Here’s a challenge: the next time you order tequila, consider sipping it instead of taking it as a shot.
Sure, a tequila shot is a fun party starter (and maybe gives you some liquid courage before stepping on that karaoke stage), but artists rapping about “shots of Patrón” have really given tequila an undeservedly bad (and, ahem, cheap) rep.
These days, some of the best tequilas in the world are actually more comparable to a fine bourbon or robust glass of wine than jello shots and beer pong. In fact, Patrón, one of most well-known and respected tequila brands in the world, offers a diverse portfolio of authentic, carefully-crafted tequilas that you won’t find in nightclubs or seedy bars. Despite Patrón’s hard-partying reputation (blame it on lyrical shout-outs from everyone from Lil Jon to Bruno Mars), the company is actually making some incredibly interesting, flavorful and expensive tequila these days, with bottles of its Patrón En Lalique: Serie 2 going for up to $7500.
From its distillery just outside of Guadalajara, Patrón produces more than 20 different types of tequila, and it’s serious business. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about tequila, from the history of this Mexican spirit to the best tequila brands in the world. We’ll also give you a peek inside a Jalisco distillery.
HOW IS TEQUILA PRODUCED?
Making tequila is a long and detailed process that requires a mix of craftsmanship, patience and a little bit of luck. Patrón employs a seven-step process that could take up to three years before the tequila is ready.
To start, agave plants are harvested by hand in the Jalisco Highlands, using farms that pass the Mexican Tequila Regulatory Council’s — yes, it’s a thing — strict standards. The agave (essentially a plump, cactus-like plant) can only be harvested at a precise time to give off the optimal amount of sweetness without being too tart, bitter or bland. If the agave is cut from the ground too early or too late, it will compromise the quality of the tequila being produced. The ideal “ripeness” of agave is somewhere between six to eight years; that’s when the plant has optimal sugar content.
After the agave is selected and harvested, it is taken to the distillery where it is slowly cooked. The hearts of the agave plant are put in brick ovens and steamed to bring out the natural sugars of the plant (see Patrón’s distillery below). After baking for 79 hours, Patrón uses a time-honored “tahona” process that then takes the roasted agave and places it into a giant pit, where a large stone wheel is used to break down the agave to extract the juice.
The juice is then fermented for up to three days. Using a unique distillation process, only the very purest of the liquid is chosen. Some of the tequila is then aged in everything from oak tanks to stainless steel vaults, and, depending on the flavor profile the tequila maker is trying to achieve, aging can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. After that, the tequila is finally ready to be bottled, sealed and sent out for shipping. Patron says every batch is touched by hand at every point of the distilling process.
From the very beginning, Patrón says its handcrafted method has included not only 100 percent Weber Blue Agave but also the centuries-old “tahona” process, where agave fibers are slowly crushed by the large volcanic stone wheel. The company’s master distiller and blender, Francisco Alcaraz, still creates tequila from this process as well as tequila from the more modern “roller mill process,” blending them together to become Patrón.
If you’re going to buy tequila, here’s what you need to know:
1. It’s Not Tequila if it’s Not Produced in the Tequila Region
All tequila comes from the Tequila region of Mexico, and in order for a spirit to call itself “tequila,” it must be distilled from agave plants grown in that region.
Another thing to look for aside from region of origin: a four-digit number that represents each distillery’s unique code. The Norma Oficial Mexicana number (or “NOM”) is assigned by the Mexican government and certifies that the bottle you’re holding is authentic tequila produced in Mexico. It also tells you which tequila producer it comes from. Tequila Patrón, for example, has a NOM of 1492.
If your bottle doesn’t have a NOM, that means it’s not certified by the TRC (Tequila Regulatory Council), and not an authentic Tequila producer.
2. There Are Different Types of Tequila
Just like whiskey, there are different types of tequila, that run the spectrum in terms of flavor, color and potency.
Silver tequila is probably the most well-known, and it typically appears perfectly clear in the bottle. This is tequila that’s only aged for a few months, so it doesn’t have time to develop the color and characteristics that come from a longer aging process. Silver tequila is great to drink on its own, but it’s great for mixed drinks as well. It will typically taste sweeter and more refreshing, with a smooth, silky finish.
Anejo tequila can often be recognized by its rich, caramel color, and it must be aged for at least one year (though most are aged three years) to bear the “Anejo” name. This tequila is complex and full-bodied, and is recommended for sipping, though it works great for tequila-oriented takes on classic drinks like a Moscow Mule or Negroni as well.
Reposado tequila is also aged but the aging process can be anywhere from two months to 11 months. It has a smooth, even finish. It’s less harsh on the tongue and won’t give you as strong as a hangover… provided that you’re sipping responsibly of course.
Don’t be fooled by the “gold” label on gold tequila. These are often referred to as a “Mixto,” where colors and flavors are added prior to bottling. These young tequilas are less expensive and typically used in bars and restaurants for making mixed drinks.
