BE LESS OF A CINCO DE MAYO DOOFUS AND LEARN HOW TO ENJOY QUALITY TEQUILA ANY DAY OF THE YEAR
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated as of May 5, 2016. It contains no sponsored content and none of the brands featured have compensated RONTHINK for inclusion in this post.
My love of tequila goes far beyond taste. It’s rooted in the mystique of this Mexican import and the culture that has sprung up around it. To celebrate Cinco de Mayo and beyond, here’s a quick and dirty guide to the myths, wonders and joys of tequila…plus a few other things of note.
First, let’s dispel a couple of myths. It’s knowledge that will make you less of a bad gringo:
- Nowadays, “gringo” only has a negative connotation if you are, indeed, a total jackass. If you’re a non-Mexican from the U.S. (like me) and have Mexican friends (especially those who speak Spanish as their first language), you will often be referred to as a “gringo.” It is used interchangeably to refer to an Anglo-Saxon and/or someone from North America. It is rarely meant as an insult and, if it is, you probably deserve it.
- Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Avoid this conversational faux pas when trying to act like a smarty pants while sucking down margaritas at an On the Border or El Torito (better yet, avoid going to bad Mexican chain restaurants and find the real deal near you). Cinco de Mayo is an observation of the Battle of Puebla, in which the Mexican Army beat back some pesky French invaders. Ah, the French! So worldly. So unwelcome.
- Tequila comes from the blue agave plant, which is a succulent but not a cactus. In fact, agave plants are a close relative of the lily and are indigenous to the Americas.
- Tequila is not an actual hallucinogenic. That’s a myth that probably started when some drunk dude confused mezcal (the umbrella category for agave-based spirits) with mescaline, which is indeed an hallucinogenic substance (derived from the peyote cactus).
- All tequilas are mezcals but, not all mezcals can be called tequila. The Mexican government has mandated the area of the country where tequila can be made, most of which lies in the state of Jalisco.
- Finally: that worm myth. There are not now nor have there ever been dead worms at the bottom of tequila bottles. Don’t make yourself look like foolish by asking to drink the worm that never was (especially if the bartender or person you are hitting on is of Mexican descent). Should you find a dead worm (or dead anything, for that matter) in your bottle of booze, it’s not a good thing.
WHAT’S YOUR TYPE?
There are five types of tequila:
BLANCO: Clear, unaged and often bottled immediately after being distilled. Also known as silver or white tequila. This is the variety you’re probably most familiar with. There are a lot of really bad blancos out there and you will find them ruining margaritas from coast to coast. See below for the silvers I recommend. If you’ve had a bad experience with tequila, a cheap blanco or joven (gold) is probably to blame.
JOVEN: Also known as gold tequila. Don’t be fooled by the color: this is still a young tequila to which a color or flavoring has usually been added. It’s often easier to find a cheap joven than it is a blanco because of our incorrect assumption that “gold” is better than “silver.” Jovens are most often used in mixed drinks and you’ve probably had more than your share in so-so restaurant margaritas.
REPOSADO: Aged anywhere from two to twelve months, a reposado (or rested) tequila is where you should start looking if you want to increase your odds of a great cocktail experience. Reposados must be aged in wood barrels and, depending on the type of wood used, will each have their own unique flavor. A good reposado doesn’t need much help so I like to use this type of tequila in the most uncomplicated mixed drinks.
ANEJO: Now we’re getting into the really good stuff. Anejos (which means “vintage’) are aged under strict guidelines that limit the size of the barrel and mandate at least a year of rest. Really fancy anejos will spend as long as three years in the barrel. Darker than reposados, a good anejo is a smooth, sexy and sublime drinking experience. This is a sipping tequila, not one you drink as a shot or mix into/with anything. A lime and salt chaser is the most adornment you should ever give an anejo.
EXTRA ANEJO: This is an ultra-premium tequila that has been aged a minimum of three years. They tend to be every expensive and, honestly, most of us will be just fine topping out at the anejo level. I did a side by side tasting once in Mexico and could barely tell the difference…until I paid the tab. If you ever do anything with an extra anejo other than sipping and savoring it solo, a good bartender will give you the stink eye.
MY TOP FOUR TEQUILA BRANDS
You don’t have to spend a ton of money to enjoy some really great tequilas. I would be the first to encourage you to play and experiment. Decide up front if you are going the mixed drink route or the sipping route and stick to that plan for the entire night. Trust me, you’ll be happier and less hung over for having done so.
