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A Margarita is great but it’s not the only way to drink tequila. “When you take a deep dive, you’ll find tequilas to enjoy on their own, with distinctive nuances that take you on a journey from the front to the back palate, with a finish that makes you come back for another sip,” says Crystal Chasse, beverage director of Talk Story Rooftop in Brooklyn, N.Y. What she’s describing is a sipping tequila.
For Morgan Hurley, marketing and beverage director of Mex 1 Coastal Cantina in Charleston, S.C., a sipping tequila should be 100% agave and very well-crafted, particularly if it’s unaged. “Blancos showcase the terroir and the agave, but they also show any imperfections,” says Hurley. “Look for spirits with a medium to full body, a bit of attitude, minerality, and brightness, and not much ethanol burn. You can tell an impure spirit if you get that.”
Reposados, barrel-aged for two months to a year, “should be mellow,” says Hurley, “but still have that cooked agave flavor mingling with the honey, toasted oak and vanilla.” If you like a “smoother, easier, richer drink,” follow Julian Medina, chef-owner of Toloache and other New York City restaurants, and go for an añejo or extra añejo, aged a year and upwards. The various barrels used for aging—former cognac casks, heavily charred ex-bourbon barrels—bring a diversity of expression to the spirit.
How should you drink a sipping tequila? Hurley and Chasse suggest trying it neat in a tequila glass—a short, stemmed flute. A few drops of water help to open up the flavor. Medina prefers to sip his aged tequila in a snifter with one large cube of ice, which melts slowly, not diluting the spirit but keeping it cool. If you want to nibble while you sip, try fatty things with a crisp blanco, like guacamole and chips, a grilled steak, and carnitas tacos. For aged tequilas, Hurley advises dark chocolate. And any sipping tequila goes great with spicy or salty foods, chased by a Mexican lager—just the way the distillers like to drink it themselves. Here are the best sipping tequilas our experts recommend to drink right now.
Best Overall: Tequila Ocho Plata
“The beautiful story and unique process behind this tequila really help it shine,” says Chasse. The family that makes Tequila Ocho Plata has been distilling for generations. They use traditional brick ovens to slow-roast extremely ripe agave, which is chosen from specific fields each year, so that the “nuances of terroir and weather” come out, especially in the blanco. “It changes depending on the field and year,” says Chasse, “but in general, it offers crisp, clean peppery notes, bright citrus and grassy flavors, along with the fruitiness of the extra-ripe agave.” The finish also offers “a nice balance between floral and earthy notes.”
Best Blanco: Don Fulano Blanco
"There’s a saying: 'Whiskey is aged in wood, and tequila is aged in the ground,'” says Hurley. “That’s so true because agave takes 6 to 8 years to mature, so you can detect the influence of the terroir—the soil, sun and shade of mountains—especially in a blanco.” He calls this one from the Altos region “phenomenal.”
Produced by Jalisco’s famed Fonseca family using deep well water, Don Fulano Blanco offers “a lot of the green cooked agave notes, a little bit of pepper and minerality, and hints of lemon peel and lemongrass.” Along with those complex layers of flavor, Hurley likes its mouthfeel. “It has a nice body all the way through,” he says, “so it’s one of the easiest drinking tequilas out there.”
Related: The Best Blanco Tequilas
Best Reposado: Siete Leguas Reposado
Like many bartenders, Chasse calls this reposado from Siete Leguas “my favorite tequila in general,” regardless of the expression. The distillery where it is made uses a mix of grinding methods: efficient roller mill and traditional tahona, a millstone carved from volcanic rock. The result is “a nice balance between sustainability and the wonderful qualities of earthiness from the more fibrous milling of the tahona,” she says. With its mix of minerality, wood-driven vanilla notes and a baking-spice panache, this versatile reposado is “perfect to sip on anytime along with many different types of foods,” says Chasse, “and it just makes my heart happy.”
Related: The Best Reposado Tequilas
Best Añejo: Don Julio Añejo
Don Julio, Chasse notes, takes care of its raw materials. When the producers were planting their fields, they used much more land than other producers and spaced the agave out so as not to overtax the soil and sap it of its nutrients. That’s important when the plants take so long to come to maturity, and it leads to some lively flavors in the spirit. Hurley notes the baked yam, toasted oak, caramel, and vanilla notes that two and a half years of wood aging give this añejo. But its round, sweet qualities are balanced out, says Chasse, by a “gingery, peppery spice.”
Related: The Best Añejo Tequilas
Best Extra Añejo: Gran Patrón Burdeos
“Añejos and extra añejos should embody the flavor of the wood with the soul of the original spirit,” says Hurley, “so the cooked agave flavor should shine, complemented by notes of toasted oak, caramel, vanilla and cocoa powder.” This bottle from Patrón exemplifies the style. “It is far too tasty,” says Chasse. In part, that’s due to the barrel program. A combination of used American and new French oak casks give it a deep amber color that looks great in a snifter, plus a velvety mouthfeel and a drying, nearly tannic finale that compels you to take another sip. But the pièce de résistance are the old Bordeaux barrels the spirit is finished in; they lend a touch of the raisinated flavor you’d expect from a wine. “It also does pair nicely with food,” says Chasse, “and if you’re having a fancy day, with a fine cigar.”
