February 16th, 2011

Tequila cheat sheet

When it comes to tequila, I plead ignorance. If I’m lucky to be in the hands of a knowledgeable bartender or agave enthusiast, I happily let him/her guide me toward whatever’s right for a given cocktail (be it a traditional margarita or a Jaguar) or neat nightcap with beer chaser. But when I find myself confronting, without a lifeline, that overgrown jungle of tequila bottles on the back bar of your modern-day high-end Mexican restaurant, I balk — especially when the bartender can only describe what’s in each bottle with various synonyms for “awesome.”

So I asked a few experts to break things down for me: Misty Kalkofen, Drink bartender and cocktail consultant who has studied agave spirits extensively; Andrew Deitz, sales rep with the wine and spirits wholesaler M.S. Walker; and Phil Ward, owner of the NYC tequila bar Mayahuel.

First, it’s widely agreed among spirits aficionados that 1) only rubes drink Cuervo Gold — a mass-marketed “mixto” (a mix of agave-based spirit and neutral alcohol akin to rum) masquerading as premium hooch — and 2) only poseurs drink Patron, which pioneered the premium-tequila category but is now an overpriced shadow of its former self.

Kalkofen says that the Cuervo, Patron, Sauza, Herradura and Don Julio brands make up about 90 percent of the U.S. tequila market. Patron, she adds, was a distinctive tequila when it was produced by the Siete Leguas distillery in the 1990s. But in 2002 the brand opened its own distillery, which now produces a smooth but unremarkable tequila whose price tag ($50 for añejo) is based entirely on its earlier legacy and classy corked bottle. Deitz, who recently advised the new Fort Point cantina Papagayo on its extensive tequila selection, says he would choose, for instance, the very reasonably priced Lunazul Blanco ($25) over Patron.

Sauza, of course, can be found in the well of any bar that bangs out margaritas of the frozen-strawberry or sour-mix-in-a-pint-glass variety. And if you thought Don Julio and Herradura were artisanally legit, think again — they’ve reportedly both been dumbed-down by their fairly new owners, the liquor conglomerates Diageo and Brown-Forman, respectively.

The hot growth in demand for 100-percent-agave tequila has attracted large producers and their often corner-cutting ways, and a lot of trusted brands are changing. “Good tequila is a dying breed,” laments Ward, who points to Herradura as a case in point. “Herradura is the saddest story in the world,” he says. The once-family-owned distillery produced a sizable quantity of reasonably priced, quality spirit. But Brown-Forman replaced the traditional method of extracting agave sugars — slowly roasting whole agave hearts, or piñas, in a large oven — with diffusers, in which the piñas are shredded raw before being “basically microwaved,” says Ward.

In a good tequila, Kalkofen says she is “looking for roasted agave flavor. With a diffuser, the flavor gets watered down.” Of course, that “watered down” flavor is exactly what many new labels hoping to cash in on the premium-tequila market are going for. A bland spirit in a nice bottle is intended to win over the brand-conscious vodka drinker.

Connoisseurs tend to judge a brand of tequila by its unaged version, e.g. blanco, silver or plata. Reposados (aged 2-11 months) and añejos (aged 1-3 years) “are only as good as the juice being put in the barrel,” says Kalkofen. Deitz agrees that wood-aging, while important, is not as big a deal as either the production process or the terroir — whether the agave comes from the highlands or lowlands, or from the primary tequila producing region of Jalisco vs. the lesser-known Tamaulipas. As for the extra-añejo classification (aged more than 3 years), Deitz says, “It can be a bullshit category, as many of the uber-expensive bottlings are actually artificially flavored.”

So, what brands do these connoisseurs recommend to people who are looking for good-quality, flavorful tequilas? Here’s your cheat sheet, amigos, with prices for each brand’s blanco and some helpful tasting and terroir notes thrown in by Deitz:

  • Chinaco ($50) – from Tamaulipas. Briny, citrusy.
  • Don Roberto ($47) – masculine, powerhouse style.
  • El Tesoro ($49) – highland tequila, known for high acidity and aromatic, herbal components.
  • Lunazul ($25)
  • Milagro ($25)
  • Ocho ($55-$70) – producer of unusual single-vintage tequilas.
  • Partida ($41) – lowland tequila, known for round, rich fruit character.
  • Pueblo Viejo ($28)
  • Siembre Azul ($35)
  • Siete Leguas ($36) – highland tequila, known for high acidity and aromatic, herbal components. Highly regarded in Mexico.

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21 Responses to “Tequila cheat sheet”

  1. Dave

    Surprised no mention of Charbay Tequila Blanco – a fantastic combination of modern American artisanal methods with Mexican traditions that produces a clean, spicy spirit absolutely true to its ingredients. Let alone the fantastic work that Ron Cooper under the Del Maguey label has been doing for mezcal – a spirit group relegated for a long time to the worm-in-a-bottle rotgut marketed at frat kids.

  2. ljclark

    Cool, thanks for the tip, Dave.

  3. MC Slim JB

    Terrific piece, Lauren: thanks! I’ve been dumping on Patron for a while: nice to see pros backing up my amateur’s opinion. Also pleased that El Tesoro and Lunazul, two of my standbys, get a nod, too.

  4. David Santucci

    Thanks for spreading the message! A few corrections:

    The state in which Chinaco is produced is Tamaulipas. Tequila can be produced from agave grown anywhere in Jalisco, and in selected parts of Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Nayarit.

    El Tesoro, produced in Arandas is definitely a highland (Los Altos) Tequila.

    It’s Pueblo Viejo, an excellent (and value-priced) brand produced by San Matias (sadly, difficult to find in the Northeast).