If you’re looking for a truly enjoyable tasting experience, find a bar staffed with people who know their tequilas. If they immediately direct you to top shelf stuff without asking your personal taste preferences, they’re scammers. If the shelves are brimming with bottles of Jose Cuervo, Sauza and Patron, look elsewhere. That’s a bar catering to folks who know no better and probably never will. This isn’t me encouraging tequila snobbery. Rather, it’s the best way to begin to start your journey and discover the variety of great product out there.
Below are my “tried and true” tequilas. When I buy for my personal use or as a gift, it’s always one of these four brands. When I’m out socially and want a tequila, if they don’t carry at least one of these, I’ll drink something else. Keep in mind, if there’s a bar or club you love and they don’t stock one of these tequilas, ask the bar staff to do something about that. Good bartenders are very customer savvy and pride themselves on serving top quality wine and spirits. Besides, it never hurts to ask.
Click on any image below to visit the official site for each brand. There are some great drink recipes and additional tequila know how out there for the clicking. The prices listed are approximations. Depending on where you shop, they may be higher or lower. If you find a sale on any of these tequilas, take advantage of it.
Corazon is one of my go-to tequilas. Always reliable, always enjoyable and no sticker shock. The reposado is especially strong and a great alternative if you can’t afford the fine anejo. Of my four favorite brands, Corazon has the most bite but it is balanced out by a wonderfully complex flavor palette. A 750 ml bottle (with a signature wooden cork) will set you back anywhere from $30 (blanco) to $45 (anejo).
Don Julio is pricey but worth every penny. This is the top shelf brand a good bar will stock and one I recommend indulging in. Unlike some high-end brands, Don Julio will not leave you feeling like you paid for prime filet but got served a Whopper Jr.
Personally, I never mix Don Julio with anything. Even the blanco is almost refined enough to sip. The reposado and anejo are both divine taste experiences. A 750 ml bottle starts at about $40 (blanco) and runs as high as $60 for the traditional anejo. There’s also a 1942 reserve edition that prices out well north of $100 a bottle. If you’re giving the gift of tequila, forget about overrated Patron and kick in a few extra bucks for Don Julio. The recipient will thank you.
If you’re looking for a great everyday tequila, Herradura is hard to beat. Don’t think for a minute that “everyday” translates to “pedestrian” or “ordinary.” Quite the contrary. If there’s a bottle of tequila on my shelf at home, odds are it’s from Herradura. It never lets me down.
You might not find Herradura at every bar but most liquor stores carry it. It’s usually a bit more expensive than Corazon but the lower end of the line is a touch better, especially in mixed drinks. I use the silver to make a great margarita or, for the less hearty drinker, top shelf adult smoothies (that’s an all-fruit smoothie with a shot of tequila for every adult who will be drinking).
The reposado and anejo are also a treat but, if you’re going there and Corazon is available, try that instead or, even better, do a side by side with Herradura for a pleasant sipping and tasting experience. I like the slightly more complex notes in Corazon, especially at the anejo level. If that doesn’t sound like your taste preference, you really can’t go wrong with anything Herradura. Stick with it and smile. A 750 ml bottle starts in the $35 neighborhood for the blanco and runs as high as $60 for the anejo.
This line of premium tequila is owned by Bacardi. I first discovered it courtesy of an excellent bartender in New York City. It’s become my absolute favorite “special occasion” brand. Problem is, Corzo also happens to be one of the hardest tequilas to find at a bar, club or liquor store. Most good wine and spirit shops will special order it for you and, where Corzo is concerned, you should take advantage of the option.
Of all the brands highlighted, Corzo is the smoothest and most refined thanks to a unique triple distillation process. The entire line is a bit sweeter and more well-rounded than is typical, with the silver (blanco) making a truly mind-blowing margarita. If you can find Corzo and have never enjoyed sipping tequila, start with this brand. It will be hard to drink anything else after enjoying the reposado or thrilling anejo. A 750 ml bottle starts at about $45 for the blanco and tops out at $65 for the anejo. There are also some excellent cocktail recipes on their website that you can adapt for any brand.
Incidentally, the Corzo bottle is a true work of art. Designed by Fabien Baron, the stopper is cork and metal and the waterfall mouth pays tribute to the works of renown Mexican architect Luis Barragan. No mere gimmick, the artistry of the packaging extends to the wonderful contents inside.