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Every spirit has its "moment"—sometimes more than once—and just like whiskey in the pre-prohibition era, rum in the midcentury tiki craze, and vodka in the swingin' sixties and seventies, tequila is currently the darling of the spirits world. Nutrition consultants saddle it with various health claims (some more dubious than others), and it seems like every day that yet another celebrity (again, some more dubious than others) is launching a new tequila brand. However, to longtime aficionados like Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin, the Jalisco-based founders of the website Tequila Matchmaker, there's something to be said for the old, artisan production methods and for the flavors they yield: herbs, spices, and the briny, bittersweet signature of agave.
But the sheer volume of tequila brands currently competing for shelf space means that there's truly a bottle out there for every consumer. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila, the spirit’s regulatory body, lists 1,754 tequilas currently in production—and these include bottles labeled blanco (unaged or lightly aged), reposado ("rested," i.e. aged in barrel for two to twelve months), añejo ("aged," i.e. kept in barrel for one to three years), and several other increasingly esoteric categories. Whether you like your tequila neat or mixed with cocktails, here are the best tequilas available today.
Best Overall: Fuenteseca Cosecha 2018
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 45.7% | Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Olive, Brine
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.
Most Versatile: Corralejo Reposado
Region: Guanajuato, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Peppercorn, Oak
Jenny Harris, bar manager of San Diego's Point Loma Fish Shop, says “you can’t lose” with this reposado produced at Tequilera Corralejo. 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.
“Neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, [the Corralejo reposado] is always going to be delicious and smooth.” —Jenny Harris, bar manager of San Diego's Point Loma Fish Shop
Best Value: Pueblo Viejo Blanco
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: White pepper, Agave, Mint
Tequila's popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, and the top bottles now command cultish prices formerly reserved for the rarest of Scotches and small-batch bourbons. But there are still plenty of great values for those with the patience to seek them out—and it's hard to think of an inexpensive tequila that over-delivers on quality quite like Pueblo Viejo. A secret favorite in the mixologist comminity, Pueblo Viejo blanco is crafted using 100 percent blue Weber agave, which is cooked in stone and brick ovens and crushed by a traditional rolling mill called a tahona. The classically-made tequila boasts a nose of white pepper and a rustic, unapologetic palate replete with bright agave and fresh mint.
Once you claw your way through the limited-production bottlings and the celebrity vanity projects, you'll discover that solid tequila can still be found at budget prices—and the Pueblo Viejo blanco is Exhibit A.
Best Under $50: Los Arango Blanco
Region: Guanajuato, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Agave, Herbs
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."
Related: The Best Tequilas for Margaritas
Best Blanco: ArteNOM Selección 1579
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Mint, Pepper
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.
Related: The Best Blanco Tequilas
Best Reposado: Partida
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Spice, Butter
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.
Related: The Best Reposado Tequilas
Best Añejo: Don Julio 1942
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Floral, Caramel, Spice
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.
Related: The Best Añejo Tequilas
Best Extra Añejo: Tears of Llorona
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Spice, Caramel, Nutty
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
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Sweet, Smooth, Peppery
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 for Sipping: El Tesoro Añejo
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Spice, Brown butter
Like any fine spirit served neat, a good sipping tequila should be smooth, velvety, and nonabrasive—but, simultaneously, should still taste like tequila, rather than trying to mimic the characteristics of whiskey, or vodka, or anything else.
The añejo from El Tesoro is a classically-styled tequila that checks all those boxes: it's soft and silky, a result of two to three years of aging in American oak ex-bourbon barrels, but it's not as flush with caramel or vanilla as certain añejos that receive a more heavy-handed aging treatment. Consequently, the flavor of the agave really comes through—no surprise for a brand that prides itself on traditional production methods, from crushing the agave with a volcanic stone tahona (replicated in the design of the bottle's cap) to fermenting in open wooden vats with ambient yeasts. The El Tesoro añejo is an ideal choice the next time you're craving the vibrancy of raw agave character without wanting to bother with ice or with lime.
