For those who are tequila connoisseurs, the holy grail of tequila is a $225,000 bottle of Ultra-Premium Ley .925 Pasion Azteca Tequila. But you don't need to spend that kind of money to taste the best tequila out there.
Trying new tequila can be confusing and intimidating. All you need to do is learn some facts and tips to boost your knowledge.
Read our guide to tequila to learn all you need to know to find the best tequila.
Know Your Terms
When looking to buy the best tequila one of the most basic mistakes you can make is not understanding what the terms on the label mean. We've compiled a list of the most common terms found on tequila labels and defined them for you.
When you see anejo on the label the tequila should be an amber color. This tequila perfect for sipping neat.
Oak barrels are used for aging the tequila for a minimum of a year, but no more than three years. Anejo or extra-anejo tequila is considered a higher quality tequila.
If there is a worm in the bottle you are most likely looking at mezcal, not tequila. It is a common misconception that a worm should be in tequila.
There is debate whether the worm is a nod to traditional street food in Oaxaca. Many claim adding the worm was just a marketing ploy. Just like looking for authentic Mexican food, don't let the worm fool you when looking for authentic tequila.
Just like with scotch or cognac, the longer a tequila ages the smoother and more mellow the taste will become. Subtle notes of wood and spice will be infused with the tequila from the wood of the oak barrel.
Blanco Silver Plata White
This tequila is unaged. At most, it might have been aged for two months. No color is added and the tequila should have a clear look to it.
This type of tequila is the most traditional. Many people who enjoy tequila will drink it straight. This is also the tequila that spawned the tradition of taking a shot with salt and lime.
Blue Agave/Agave Azul
The blue agave plant is the only plant for making tequila. In the United States, we know it as a century plant and it is a member of the lily family.
It looks like a cactus or giant aloe plant. They can grow shoots with an edible flower up to fifteen feet tall.
When the plant produces this flower that is the signal of the end of the plant's life. New agave plants will be produced throughout its life at the base.
The plant itself will grow up to six to eight feet tall. The width of the plant will be just as large.
The blue agave grows in a desert climate found in Mexico and the American southwest. If you see the name Weber in front this is referring to a specific variety of the blue agave plant.
Estate Grown or Estate Bottled
Many tequilas are mass produced on an industrial scale. The term estate grown is letting you know it is not one of those tequilas.
The smaller estates and farms have greater control over their harvest and distillation process. Many tequila fans believe estate-grown tequila is the best tequila.
Tradition is valued for the estate grown and bottled tequilas. Fields are cultivated for years by families to produce the best tequila.
The extra here is referring to the tequila being aged in oak barrels for longer than three years. The proper way to drink this tequila is to sip it neat.
The longer aging also means the color will be a darker and deeper amber color. The agave taste will be diminished and the alcohol content is increased. Distilled water must be added to achieve the correct alcohol proof for consumption.
Agave plants that grow in the Jalisco highlands have a different flavor profile than lowlands agave plants. Experts say that the highland agave is more floral and fruity while the lowland agave is spicier and woody.
Jalisco Hecho en Mexico
Just like champaign, tequila is protected to only be produced in certain geographical regions. Hecho means made in Spanish.
Jalisco is the southwest state of Mexico where tequila may be produced. Some small towns just outside the state are also granted permission.
Joven or Gold
This version of tequila is essentially the same thing as the tequila Blanco with a few extras added. The goal is to mimic the color and flavor of the aging process.
This is the best tequila for making margaritas and other mixed drinks. They are not considered to be a hundred percent agave.
Sometimes tequila that doesn't make the cut for the anejo or reposado gets turned into gold tequila. Adding the extra non-agave ingredients keeps the cost down on this tequila.
The bottle will be at least 51% blue agave. For it to qualify as tequila it needs to meet this standard.
This alcohol is similar to tequila in that it is made from agave plants. It isn't required that it be made from them or produced in the Jalisco region.
It has a smoky flavor and aroma from the distillers baking the agave hearts in charcoal ovens. Most of the mezcal on the market today is made in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Mixto is just what it implies, a tequila that has been mixed with something. They are no longer a hundred percent agave.
Platinum is a term used to describe high-quality tequila blanco. You may also see it on tequila that has been aged for a long period of time but then filtered to remove the amber coloring.
The tequila will be given a chance to "rest" or age in the oak barrels for two months to a year. A light pale amber color will be achieved.
The reposado tequilas will have a smoother taste than the blanco ones. You will still be able to taste the agave. This is the best tequila of Mexico.