3. Not All Tequilas Are Created Equal
We mentioned above that tequila comes from the agave plant, but not all tequilas are made with 100% agave sugar. In fact, many brands add artificial sugars or sweeteners to their tequila, which may taste good at first, but will leave you with a nasty hangover the next day. Look for bottles labeled “100%,” which denotes that it was made with 100% natural sugars from the agave plant.
You’ve also probably seen flavored tequila, which is tequila infused with things like coconut, lime, strawberry or jalapeno. While they may be fun for a party or to use in mixed drinks, we recommend skipping these bottles the rest of the time and just drinking tequila straight up. Why mess with a good thing?
4. The Longer a Tequila Is Aged, The More Expensive It Will Be
Just like a fine wine, tequila also goes through an aging process. And just like wine, tequila can be aged in a number of different containers, from oak barrels to steel drums. Each aging process will bring out different flavors in your tequila, and result in unique flavor profiles that often call to mind whiskey or scotch. The aging process will also change the color of a tequila. While we may be used to drinking clear tequila, many expensive tequilas are more caramel in color, due to being aged in wooden barrels. Our suggestion: pick up a few different bottles with different aging processes to see which one you like best. This works as a great party idea too.
5. You Can Make More Than Just Margaritas With Tequila
While a refreshing margarita goes great with #TacoTuesday, tequila is actually quite a versatile spirit when it comes to mixed drinks. If you don’t like the taste of tequila on its own (or find it too strong), there are actually quite a few things you can mix it with.
The easiest mixer is a tequila soda or tequila Sprite. Many people like tequila with ginger ale as well. Aside from margaritas, you can also use tequila in a Paloma (served with grapefruit juice), a Michelada and a Sunrise (served with OJ). At the Patron Hacienda, bartenders make versions of classic cocktails like a Negroni and Old Fashioned using Patron tequila. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
What Are the Best Tequila Brands?
If you’re ready to pick up a couple new bottles of the best tequila brands (and ready to get rid of the cheap stuff you currently own), here are our favorite bottles to buy. These are all available on Drizly.com or wine.com, two super convenient delivery sites that deliver alcohol to a gifting recipient, to your office, or straight to your door at home. For some of these options, we’ve also made suggestions to pair them with certain foods, just as you would a fine wine.
1. Roca Patrón Reposado
We love the Grand Patrón Burdeos (see it here), which is twice distilled and aged in used American and new French Oak barrels, before being finished in vintage Bordeaux barrels (Burdeos means Bordeaux in Spanish). It’s like a fine bourbon that’s been aged to perfection. Still, its $600 price-point doesn’t exactly make it an accessible bottle to buy.
For a similar experience at a more casual price point, we like the Roca Patrón Reposado, which is a lighter, more buttery take on the bold and robust Burdeos.
The Reposado features notes of sweet vanilla, oak, mushrooms, ginger, caramel and citrus, which gives it that perfect balance of earthiness, sweetness and spiciness with an easy finish and no lingering aftertaste. Handcrafted using the time-honored “tahona” process, the Roca Patrón Tequila collection offers a sophisticated and complex flavor profile that’s an elegant and elevated take on tequila.
2. Casamigos Reposado Tequila
BEST ON THE ROCKS
When sipping on a nice tequila, it enhances the experience to have something that has flavors to it. Something with character and nuance, but also one that is within reach financially. You should be able to make this a semi-regular treat, or buy bottles at a not too extravagant price point. Casamigos Reposado fills all of these needs. It has bold vanilla flavors, and has a smooth sip and little to no burn, particularly not after some time enjoying sipping Tequilas.
3. Camarena Silver Tequila
MOST UNIQUE FLAVOR PROFILE
We like the Silver tequila from Camarena, which is made from 100% blue weber agave in Jalisco’s Arandas Highlands, then distilled through a proprietary method that blends traditional ovens and modern techniques, creating a smooth, refined tequila that’s easy to sip on its own.
The Camarena Silver features a robust flavor with notes of rich toasted agave and fresh green herbs, finished by hints of sweet vanilla, savory brown spices and black pepper that give it a graceful, warming finish. It’s a tequila you’ll want to sip twice, just to pick out the complexity of the different notes each time.
4. Herradura Blanco Tequila
BEST TO ENJOY WITH MEXICAN FOOD
Is it Tuesday? Do you like Tacos? Let’s get for excited Taco Tuesday then! Herradura is an excellent choice because it brings a spicy after taste to it, which adds to the flavor of your meal. We suggest half a dozen crispy fish tacos and a couple of these on the rocks. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, trying taking a shot to settle your stomach after your meal.
5. Espolon Blanco Tequila
BEST BUDGET OPTION
When buying in bulk, or buying out at a bar, Espolon is an excellent option. It is not as flavorful as these other options, nor is it quite as smooth, but will certainly get the job done! It is also definitely of high enough quality to not leave you with a mean hangover. We suggest a few fresh squeezed limes in this one, and pairing it with your favorite bar foods, such as wings, sliders, or nachos.
6. Cenote Blanco Tequila
Cenote makes a super drinkable tequila that’s flavorful without being overwhelming on the palette. While some tequilas make us pucker, or burn the inside of our mouths and throats, Cenote’s Blanco Tequila is light, mellow and refreshing. It’s aged in oak barrels for three weeks, leading to a taste that naturally sweet without overpowering. Delicate notes of bright citrus, greens and pepper lead to a crisp and smooth finish.
