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Tequila has been on a tear: the agave-based spirit from Mexico has held fast as one of the most-popular spirits categories in the nation, if not worldwide. And why not? It’s associated with celebrations, can be mixed into margaritas and numerous other drinks, and offers an astonishingly wide range of flavors. It hasn’t hurt that numerous celebrities have attached their names to tequila brands.
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Here’s everything you need to know about tequila.
How Is Tequila Made?
While agave plants grow all around the world, tequila is specifically made with Blue Weber agave grown in Mexico—specifically Jalisco, the famous home of tequila, as well as certain municipalities (Guanajuato, Michocàn, Nayarit and Tamaulias). This differentiates it from mezcal, which can be made with a broader range of agave species.
The root of the agave plant—the piña, which indeed resembles a large pineapple—is dug from the ground and transported to a distillery. There, the piñas are cooked with steam to extract sugars from the agaves. (This may be done with an aboveground oven called a horno, an autoclave, or a diffuser.) The cooked agaves are then pulverized, fermented with yeast and distilled.
From here, some tequilas are aged; others are filtered, flavored or sweetened.
What Are the Different Types of Tequila?
Blanco or plata: Meaning “white” or “silver,” this is essentially unaged tequila. The spirit must be bottled within 60 days of distillation. Look for a crisp, bright flavor with just a hint of agave sweetness. Some purists believe that blanco is the only “real” tequila, and the best, purest expression of the agave plant.
Reposado: Meaning “rested,” this is aged at least two months in oak, but often longer. Reposado tequila can express a myriad of personalities, from barely oaked to showing lots of deep, rich flavor. Many fall squarely in the middle, with peppery notes tempered by mellow honey. This age range works well to sip or mix.
Añejo: Meaning “aged,” añejo tequila is aged at least one year in oak barrels; many are aged much longer. Rich and complex, all that time in the barrel yields plenty of vanilla, dried fruit and spice, all meant to slow down and savor. Think of these as sipping tequilas.
Extra Añejo: This “extra aged” tequila spends at least three years in oak, in barrels no larger than 600 liters. Often these are available in limited quantities and aimed at the luxury market. The extra time on oak can develop deep toffee and cocoa notes, akin to some Cognacs or longer-aged whiskeys.
Cristalino: A reference to a “crystal clear” appearance, this is made by aging tequila, then charcoal-filtering out the color and flavor so it’s clear (or close to it) and has a lighter flavor. Some versions have sweetener added, usually agave nectar. Cristalino tequila is a relatively new style for the tequila category, and worth getting to know.
Joven and other blends: Of note, some tequila bottlings find their way around these proscribed classifications by blending distillate from one or more official categories. Joven (“young”) is a blanco blended with some aged tequila. Others are more experimental, such as a reposado blended with a touch of longer-aged extra anejo.
What Makes for “Good” Tequila?
Obviously, that’s a matter of taste. But the best tequilas all have one thing in common: they’re made from 100% blue agave.
Though it’s legal for tequila to be made with as little as 51% agave, that’s called “mixto.” The remaining 49% might be made with anything from grain-neutral spirit to corn syrup. “Gold” or “oro” is also best to avoid; it’s usually unaged and given a “golden” hue from caramel coloring or other additives. Do yourself a favor and pass on the mixto/oro.
In general, blanco and reposado are best for mixing into drinks, while añejo and older is best enjoyed neat. But there are no hard-and-fast rules; the “best” tequila is the one you’re enjoying.
What’s the Best Way to Drink Tequila?
Again, this is subjective. Perhaps the best-known ways to drink tequila are as a shot or mixed into a margarita. But it’s a matter of personal preference.
For those who favor tequila shots, consider adding a chaser, whether that means beer (preferably a Mexican or Mexican-style beer) or a sangrita, a mix of juices, hot sauce and spices (here are two versions to try).