If you are looking for a limited production or the very best tequila then look for a label with reserve on it. You will usually find it on reposado or anejo tequila.
Just like how wines are designated by the year in which the grapes were grown and harvested, single estate tequila uses agave from a single field. The idea is that single field or estate has a flavor profile unique to it that is imparted on that batch of tequila.
The climate and soil combinations are said to create different flavor profiles in the agave plants. The best tequilas to experience these subtle differences are the tequila blanco and reposado.
Read Those Labels
Now that you know the important terms let's go over what to look for on the label. Look for the type of tequila it is, blanco, gold, reposado, anejo, extra anejo, or reserva de casa.
Check to make sure that it says its 100% agave. If it doesn't then it is a mixto. Look for the NOM, which is the distiller's registration number.
This number doesn't say anything to the quality of the tequila. This number will help you determine the different brands that a single distiller produces.
Look to make sure it is a CRT certified product. This doesn't indicate quality but does ensure you are getting an authorized legitimate tequila product.
This next one may sound a little redundant, but make sure the bottle doesn't say it's made anywhere other than Mexico. Next, take note of the brand name, but remember that many distilleries make many different brands.
The Correct Way to Drink Straight Tequila
The traditional way to drink the best tequila is to sip it straight. Do not break out your salt and lime. Instead, mix up one of the traditional non-alcoholic sangrita drinks to sip in between your tequila sips.
The first is three parts tomato juice, one part lime juice, and one to three parts orange juice. The second is one part grenadine, two parts orange juice, and one to two parts lime juice.
Chill your mixture beforehand and add a splash of hot sauce when you serve it. Both drinks are designed to clear the palate between sips and compliment the agave flavor of the tequila.
Know Where You've Been Before Going Forward
There is a small town in the Jalisco region that is named Tequila. You're probably already thinking it, and you are right, the alcohol gets its name from the town. The town was founded in 1656 and was the first location to produce the drink.
You've probably heard of Jose Cuervo, they were the first to commercialize the alcohol. It wasn't until the 1800's when it first started being exported to the United States.
Fast forward to 1978 when the tequila industry created a strict set of standards for tequila production. Things like where and how tequila may be produced, what the label may say, and the styles accepted are all regulated.
How They Make It
By now you know tequila must be made from the agave plant. But how do they do it? The agave plants grow for seven to ten years before it can be harvested.
The plant grows a pineapple like bulb underground called a pina. The spiky leaves above ground are removed and the pinas are collected.
Once they are all collected they are quartered and baked in steam or brick ovens. This process converts the starch into sugar.
Once the pinas are finished baking they are then crushed to extract the plant's juice. The juice is what is fermented and turned into tequila.
The fermented juice is distilled either once or twice. At least one distilling will happen through a copper pot still.
The distillation process increases the alcohol content. Once distillation is done the tequila is placed in oak barrels for various aging times.
Smell Your Tequila
There is a proper way to smell your tequila without getting alcohol burn. Stick your nose in the glass and breathe in and out with your mouth.
This lets you take in the aroma of the agave plant. When tasting the best tequilas do this before you sip just like wine tasting.
Made From Agave but Not Tequila
Tequila just happens to be the most well-known liquor made from agave, but it isn't the oldest. There are five other types of alcohol that are distilled from the agave plant.
Any of the eight different approved varieties of agave can be used to make mezcal. It tends to have a flavor profile similar to scotch. Adding the worm gives the mezcal a bacon-like flavor.
Tequila is technically a mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila. Only low-quality mezcals have the worm in them. Do not eat the worm.
You will have trouble finding pulque on the commercial market. It used to be a popular drink in Mexico but now has fallen out of favor. The agave is not cooked for the distilling process.
This is a regional variety of mezcal that comes from Chihuahua. It's made from a plant called a dasylirion and aged for six months.
This one is pretty much Mexican moonshine and was illegal for a long time. Tourists can try it in Puerta Vallarta with their traditional Mexican meal.
The proper way to drink it is chilled straight. You could also mix it with grapefruit soda.
Baconara was also illegal for a time until 1992. The agave plant is roasted underground under lava rock-lined pits. It will be difficult to find it outside of the Sonora region where its made.
Find the Best Tequila for You
You now know what the labels are talking about and what to look for. You know how to smell and drink the best tequilas.
You've learned the history and how its made. You are ready to find the best tequila brands available. Remember that the best tequila is the one that you like the most.
Can't get enough tequila facts? Check out these 9 tequila tasting facts.