    Other highly-regarded Tequilas are Fortaleza (known as Los Abuelos in Mexico), Arrette (especially their Blanco Suave), Casa Noble, Centinela, Reserva de los Gonzales, and Jose Cuervo’s Reserva de la Familia.

  5. Orfilio Quintero

    Not sure where Mr Ward get’s his information regarding Casa Herradura. All of the Casa Heradura brands (Herradura, el Jimador and Antiguo) are produced under the traditional production methods including cooking estate grown agaves in clay ovens, utilizing natural fermentaton, and stainless steel pot still distillation. Herradura does not utilize autoclaves to microwave its agave pinas. Herradura ages all of its tequilas in new American oak barrels and does not add caramel to any of its aged tequilas. All brands are 100% natural.

  6. ljclark

    Dave, thanks for your corrections and suggestions! Orfilio, thanks for weighing in.

  7. Br. Cleve

    After 20 years of drinking Cuervo and not knowing any better, I made my first trip to Mexico around 1995, where my business associate there bought me a 3oz El Tesoro de Don Felipe with a sangrita chaser. We were at an outdoor restaurant in Cuernavaca, sitting amongst a group of wandering peacocks : my orbit was completely changed. She explained to me about “mixto” and about real agave tequila, and I never looked back.

    A personal fave of mine is Cazadores, which for years I could only get in Mexico and Texas/New Mex/AZ, but has been available here for a few years now. Great smoky agave flavor. I never liked Patron, always found it much too bland tasting. No wonder it’s become a status symbol to the suburban set, where flavorlessness tends to win out.

  8. leswes

    Just the kind of info I need, with bar tequila choices on the rise. Gracias!

  9. Rob Marais

    This was very helpful: for example, I had no idea that Herradura had been dumbed down by Brown Forman. And I’m glad to see that Partida, Milagro and El Tesoro made the list, those three I love. Thanks Lauren!

  10. Eric Witz

    This is the article I’d been hoping you’d write since tequila is the spirit that I probably know the least about. This is a fantastic primer for neophytes like myself, so thanks.

    On the topic of tequila bottles, I can’t speak to the quality of this product but the gaudy designer bottle is enough to make me seriously question its maker’s judgement and taste. Give me a modest, conventional bottle any day as long as the hooch is good.

  11. Jonathan Arnold

    I agree with Br. Cleve – Cazadores all the way. I was turned on to it by an article a couple of years ago in the Globe, where they asked a bunch of local bartenders for their margarita mixing secrets and their favorite brand of tequila. The brand most mentioned was Cazadores and I haven’t looked back. Another tip I picked up from that article was to add agave syrup when making margaritas. Too bad it’s only 9:30am – now I’m in the mood!

  12. ljclark

    Jonathan, if I remember that “margarita mixing secret” article accurately, the mixing secrets left much to be desired — but the tequila recommendation is appreciated.

  13. braisingcain

    Love the article, thanks for the recommended tequilas. When recently traveling through Mexico, my friends introduced me to artisanal Mezcal and it changed my perspective on the entire subject of what a good Tequila should be. Apparently these artisanal Mezcals are what Tequila used to taste like before their mass production the past few decades when they dropped the roasting process and opted for the steaming (or microwaving process as you suggest) of the pinas. Besides being sipped straight up as they should be tried, having substituted Mezcal in place of tequila in cocktails blew my mind as their rich, smoky, meaty personalities brought good lower end depth to the flavor profiles of the drinks. You should also seek out Sotol, another type of Mezcal from the Chihuahua region.

  14. Philip

    My comments are based on my eyes and my palate. I have seen the diffuser at Herradura and I have tasted a significant change in their quality. I never said they used autoclaves. They do still have their clay ovens and I’m not sure exactly how they split up the diffuser/oven usage but they willingly admit to using it for reason of “efficiency”. The use of diffusers is not “traditional” to say the least and anyone who wants to try and convince me that the Antigua produced today for the States is produced in the same (other than proof) way as the Antigua produced in Mexico years ago is simply lying to themselves.

  15. ljclark

    Braisingcain, thanks for the shout-out to good mezcal. That’ll be the subject of a whole ‘nother post. Phil, thanks for detailing your evaluation of latter-day Herradura.

  16. RJ Stuart

    great advice — any suggestions for what bottle to choose when stuck in the suburban liquor store and faced with more conventional choices? is there at least one bottle in the average store worth buying?

  17. ljclark

    RJ, if you can’t find any of the tequilas listed in the post or in the comments, and you’re primarily planning on mixing cocktails as opposed to sipping straight, I guess I’d just look for 100% blue agave tequilas that are reasonably priced. For sipping, you may have to get more creative… perhaps a fellow suburbanite expert will chime in, especially if you don’t mind revealing roughly where you’re located.

  18. Rob Marais

    BTW I strongly advocate for more tequila spots that have creditable sangrita as a sipping partner with the good stuff. Having been schooled on such by good barkeeps in Mexico a while back, I’ve been spoiled re a proper completo for lively and fresh sangrita to back my sips. I would judge a good tequila vendor as much by the accompanying sangrita as by the tequila on offer.

  19. David

    Very glad to have an informed update on tequila! Out here on the left coast we’re getting El Espolon; for just a couple dollars more, a nice alternative to Luna Azul.

  20. ljclark

    David, you lucky dogs on the west coast have many more options than we do, I hear. Cheers.

  21. Cara / All About Cabo

    Thanks for the tips Lauren. Love your site! This post is making me miss some of my favorite tequila hang outs. Never mastered the art of drinking it straight yet… but I’ve seen some pros down in Mexico. You should definitely try some mezcals as braisingcain mentioned.

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