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In the Mexican state of Jalisco, everywhere are fields of blue agave—spiky cacti with big, sugary hearts called piñas. The juice of those piñas is then distilled into tequila. Processing them used to be slow work, but today, many distilleries in the valley surrounding the town of Tequila use high-tech chemical diffusers and additives to quickly produce the spirit. Aficionados like Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin, the Jalisco-based founders of the website Tequila Matchmaker, prefer the old, artisan ways for the flavors they yield: herbs, spices, and the briny, bittersweet signature of agave.
Still, not everyone is a purist when it comes to tequila—some prefer it sweeter with muted agave notes. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila, the spirit’s regulatory body, Matchmaker, lists 1,754 tequilas currently in production, from unaged blancos to extra-añejos that spend upwards of three years in barrel. Whether you like your tequila neat or mixed with cocktails, here are the best tequilas available today.
Best Overall: Fuenteseca Cosecha 2013
This tequila is a cult favorite among experts, as Yana Volfson, the beverage manager at Cosme and ATLA restaurants in New York, calls it “beautiful.” Enrique Fuenteseca, the farmer and distiller behind the bottle, chooses the ripest agave in his own estate, subjects the piñas to the autoclave-and-roller mill treatment, and lets the pot-distilled spirit rest in stainless steel tanks afterward for three years. The resulting blanco, says Grover Sanschagrin, is “super heavy on the cinnamon, olive, and brine notes—it’s just amazing.” Perfect for tequila aficionados, the limited-production Fuenteseca Cosecha 2013 is a worthy collectible.
Best Blanco: ArteNOM Selección 1579
A NOM is a number used to indicate the distillery in which the tequila is made. To produce this special bottle of ArteNOM, distiller Jake Lustig teamed up with the Camarenas, the family that owns and operates NOM 1579, Jalisco’s Destileria el Pandillo. Brick-oven, steam-roasted agave is crushed by a special tahona called “Frankenstein,” jerry-rigged out of scavenged parts: a junkyard cylinder and an old train wheel axle. After copper pot distilling with a mix of rain and well water, it’s left to oxidize overnight—a key process as Oxygen accentuates the blanco’s fruity nature. Cherry and papaya notes mingle with mint and pepper in a spirit with a big, silky mouthfeel.
Best Reposado: Partida
This estate-grown, “crowd-pleaser” from the Tequila Valley is made using a 7- to 10-year-old agave that has matured to full ripeness and complexity. Aged in reclaimed whiskey barrels from two months to a year, as per the definition of reposado, Partida offers a caramelly and slightly floral nose, a creamy mid-palate, and big, spicy agave finish with a bit of honey and butter on the end. Though it’s lovely to sip with an ice cube in it, this tequila is also popular for cocktails, like the rich and boozy Notorious F.I.G. from StripSteak by Michael Mina in Miami, in which it’s blended with mezcal, calvados, and fig purée.
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Best Añejo: Don Julio 1942
Before filling its tall, tapered bottle, this iconic, Don Julio 1942 añejo rests for two and a half years in American white-oak barrels. It’s made with agave that’s been cooked in a brick oven, roller-milled, and distilled with deep, mineral well water in a stainless steel pot still with a copper coil. This mix of old and modern gear, and of course, those casks, yields a smooth and flowery potion with a caramel-and-vanilla flavor, along with a salt-and-spice finish. It’s a testament to Don Julio González, who founded the brand back in 1942 when he was just 17 years old.
Best Extra Añejo: Tears of Llorona
Produced from a distillery with “probably the largest barrel room in the tequila industry,” according to Grover Sanschagrin, Tears of Llorona is made from a blend of scotch, sherry, and brandy casks. The barrels help accentuate the complexity of agave harvested from upland Jalisco, where the cool climate slows the growth of piñas, giving them time to layer on the flavors. The agave’s natural spice is amplified by the oak but when sipping, you’ll also find the caramel and nut flavors you’d find in bourbon. If you're a whiskey or brandy loyalist, reach for this extra añejo instead of cognac.
Best Cristalino: 1800 Cristalino
A recent innovation, cristalino is made by stripping the color from aged tequila. It’s essentially a way to circumvent the steep pricing of agave due to crop shortages by using what distillers already have in stock. The 1800 Cristalino is a good bottle to uncork when drinking with non-tequila fans. Blended from 16-month-old añejo aged in American and French oak, it’s rested for an additional six months in former port barrels before double filtering. As you’d expect, it’s sweet on the nose and the palate, with a luscious mouthfeel, but it finishes with some of the pepperiness that bespeaks the agave. Sip this neat or on ice.
