What is a celebration if not a mixer?
by Jessica Toscano May 3, 2021
Not all tequilas are created equal. From Blanco to Reposado to Añejo and Extra Añejo, the Mexican stable features a variety of labels. Each is ideal for mixing, shot-taking, or sipping; although, these tags are more of a flavor profile than anything else. What these brandings really have you considering is how long the tequila has been aged and what notes your taste buds are likely to experience. While there is no hard rule when it comes to drinking — or mixing — tequila, and there definitely can be some overlap, your goal is to choose a quality label with authenticity, Daniel Barragan, a mixologist at Cantina Rooftop in Manhattan, tells Intrigue. Here, he talks us through what that means.
Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
Blanco, often referred to as “Silver” or “Plata,” is purest in agave flavor and often evokes notes of citrus and pepper. Typically, it’s the least expensive and best for crafting cocktails. “Blanco can be the best option for mixing because it is a clear, undated, silver tequila,” according to Barragan. “It allows the mixing to happen flawlessly without a messy clash of flavors.”
Reposado, usually slightly gold in hue, is aged a minimum of two months to a year in oak barrels, which often creates a flavor profile of oak and vanilla, although other notes can come into play. It contains “a rich flavor and aroma from the barrel where it was stored that makes it a better option to use in higher quality cocktails and for shots,” says Barragan.
Añejo, often dark in color, is aged one to three years (while Extra Añejo is aged more than three years) and often elicits a more complex palette — think warm spices, nuts, and sweets like cinnamon, hazelnut, and vanilla — hence the often higher price point. “[It's] better for sipping because it’s not as aggressive," says Barragan. "It’s very smooth. This allows you to enjoy the rich flavor of the agave.”
What about labels like Gold?
These labels are just as important because they denote the quality of the tequila. To be classified as tequila, at least 51 percent must be Agave Azul aka Blue Agave. The higher the agave percentage, the better quality the tequila. Mixto labels usually contain the bare minimum, with the remaining 49% consisting of other alcohols, sugar cane, or additives like flavorings and colorings (Note: Mixtos are usually lightly gold in color to evoke higher quality).
Although the price of Mixtos is pretty on-point (as in they’re relatively cheap for tequila, because, well, they’re relatively cheap tequila) and can be great-tasting for shots and low-grade cocktails, Barragan always recommends 100% de agave. “Taking a shot of an authentic, good quality tequila is really going to elevate the experience, rather than if you were to have a really cheap tequila," he says. Think top-shelf sippers versus low grades you chase.
“No matter what you want to use the tequila for, always give it a taste and take in the aroma,” recommends Barragan. Classic margaritas, for example, are refreshing, so you’d want to feature a silver tequila with a citric aroma because it pairs well with lime. Other tequilas with already rich flavor profiles, like Añejos, are amazing on their own because their flavors continue to alter and enhance with each sip — although, Barragan reiterates that all four types (Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, and Extra Añejo) have different processes of production that heavily influence their flavor and aroma and allow them to be enjoyed for sipping.
You also want to consider the brand’s origin and how it’s manufactured. “A brand that proudly displays their authenticity and their tequila-making process is usually a good sign,” says Barragan. That said, examine where the brand was born. While you can’t go wrong with a tequila produced in one of the five designated states in Mexico (the most well-known being Jalisco, where tequila originated), many craft tequila companies in the US have quickly become award-winning brands because of their sustainable processes, organic cultivation practices, and quality goods.
Not sure where to begin? Start with these seven favorites.
1. Best for Sipping: Solento
There’s a reason this tequila is award-winning: Aside from being USDA-certified organic, this 100% de agave brand is produced in small batches from a single estate, which makes for a consistent, smooth formula time and again. That’s why no matter the type — Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo — you’re presented with the perfect sip: strong and forever evolving as you continue to enjoy its complex flavors and aroma. [Editor’s note: If you’re a tequila-sipping newbie, start with this brand’s Blanco. Its, somewhat, milder palette of Meyer lemons and Tahitian vanilla delivers a slightly sweet, light flavor that ends with a refreshing finish.]
2. Best Spicy: Ghost Tequila
Whether you’re looking to craft the perfect spicy marg or take a shot with a hint of heat, this 100% de agave and bhut jolokia peppers combo delivers. One of our testers even said a shot of this was so smooth, a lime to compliment was less than necessary.
3. Best for Margaritas: Don Nacho Premium Blanco
Following Barragan’s advice for creating the perfect marg, this tequila’s highest notes are of citrus and agave, which compliments the taste of the lime in this classic cocktail. It also hits the two additional recommendations by the New York mixologist: 100% de agave and a transparent origin (this one originated in Jalisco, Mexico). Mix with lime juice and Triple Sec (don’t forget the salt rim!) for the most delectable margarita, a tribe and true tribute to Cinco de Mayo.
4. Best Organic: 3 Amigos
This brand begins with a harvest of their very own organically-grown agave plants that are hand-selected from a group of mature agave pups that are most likely to grow strong and healthy. From there, the plants are maintained by hand as well as cattle, who eat the grasses that grow around the agave. Nearly seven years later, after continuous inspection for optimal sugar and maturity, the team incorporates the agave into their cooking, fermentation, and distillation processes, which, ultimately, brings you their award-winning, 100% de agave tequilas. To truly enjoy the craft of their ferment, slowly swish their Añejo, a smooth sip with a spicy kick.
5. Best Value: Espolòn Reposado
Calling all tequila drinkers who seek cheaper tequila of higher quality. Crafted with 100% de agave, this Reposado in particular is ideal for party hosts looking to craft premium cocktails with bold flavors, or pour smooth shots with a balanced blend.
6. Best Flavored: YaVe Coconut
If you really want a unique sip, find yourself a quality tequila with flavor. This smooth-tasting, 100% de agave tequila with coconut flavoring is the perfect mix for your Cinco de Mayo celebration. Sip on the rocks for a slightly sweet tropical explosion, or mix into a cocktail with other exotic flavors like pineapple and mango for serious Mexico-vacay vibes.
7. Best Sustainable: Volans Tequila
Mature Blue Weber agave plants and an unusual combo of spring, rain, and deep well water come into play to present this verified 100% additive-free craft tequila that hosts powerful, rich flavors no matter the type. While you can’t go wrong with cocktail mixing, these babies are best for slow sipping to unearth their oddly refreshing palettes. In case you need further convincing, El Pandillo Distillery, where the tequila is crafted, is run by the great, great-grandson of one of the first to farm blue agave in the Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico in the 1800s.