Best Valley: Fortaleza Blanco
“If you want to know what tequila tasted like 100 years ago, Fortaleza is your go-to,” says Hurley. At his estate in the town of Tequila, master distiller Guillermo Sauza makes the spirit the way his great-great-grandfather made it, using an old stone tahona and brick ovens. Bottled straight from the copper pot still without dilution, this “beautifully crafted” blanco has an alluring “earthy, olivey quality,” says Chasse, with plenty of bright citrus, too.
Its flavors and a super-long finish make it fascinating to drink, but it goes down surprisingly easy for such a powerful spirit. “I would try a little on its own, breathing in and letting it open up in your mouth to get all those flavors,” says Chasse, “but eventually I would add a bit of water to open it up, so you can see how tequila evolves at different levels of alcohol.”
Related: The Best Tequilas
Best Highlands: El Tesoro Reposado
“This is one of my favorites,” says Hurley. Tahona crushed, brick-oven cooked and copper pot distilled, El Tesoro's old-school reposado by master distiller Carlos Camarena shows off its “boldness and true roasted agave flavor,” he observes, “but you get that light honey and a little bit of citrus on the back end” with some oaky cocoa notes as well. Medina likes the way the sweet potato character of the cooked agave mingles with a hint of raw agave for “a very well-balanced” sip. Hurley also admires the sleek look of the bottle, which makes it a nice addition to a home bar.
Best for Beginners: Casamigos Blanco
To help guests appreciate the nuances of a great sipping tequila, says Hurley, “My job is to get people away from drinking tequila chilled with lime and salt.” Casamigos helps. With its sweet, vanilla intensity, “it’s a great entry tequila,” he says. “It’s like vanilla ice cream.” Yet, it doesn’t completely sacrifice that classic cooked agave flavor, and there’s a touch of balancing citrus to it.
Medina enjoys its smoothness, a quality that helps make it friendly for beginners, who might like to drink it on the slightly cool side. “If somebody has a wine fridge and wants to bring it down a few degrees from room temperature, I’m not opposed to that,” says Hurley.
Related: The Best Shot Glasses
Best Under $30: Espolòn Reposado
Tequila’s slow-growing raw material is a limited resource, and the work it takes to produce it is substantial, so it’s important to pay a fair price for the product. Therefore, there are few bargain tequilas that aficionados laud. Espolòn's reposado is one of them. Along with an iconic label, depicting the spirit’s mascot rooster, Rámon, amid skeleton figures acting out a scene from Mexican history, the bottle is downright tasty. Chasse finds “nice spice notes, caramel, some baking spices and a bit of tropical fruit,” while Hurley notes “light oak, subtle cooked agave and a touch of pepperiness.”
Best Under $50: Cazadores Añejo
“Even though [Cazadores] uses the diffuser method for extraction”—a quick, chemical process that purists eschew—“their focus is on sustainability, and they put work into the product afterwards,” says Chasse. That includes keeping a copper coil in the still for that old-timey pot still character and filling the barrel room with classical music. The vibrations move the molecules around in the barrel and assist the aging process. As with other cristilanos, this tequila is aged in a barrel and then filtered, so “it’s crisp and clean-looking, but you still get those nice, round caramelized notes that you’d expect in an añejo," says Chasse. Her verdict? “To get all that for under $50 is beautiful.”
Best Splurge: Don Ramón Limited Edition Extra Añejo
Only 5,000 bottles of this limited-edition Don Ramón extra añejo were produced. Made with 100% blue agave from the Tequila Highlands, this expression has been aged for three years in American oak barrels. The tequila provides notes of toasted coconut and vanilla with some cocoa powder and dark roasted coffee, Hurley notes. But that’s only part of the selling point for him. “The tequila is great, but the bottle is what’s really gorgeous,” he says. The glass is embedded with gold flakes and decorated in wooshing lines composed of Swarovski crystals, which frame the dark amber liquid inside. It makes a showstopping centerpiece for any bar.
Best Gift: Casa Dragones Añejo Barrel Blend
“Our job as bar pros is to be skeptical, but when I took the first sip, I was like, ‘Oh, this is divine,’” says Chasse. “A lot of bottles that people think about for gifting are on the sweeter side, but this one is not super sweet.” Instead, the aging program, in both new French and new American oak, lends it complexity and balance. Chasse finds plenty of peppery spice, nuttiness and a hint of cacao, but with a lush mouthfeel that makes Casa Dragones' tequila feel luxurious. Its sleek, charcoal-colored bottle and turquoise box present the kind of packaging that makes it giftable without wrapping paper.
Related: The Best Gifts for Tequila Lovers
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Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. While reporting for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure, she spent quality time in Jalisco’s agave fields watching piñas be harvested, and in distilleries watching them be rendered into the elixir that is tequila. Drinking at the side of master distillers, crawling the bars of Guadalajara and Tequila, she acquired a taste for, and a keen interest in, Mexico’s premiere spirit—especially the añejos and extra-añejos, which are always how she likes to end a meal.