The secret to Cenote’s smoothness? The company says it sources naturally filtered water from an artesian well located at their distillery, which sits at the base of the Jalisco volcano. The water goes through reverse osmosis and carbon filters with silver ions to eliminate any chance of impurities affecting the taste. This is great on its own or with a splash of soda. Bartenders love Cenote in a Paloma too, and the company responded by introducing the first-ever “World Paloma Day” this past May.
7. Don Julio 1942
BEST FOR SHOWING OFF
1942’s Long, slender bottle immediately jumps out at you. Incredibly smooth, with caramel undertones and a distinct flavor, this is made in small batches and aged about 2.5 years. It’s a truly delicious tequila and has made a name for itself as a bottle to turn heads. Get yourself a bottle of this next time you’re going wild and have a little extra coin to throw around. We suggest pairing this with a Tomahawk steak as big as the restaurant will allow. While the $160 price tag might make you think twice, this is a premium spirit for people who aren’t messing around.
Casamigos is a favorite among the Hollywood crowd, thanks to its co-founder George Clooney, but it’s actually got a lot of substance to go with its style. One of the smoothest, most natural tasting tequilas on our list, Casamigos is made in the Jalisco highlands from 100% agave. Clooney, and co-founder Rande Gerber, said they wanted to make, “the best-tasting, smoothest Tequila and Mezcal that didn’t have to be covered up with salt or lime.”
Whether you’re at an A-list after party or just chilling at home, nothing beats a “Casamigos and soda” for a refreshing, celeb-approved drink. Each batch is distilled for a minimum of two months in stainless steel barrels, and delivers a brilliant mix of sweet agave, citrus and vanilla.
9. El Tesoro Anejo Tequila
BEST ENJOYED NEAT
If you want to discover an authentic Mexican tequila with a bold yet traditional flavor, then order a bottle of El Tesoro tequila. El Tesoro may be owned by Beam Suntory, the Japanese company responsible for Suntory Whisky, but this tequila is still made from traditional methods and local agave. In fact, the grandson of founder Don Felipe Camarena oversees production today. The Anejo variety is aged in American oak bourbon barrels for up to three years, which results in a perfect mix of agave and oak flavors. If you try this tequila neat, you’ll notice sweet notes of maple, vanilla and caramel. Thanks to its historic legacy and delicious flavor, El Tesoro is one of the best tequila brands in the world today.
10. Patrón Silver Tequila
BEST FOR MARGARITAS
Most bartenders agree: if you’re making margaritas, you should use blanco tequila. The best tequila brands include many lesser-known distilleries and top-shelf spirits, but when it comes to making a margarita, Patrón Silver Tequila really is the best choice. In fact, this spirit was one of the first premium tequilas on the market, and it still ranks as one of the best tequilas known to man. Like other mid-range tequilas, you can order a bottle of Patrón Silver for $55 to $60.
For countless bartenders, it’s the tequila of choice, and for good reason. With bold citrus notes and a fresh agave flavor, this blanco tequila goes perfectly with lime juice, orange liquor and anything else you like to put in your margaritas. Best enjoyed freezing cold, keep a bottle of this tequila in your freezer for a refreshing cocktail.
11. 1800 Tequila
BEST FOR SHOTS
If you want something cheap and cheerful, you can’t go wrong with 1800 Silver Tequila. This is an affordable silver tequila made from 100% Weber blue agave –– aged for eight to 12 years and harvested at its peak. The liquid is double distilled, and a special selection of white tequilas is blended together for added complexity and character. The taste is strong and a little spicy with just enough kick for you to feel it.
If you like taking tequila shots, this’ll pack a punch without leaving you bruised and battered the next day. 1800 Tequila says it sold more than a million cases last year, so you really can’t go wrong here.
12. Don Julio Silver Tequila
BEST FOR A ROUND AT THE BAR
Don Julio is a great option that’s smooth, tasty, and not too exorbitantly priced. This is a perfect choice when buying a round for your buddies, as it will go down easy and won’t throw anyone to the wolves. This is also a good choice for regularly drinking on the rocks while out for dinner or at bars or clubs, and nearly everywhere has it. We suggest pairing it with a clam bake or lobster roll if you’re ordering with dinner.
13. Clase Azul Reposado Tequila
This may be one of the priciest options on our list, but this top-shelf tequila is worth the premium price. Clase Azul’s tequila comes in this instantly recognizable (and supremely collectible) bottle, which you see (literally) on the top shelf of bars and restaurants. At over $100, this is a true premium liquor, with a bottle and flavor profile worthy of its price.
Made from the finest blue agave plants in Mexico, Clase Azul Reposado Tequila features notes of spice, cream soda, apple cider, jasmine, cinnamon and honey. The bottles, in the meantime, are like a work of art, inspired by traditional Mexican colors and motifs. Each bottle is hand-crafted and hand-painted, so no two are alike, making Clase Azul a great gift idea, as well.