Best Value: Don Fulano Blanco
A tremendous bottle for the price, the Don Fulano Blanco is produced in the Tequila Highlands at the La Tequileña distillery. This extra añejo tequila, says Grover, boasts a light flavor profile and an appealing silkiness: "As opposed to a lot of tequilas that are very simple, this opens up in layers and keeps evolving." A blend of distillates out of copper pots and columns stills, this blanco offers notes of pepper, cinnamon, mint, and grass.
Best Under $50: Los Arango Blanco
Produced at Tequilera Corralejo in the state of Guanajuato, Jalisco’s eastern neighbor, Los Arango Blanco is made with agave steamed relatively quickly in a high-pressure autoclave, then crushed with a roller mill, and distilled in a copper pot. “It’s one of the best blancos on the market, and at a great price,” says Stevie Latona, bar manager at San Diego’s Lionfish restaurant. Along with vanilla notes, the “toasted agave and fresh herb” flavors, he says, “create a soft, smooth taste; on the rocks or in a cocktail, it’s one of my go-to’s."
Best for Sipping: G4 Reposado
“G4 is the rare tequila that aficionados and experts, but also total newbies, will like,” says Scarlet Sanschagrin. Made at Destileria el Pandillo by the fourth-generation Camarena family, it's distilled using an even mix of spring water and rainwater. “Rainwater is really neutral, so this is really easy to drink,” she notes. This smooth tequila brings hints of butter and orange to the palate. Aged for at least six months in barrel, the reposado expression gains fruitiness, but with a bit of spice and bitter appeal—almost as if you can skip the garnishes and just sip this neat.
Best Traditional: Fortaleza Still Strength Blanco
Grover Sanschagrin describes this bottle of Fortaleza as "real tequila done really well." The blanco is produced at Distileria La Fortaleza on an agave estate located right in the town of Tequila. There, Guillermo Erickson Sauza, the fifth-generation of the famed Sauza family, uses “super-ancient, old-school” methods. He steam-roasts his agave in a brick oven, crushes it with a tahona powered by a small tractor, and ferments it in wooden tanks. He then bottles this blanco straight from the copper pot stills without diluting it with water. The spirit’s high proof highlights the agave’s bittersweetness and earthiness, and because it focuses on the character of the raw material, each batch is slightly different and each bottle is marked with the number of the batch.
Best for Margaritas: Casa Dragones Blanco
Instead of sipping this high-end tequila, Volfson recommends trying it in a margarita. “A margarita is about the relationship of three ingredients: tequila, triple sec, and limes," she says. "The layers of orange blossom in Casa Dragones, along with the orange in the triple sec, brings together the drink’s fruitiness—the recipe doesn’t need as much lime juice as others, so it showcases the spirits with each other.” This tequila from Maestra Tequilera Bertha González Nieves gives off flavors of soft herbaceousness and grassy garden crispness, green peppercorn and fennel seed, cardamom, anise seed, and a bit of juiciness, according to Volfson.
Best for Spicy Cocktails: Próspero Blanco
Longtime master distiller Stella Anguiano and pop star Rita Ora, the women behind Próspero produced in the Tequila Valley, “are full of passion, and it truly comes through in their tequila expressions,” says Simone Rubio, mixologist at the speakeasy Under CdM in Corona del Mar, Calif. She calls the unaged expression “balanced, with a silky mouthfeel that complements cocktails," especially those with a bit of heat. Rubio likes to mix this blanco with fresh muddled serrano chiles and housemade aqua de jamaica (hibiscus tea). Briny and citrusy in aroma, “its piquant nose pairs well with the fiery chiles and juicy jamaica,” she says.
Most Versatile: Corralejo Reposado
Jenny Harris, bar manager of San Diego's Point Loma Fish Shop, says “you can’t lose” with this reposado produced at Tequilera Corralejo. “Neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, it is always going to be delicious and smooth.” Located east of Jalisco in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, this distillery is rated among tequila’s top 100 by the Sanschagrins’ Tequila Matchmaker user base. This reposado is aged in American oak barrels, giving off an oaky profile that Harris particularly likes—along with flavors of peppercorn, honey, and, of course, agave. It’s a tequila that starts with a woody, nutty aroma, rolls sweetly over the palate, and finishes with a slightly bitter spiciness.
Best for Palomas: Cutwater Rayador Reposado
“While some reposados have an overabundance of oak and caramel, the Cutwater offers a balanced medley of flavors that can give that little extra layer of complexity in a cocktail; the grassy nose resolves to a silky vanilla finish that doesn't overpower any given drink,” says Elliott Mizuki, drinks impresario at San Diego’s SKA Bar. “I like to enjoy mine in a Paloma with a pinch of salt on the patio.” Throw in fresh lime and grapefruit juice, soda water, a salt rim, and the key ingredient—a great tequila like this one—and you’ve got the makings of the perfect afternoon refreshment.
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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.