Related: The Best Sipping Tequilas
Best Traditional: Fortaleza Still Strength Blanco
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Olives, Grapefruit peel
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
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Herbaceous, Green peppercorn, Anise
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. 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, which Volfson feels mingle well with the bright cirtus character of the triple sec and lime juice.
"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.” —Yana Volfson, beverage manager at Cosme and ATLA restaurants in New York
Best for Palomas: Siembra Valles High Proof
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Licorice, Black pepper, Freshly-cut grass
Siembra Valles boasts a formidable line of classically-produced tequilas, but their high-proof offering is particularly excellent in cocktails—especially citrus-forward drinks like the paloma. This boldly-flavored tequila is produced very traditionally, with the agave cooked in brick ovens, the crushing being done via tahona, and the fermentation taking place with the bagasse (the fibrous material that's leftover after the agave is crushed), which adds richness and complexity. Finally, double-distillation in copper stills yields a delicious spirit that's bottled at a robust 46 percent ABV. Use this in your next paloma, and you'll be able to look forward to assertive notes of black pepper, citrus, licorice, and freshly-cut grass intermingling perfectly with the grapefruit and lime in your glass.
Best for Spicy Cocktails: Próspero Blanco
Region: Jalisco, Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Pine, Lavender, Vanilla
Longtime master distiller Stella Anguiano and pop star Rita Ora, the women behind Próspero, “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.
Tequila has never been more popular, and the diversity of bottles available to consumers today can be downright imposing. But even as the category expands at breakneck speeds, the discerning imbiber still has the opportunity to seek out authentic and thoughtfully-produced tequilas, such as the Fortaleza Still Strength Blanco (view on Drizly) and the El Tesoro Añejo (view on Totalwine.com), which marry old-school production methods with a contemporary approach to quality and consistency.
Does all tequila have to be made in the town of Tequila?
No, but there is a strong historical connection between the spirit known as tequila and the town from which it takes its name. Located about sixty kilometers from Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, Santiago de Tequila is where much of the original distillation of the blue Weber agave plant took place, and centuries-old distilleries are still in operation there today. The town is also the location of the Museo Nacional de Tequila (National Museum of Tequila), and is the hub of most of Jalisco's tequila-based tourism.
What's the difference between tequila and mezcal?
You may have heard the rumor that the spirit known as mezcal is simply a smoky version of tequila. In fact, the truth is closer to the reverse of that: the term "mezcal" refers broadly to any distillate of the agave plant produced in Mexico, so the spirit called tequila is simply one specific type of mezcal. While government regulations allow for the production of mezcal in nine different Mexican states, tequila may only be produced in five states: Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and certain parts of Tamaulipas. Addionally, while mezcal may be produced from dozens of different agave varieties—resulting in numerous distinct styles and flavor profiles—tequila may only be produced from the blue Weber agave.
Are all tequilas made of 100 percent blue Weber agave?
Nearly all premium tequilas are made entirely from blue Weber agave (including all of the bottles listed in this roundup), but there's another category of tequila called "mixto" in which blue Weber agave need only compose 51 percent of the spirit. Producers utilize various types of sugar to make up the remaining percentage, including high fructose corn syrup and molasses—although sometimes a lightly processed Mexican cane sugar known as piloncillo is what's used. If your bottle doesn't indicate on the label that it's made from 100 percent agave—and if the price is on the lower end of the spectrum—there's a good chance that you're dealing with a mixto. While less expensive, these tequilas don't reflect a historically anthentic approach to the composition of the spirit. (And if hangovers are your main concern, it's generally not bad advice to avoid any spirit in which large proportions of refined sugars go into the distillation. Just sayin'.)
Why Trust Liquor.com?
This roundup was edited by Jesse Porter, who got into tequila by way of big, oaky añejos...and then discovered the visceral joy of bright, clean blancos...and then realized that well-balanced reposados represented the best of both worlds...and finally came to accept that he just really loved them all.
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 being 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.