft and mellow with just a bit of a peppery edge to it.

One of my friends brought me a bottle of Tequila Hacienda de la Flor Añejo, and I must say that it's really become a personal favorite. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find more... The tequila is a deep golden color that hints at its soft mellow vanilla tones. This is a super smooth tequila that was born to sip...

Another tequila that's become one of my house favorites is Oro Azul. This artesanal reposado is made with 100 percent agave in the town of Zapopan, Jalisco. It has a more assertive agave flavor than the añejos that I usually favor for sipping, but I sometimes like the intensity of younger pure agave reposados, such as this one.

On the Shelves...
I hope this review gives you some ideas for things to look for when you're shopping for the perfect tequila. If you have some other ideas or comments on this review, send me some email. I'd love to hear what you consider to be the perfect shot! Til next time, see you at the liquor store -- you'll find me in the tequila aisle.


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