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 onto 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 the 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 $7,500.
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 Patrón’s historic distillery in Jalisco, Mexico.
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 this process in 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. Patrón says every batch is touched by hand at every point of the distilling process.
From the very beginning, Patrón’s handcrafted method has included not only 100% Weber Blue Agave but also the centuries-old “tahona” process, where agave fibers are slowly crushed by a 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 create 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 therefore it’s not an authentic tequila.
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, 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 also 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), try one of our favorite tequila cocktails. In fact, there are actually quite a few beverages 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 Patrón Hacienda, bartenders make versions of classic cocktails like a Negroni and Old Fashioned using Patrón tequila. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
How Popular is Tequila Right Now?
Good question. Let’s look at the stats, shall we?
Nielsen research shows spirits sales have increased across the board during Spring 2020, with tequila sales growing especially fast. Sales of this spirit have risen by 55% during the recent COVID-19 outbreak. Cinco de Mayo likely played a major factor as well, with alcohol E-commerce platforms like Drizly reporting massive increases in tequila sales. Drizly representatives told SPY that tequila sales on the platform grew by an incredibly 882% over the last few months. Even after Cinco de Mayo, interest remains steady, with the online retailer reporting 546% growth in deliveries during the week of 5/18/2020.
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. Most of these spirits are available on sites like Drizly and Reserve Bar, two super convenient alcohol delivery sites. For some of these options, we’ve also made suggestions to pair them with certain foods, just as you would a fine wine.
1. Clase Azul Reposado Tequila
Clase Azul is a brand that many experts consider the measuring stick for fine-aged tequila. It’s been the standard of top-shelf tequila for nearly a decade. Taking this critical acclaim into account, along with its refined taste and supremely collectible bottle, it’s only fitting that Clase Azul Reposado claims the No. 1 spot on our list of the best tequila. This classy spirit is also one of the priciest options on our list, and one that you’ll find on the top shelf at bars and restaurants, well-deservedly. And it’s well worth the premium.
Made from the finest blue agave plants in Mexico, Clase Azul Reposado 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 handcrafted and hand-painted, so no two are exactly alike, making Clase Azul a great gift idea, as well. At over $100, this is a true premium liquor, with a bottle design and flavor profile worthy of its high price.
2. Casamigos Reposado Tequila
BEST ON THE ROCKS
When sipping on a nice tequila, it enhances the experience to have something with strong flavors. Something with character and nuance, but also a drink 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, a smooth sip and little to no burn.
3. Camarena Silver Tequila
MOST UNIQUE FLAVOR PROFILE
We love this blanco tequila expression, 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 liquor that’s easy to sip on its own. 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 the spirit a graceful, warming finish. It’s a spirit you’ll want to sip twice, just to pick out the complexity of the different notes each time.
4. Patrón Silver Tequila
BEST FOR MARGARITAS
Listen, Patrón has practically built its legacy on giving young adults their wildest nights and most regrettable mornings. This alone makes it a pop culture icon, but more so, a go-to for adventurous nights out on the town. For countless bartenders, it’s the tequila of choice for margaritas, and for good reason. With bold citrus notes and a fresh agave flavor, Patrón Silver will give your body an electric rush with every shot you down, plus it goes perfectly with lime juice and orange liqueur, just in case the aftertaste is too much for you to handle. Best enjoyed chilled, keep a bottle of this tequila in your freezer for a refreshing cocktail.
5. Tres Agaves Tequila
Tres Agaves may lack the brand recognition of consumer favorites like Casamigos or Patrón, but its selection of high-quality tequilas has an archetypal smoothness that places them among the elite. As much as we enjoy its blanco and reposado offerings, we’re most partial to this añejo, which is one of the most refreshing, natural-tasting tequilas you’ll find. Each batch is aged for a minimum of 18 months in bourbon barrels, producing strong agave notes that remain prominent with every sip. You’ll also notice hints of citrus and vanilla that add to its refreshing aftertaste. Don’t deprive yourself of this tequila’s full range of flavors by diluting it with ice.
