While whiskey is my drink of choice, tequila is becoming a close second. However, it's a bit of a maligned spirit category having to undo the reputation of some supremely terrible products and some bad associations.
I mean, let's think of it in two different snapshots. First picture a distiller on the hills of Jalisco, where carefully-harvested agave hearts are crushed by an actual stone wheel as part of the production process. Picture sun-bleached villages where the knowledge of creating a nuanced, sublime spirit is often passed down through several generations of distillers.
However, for most, tequila has stronger associations with a bunch of college freshmen yelling "Shots!" until their voices are hoarse. It recalls visions of club-going young ladies wobbling on their four-inch heels as they try to make it to the outside trash can before they barf. Fair or not, and more than any other spirit, tequila is most associated with terrible hangovers, fishbowl-sized drinks drowned in sweet-and-sour mix, and a litany of memories a lot of us would be happy to forget.
...Which is horrifically unfair to tequila, really. Today, we'll look at why a lot of people have shitty experiences with tequila, how you can pick a good one, and what you can expect from the various classifications of quality tequila.
This is not real tequila. Jose Cuervo is absolutely abysmal, trash-grade booze, and now that you're no longer 14 years old you should go nowhere near it. Most restaurants will use gold tequila in margaritas, figuring you're not savvy enough to taste the difference. (Hint: you are. Or you soon will be.)
"Gold" tequilas are more accurately classified as "mixto" tequilas in Mexico, which means "mixed." Only 51% of a bottle of Gold tequila needs to be actual tequila. The rest can be some combination of artificial sweeteners, coloring agents, or rotgut-level "neutral grain spirits" that are anything but neutral. All of these extra add-ins, by the way, are the reason for terrible tequila headaches and hangovers. Your body is processing all of the impurities, not the tequila itself.
In any case, gold tequilas are so bad that we actually have a separate article about how much of a trainwreck they are. But for now, stay far away from anything that doesn't say "100% pure agave" on the label. Those simple words are your golden Wonka ticket to picking a good bottle.
Sometimes distillers will refer to this as "silver," but make sure that it's 100% agave no matter what you do to avoid getting a mixto masquerading as a blanco.
Blanco ("white") tequila is the youngest, purest expression of distilled agave. Unlike other tequila classifications, blancos (usually) never enter the inside of an oak barrel, which means that you can expect a bit of a sweeter, fresher taste profile. Most good bottles will have some minerality and the aroma and taste of freshly-chopped vegetables. If you want to brighten up a standard margarita, use a blanco—it makes for a really crisp and refreshing change.
The "middle ground" in tequilas, but definitely not a lesser category. Reposado (rested) tequilas are moderately aged in oak barrels. By law, it has to be a minimum of two months, but it can't be more than one year. Even though this aging time seems extraordinarily quick for most whiskey drinkers used to seeing decades-long age statements on bottles, aging happens much more rapidly in the hot climate of Jalisco, Mexico.
A good reposado will still have a few vegetal or herbal notes from the agave, but the signature profile of the style is a buttery roundedness and a bit of vanilla thanks to the moderate oak interaction. Finishes here are a little longer, gentler, and warmer than with a blanco. Of the three tequila styles, reposados make for the gentlest introduction to the category.
Once again, remember that people confuse gold tequilas with reposados, as both actually are a bit of a pale golden color. Look for the 100% pure agave on the front.
Añejo (aged) tequilas are those that spend more than a year inside of oak. These are going to be the tequilas that appeal most to single-malt scotch drinkers, since they tend to be extremely characterful and have the widest variation of tastes and flavors.
I find that the longer oak interaction gives añejo tequilas a lot of baking spices, like cinnamon and clove. You certainly could use a good añejo as a mixer, but like fine whiskies, they're best enjoyed neat or on the rocks to really appreciate the smell and taste.
Milagro Silver - $19
Milagro is a great workhorse of a blanco tequila. It makes for an absolutely delicious housemade margarita when the weather gets hot, but on its own it's a good introduction to blancos. I find it has a good blend of slate-like minerality and chopped bell peppers. If you like to drink Sauvignon Blancs, this will appeal to you.
Fortaleza Reposado - $50
It's not cheap, certainly, but Fortaleza was one of the first reposados I had that made me reconsider the idea that repos were simply "lesser" añejos. This reposado is extremely buttery in the mouth, but it also bursts with sage in the aroma and taste. It's very complex, but it's also agreeably mellow. I'll go so far as to say it's my favorite tequila.
Don Felix Añejo - $45
The Don Felix is a lighter añejo than most, but I think that's what makes it a good introduction. This is most definitely not overoaked, and the wood-spirit interaction has pulled out a lot of sweet orange and cinnamon spice that interacts quite nicely with the white pepper present in the agave.
Espolon Añejo - $25
If you want to spend a lot less money on what I think is a great value tequila, check out the eldest Espolon. I suspect they age it on the lower end of the añejo spectrum, so to me it drinks a bit more like what I'd expect from a reposado. That said, there are some great flavors here. The use of ex-bourbon barrels makes it bold, sweet, and a great place for whiskey drinkers to branch out.
Still not convinced?
Tell you what: the next time that you and your significant other (or bestie, or parent) go out for margaritas, do a side-by-side. Have one person order the house margarita, and have the other person order a "premium" margarita by specifying something made with any of the larger brands: Cazadores, Herradura, Hornitos, Corralejo, or Patron, either blanco or reposado. See which one you like more, and if the extra one or two dollars justified itself.
Good luck, and may your next adventures with tequila be filled with far less regret!