When it comes to agave spirits, Mexico’s tequila is still the undisputed king.
Already one of the most popular spirits in the U.S.—if not across the globe—tequila is the key ingredient for Margaritas, Palomas, and more classic cocktails. And over the past few years, scores of celebrities have hopped on the tequila train, rolling out their own bespoke brands and drawing still more attention to the already-thriving tequila arena.
But for those new to tequila, it can be confusing to navigate, and new bottles and categories have made store and bar shelves more crowded than ever. How do you select a bottle and serve it? Here are a few tips, sourced from some of the pros who specialize in the spirit.
Look for 100% Agave Tequila
“Not all tequila is created equal,” says Juan-Carlos Parker, bar manager for Chicago’s La Josie. “You always want to make sure your tequila is 100% agave and additive free.” Producers are allowed to use up to 1% of four different additives, like caramel color or sweetening syrups, without disclosing it to consumers, “and lots of the big brands do just that,” he says.
Further, keep an eye out for the word “mixto” on a label. Mixto tequila can include up to 49% of non-agave components, such as sugar cane. Pro tip: check the Tequila Matchmaker database for info about processing methods and additives.
Select an Age Range: Blanco, Reposado or Añejo
The next step is to decide if you’d prefer a tequila that’s bright and crisp, deep and complex, or somewhere in between. Parker breaks down the categories: “Blanco will be unaged, reposado will be rested in barrels from 2–12 months, and añejo will be aged 1–3 years.” (Extra añejos and cristalinos also are part of the tequila canon, but you can read more about those here.)
Parker suggests starting with a blanco—his preferred category—“as it is bright and, in my opinion, showcases the tasting notes of the agave without the added flavor from barrel aging.” By comparison, reposado will have some barrel-aged notes, although the agave still shines through, while longer-aged añejo offers lots of vanilla and spice from the longer barrel aging time.
“If you are a whiskey drinker, I would probably start with an añejo, as the barrel-aged notes will be very familiar,” he says.
Look Beyond the Packaging
One of the biggest misperceptions about tequila, says Shad Kvetko, owner of Las Almas Rotas in Dallas, TX, is “that premium prices and pretty bottles denote quality spirits.” An eye-catching bottle might look nice on a bar cart, but that doesn’t always signify great liquid inside.
Tequileros Aren’t Celebrities—But Maybe They Should Be
Celebs have gotten into the tequila game, and that’s helped bring more attention than ever to the category. But for those serious about agave, the real names to know are the tequileros, or tequila-makers.
“The best stuff is typically made by people who have a history in the tequila and bar industry—the people who are third, fourth or fifth generation tequileros,” says Peter Morales, head bartender at Nashville’s The Fox Bar and Cocktail Club. “Heritage, tradition, and innovation are things we prize when it comes to American, European, and Asian distillates. It should be no different when it comes to Tequila.” Some family-run brands recommended by the pros: Fortaleza, Arette, and Cascahuin.
Try It Neat (But Don’t Get Hung Up on That)
Both Kvetko and Parker say their preferred tequila style is blanco, served neat Parker suggests sipping it alongside a lager or mineral water, but to skip the shooters and enjoy it slowly.
For those who prefer mixed drinks beyond the classic Margarita or Paloma, Parker suggests trying a tequila Negroni with an overproof blanco or sampling it in a highball with mineral water and lime.
“People should drink tequila the way they like to drink best,” he says. “There are no real rules to this since at the end of the day it was made to enjoy.”