6. Don Julio 1942
BEST FOR SHOWING OFF
1942 is more than just a decor piece that accentuates any bachelor’s at-home bar. Sure, the long, slender bottle does immediately jump out at you, and that fact that it’s made in small batches also adorns it with exclusivity. However, it is the tequila’s incredibly smooth palate with distinct flavors (the caramel undertones are soothing AF) that makes this luxury option such a braggadocious selection. It’s truly delicious and has made a name for itself as a bottle that turns heads, even among the best tequila brands. Spend big on it if you have a little extra coin to throw around, and your guests will be ecstatic. We also suggest pairing this with a Tomahawk steak as big as your fridge will allow.
7. Espolon Blanco Tequila
BEST UNDER $30
When buying in bulk, or buying out at a bar, Espolon is an excellent option. It is not as flavorful as our 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 too mean of a hangover. We suggest a few fresh squeezed limes with this one, and pairing it with your favorite bar foods, such as wings, sliders or nachos.
8. Partida Tequila
BEST TO ENJOY WITH MEXICAN FOOD
Is it Taco Tuesday yet? A serving of Partida will have you even more excited to stuff your face with some carnitas tacos, thanks to its spicy aftertaste, which complements most Spanish meals. It’s light, soft and crisp, which aren’t exactly characteristics you would expect from a tequila. Every sip affords you a full and lightly sweet long finish that begs to be savored. We recommend asking the waiter for a glass of Blanco when indulging in crispy fish tacos or Reposado when feasting on a nice pulled pork platter. Then again, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try taking a shot of any Partida expression to settle your tummy after meals.
9. El Tesoro Añejo 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 Mexican agave plants. In fact, the grandson of founder Don Felipe Camarena oversees production today. El Tesoro Añejo 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. Herradura Selección Suprema
BEST LUXURY TEQUILA
At $400, Herradura Selección Suprema isn’t a bottle you’ll find in most bars or people’s homes, nor is it common amongst the drinking community. But this extra añejo is more than just a statement piece of wealth. Owning a bottle practically knights you as a true tequila connoisseur and speaks to your taste in exquisite tequila. This special concoction lives in American white oak barrels for about 49 months, producing a complex aroma and smooth mouthfeel that’s evocative of the finest cognacs. One can only revel in its magnificent taste, filling your mouth with ample coconut, almond brittle and salty caramel. There’s something to be said about its golden amber complexion as well, which is alluring, much like the fancy decanter it comes housed in.
11. Milagro Tequila
BEST FOR SHOTS
Aromatic, cheerful and inexpensive, Milagro has been a staple amongst millennials, as well as the shot of choice of many tequila-loving bar-goers. Silver is the brand’s most popular selection, featuring a mix of earthy and spicy flavors that blend nicely together for rich, savoring consumption. The nose is also agave-heavy, which is both welcoming and encouraging for those who often fear tequila. If you’re not one for straight tequila, just know that Milagro’s mixability is up there with the best of them, served well with lime or in signature tequila cocktails like a Paloma. And if you think their entry-level tequilas go down smoothly, try their Select Reserve line for a slightly more refined flavor profile.
12. 1800 Tequila
BEST FOR WILD NIGHTS OUT
The best tequila brands include many lesser-known distilleries and top-shelf spirits, but when it comes to sugary cocktails and shots, 1800 is the true champ. 1800 Silver is an affordable option made from 100% Weber blue agave –– aged for 8 to 12 years and harvested at its peak. More importantly, it’s double distilled, which adds some character and complexity to the tequila. The taste is strong and a little spicy with just enough kick for you to feel it. We also find 1800 Coconut to be a great alternative, especially if you like spirits more on the sweet side.
13. Casa Noble Tequila
BEST ORGANIC TEQUILA
One of the first organic-certified brands to come to market, Casa Noble has prided itself on creating delicious organic tequilas by employing some of the best farming and production practices in the biz. The company distills its tequila three times and uses nutrients in the volcanic soil to enrich its blue agave plants, producing complex and herbaceous blends free of chemical additives, pesticides, and synthetics. You get an amazing balance of sweet and salty with every swallow, and the oaky Reposado is a highlight.
14. Jose Cuervo Tradicional Añejo
BEST UNDER $50
Jose Cuervo is a legacy among the best tequila brands, one that has been synonymous with the spirit for over two centuries. That alone warrants it credibility. Its latest release in the Tradicional portfolio, Añejo combines the Cuervo family recipe with a touch of charred American oak to create a remarkably smooth tequila that might be confused for a light whiskey upon first taste. The company matures this blend for 12 months in oak barrels before spending an additional four months in Irish single malt whiskey barrels, adding unique flavors like cinnamon, caramel, and stewed figs to the tequila’s already distinctive profile. Priced slightly above the $30 mark, it’s an amazing value and Father’s Day gift idea that’ll warm you and the big guy up any night of the year.
15. Cazadores Cristalino
BEST CRISTALINO TEQUILA
Cristalino, an añejo or extra añejo filtered with activated charcoal to remove its color and enhance flavor, is the latest trend in the tequila space. It’s also formulated to present the best of two tequila types, offering the “brightness of a blanco and boldness of an añejo,” according to Cazadores Master Blender, Jesus Susunaga Acosta. One glass of Cazadores’ latest creation was all the convincing we needed to claim it the best tequila in this sub-category.
Cazadores Cristalino, which the company loves to call “Mexican Chardonnay,” pulls together some of the tastiest flavors from the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico. This special mix is aged in “small, virgin oak barrels for over two years, allowing the liquid to have more contact with the wood and give it a more consistently smooth and complex flavor,” Acosta tells SPY. The end result is a ridiculously smooth tequila filled with tantalizing notes (e.g. walnuts, apples, and toasted wood) that make you want to sniff the bottle with every pour.
16. Don Julio Blanco Tequila
BEST FOR A ROUND AT THE BAR
Don Julio is a terrific heritage brand that creates smooth, tasty and not too exorbitantly priced tequilas, which makes Blanco a perfect choice when buying a round for your compadres at the local pub. Blanco has a clean finish that allows it to go down easy, so no one will be wincing. Its blend is also something special, especially for a tequila priced under $50, highlighted by pure agave and notes of citrus like lemon, lime and grapefruit. You can enjoy it regularly on the rocks, while out at dinner or at your favorite bar. And nearly every restaurant and bar has it. Take our advice and pair it with a clam bake or lobster roll.
17. Tanteo Tequila
BEST SPICY TEQUILA
If you fancy a tequila that will give you the chest-burning feels, then Drizly over a bottle of Tanteo to your crib. The company infuses its blanco tequilas with fresh, spicy peppers that are handpicked from the hills of Jalisco, giving each expression a pronounced flavor. Blue Weber agave certainly helps lower the heat levels, allowing you to enjoy the spirit’s bold, yet silky mouthfeel. No matter what flavor you choose — Jalapeño, Habanero or Chipotle — each one is capable of giving your homemade margaritas some extra kick and flavor.
18. Avion Reserva 44
BEST FOR CELEBRATIONS
An underrated selection that rivals many sub-luxury extra añejos, Reserve 44 is a standout celebratory tequila to break out on special occasions. It can also be had for a lower price than 1942. Avion nailed the palate here, enriching its formula with butterscotch, vanilla, roasted agave and marzipan notes for one unbelievable sip. Each bottle is aged 43 months in American oak barrels, then transferred over to small casks for one month to further enhance the spirit’s woody characteristics. That commitment to quality and taste is what has awarded Reserva 44 numerous key spirits awards, though its greatest award is sitting front and center on your bar for guests to admire.
19. 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.
20. Casa Dragones
BEST UNDER $100
Between the limited advertisement and super-small portfolio, Casa Dragones has an entitled presence that somehow draws your attention when discovering it on the top shelf of your local liquor store. But there are two reasons why the brand continues to live up to its Best Blanco Tequila title. It’s considered one of the tastiest blancos ever made, blending hints of black pepper, cloves and mints with tropical fruit notes. Also, Casa Dragones employs a more modern method of extracting the juices and sugars from blue agave, sending it through a diffuser to obtain starches from the shredded raw agave, distilling it multiple times and filtering it. That type of effort should have this tequila valued much higher, but fortunately for you, it’s available at a generous price.
21. Dano’s Dangerous Tequila
BEST NEW TEQUILA
Here’s a newcomer that has already mastered the art of tequila infusions. Dano’s sells fun and flavorful concoctions that creep up on you and work well for any cocktail or serving style: glass or shot. Classic options like Blanco, Reposado and Añejo all offer a nice balance of aroma and taste, and feature 100% agave with zero additives. However, you would be remiss to pass up on the Pineapple Jalapeño infusion, which has a sweet vanilla and pineapple entry and leaves the mouth with a zesty aftertaste. Your summer margarita mix is just begging for it.