I used to think people who enjoyed sipping tequila neat were bat-shit-crazy. In my experience Tequila was utilitarian with only one purpose - Shots at a bar that pretty much everyone wasn’t excited about but could get onboard with. But that couldn’t be further from reality, I could not have been more wrong.
My journey to Tequila actually started with Mezcal at an underground cocktail bar in Raleigh, NC called Watts & Ward with a drink they called an Oaxaca Old Fashioned. Mexican cuisine is my favorite by far so it would only make sense that I would enjoy their libations as well, I figured I owed it to the liquor gods to give tequila it’s fair shake.
Yep, I fell in love. Over the years I’ve discovered that it is as versatile, perhaps more versatile, than any other liquor out there. And that’s because in reality it’s an insanely broad category when you start to explore it’s cousin Mezcal.
I’m not an expert on this, so I’m not going to put together a dissertation. But - I do feel the need to do a 30,000 ft. crash course because there really isn’t a lot of knowledge out there about Tequila, Mezcal, and their different styles. I’m convinced it’s because the majority of people think of it how my younger, more naive self did, it’s liquor that is meant for shots or cheap margaritas. And that’s a damn shame.
Tequila and Mezcal are very similar, yet very distinct liquors, but they can often be used interchangeably. The latter can be made from any type of any variety of agave, and made in only eight Mexican states, while the former must be made from 100% blue agave and can only be made in a smaller region of five different Mexican states. Those technical requirements aside, they are both damn good and deserve a spot on your bar.
Is there a taste difference, yes. Mezcal tends to lean towards the smokier side. You’ll find a much wider range of characteristics in Mezcal as well due to each distillery being able to use their own blend of the agave plant. In my opinion, most decent blanco Tequilas are very similar in taste while clear Mezcal’s can vary widely.
So, what are the different types?
The aging process is where each Tequila really starts to develop it’s personality. Mezcal benefits from this as well, so roughly the same information applies. There are four statements to pay attention to when you are shopping for a bottle of Tequila - Blanco, Joven, Reposado, Anejo, and Extra Anejo.
The Youngest One - Blanco
The Refined One - Anjeo & Extra Anjeo
The Youngest One - Blanco
This is tequila in its most pure form. It goes well with mixed drinks and will shine in a margarita.
Here’s the thing though, I feel that like Vodka, it can only get so good. A $200 bottle of Blanco Tequila isn’t that much better or more smooth then a quality/ small batch $25 bottle, because outside of the distilling process there aren't a lot of differences in how the flavor is developed no matter what their marketing teams say.
I tend to gravitate to two different brands for Tequila - Exotico and El Espolon. Illegal is my go to for Mezcal.
The Mysterious One - Joven
This is a weird category, this “Young and Adulterated” classification isn't always a bad thing, especially in Mezcal. It can also be the one hiding out in the well at bars on $2 Margarita night and mostly flavored tequilas. As with any rule, there are exceptions. These exceptions are for blends between Blanco and Reposado tequilas and mezcal, or some that are premixed with coffees.
As far as Mezcal goes, Madre and Illegal are by go to's here.
The Educated One - Reposado
The youngest of the aged tequila, this is typically reseted for a few months, but always less than a year in wooden casks. This is the first step of tequila where brands begin to create their own flavor profiles as the casks they pick massively influence the end product.
Everything from new French or American oak, to used wine, bourbon, cognac barrels are being used. There’s even a series that uses barrels from the elusive Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, leding some pretty unique flavors.
My favorites in this category are Tremana, El Espolon, Casamigos, and Don Julio. I will say that there is one expensive bottle worth splurging for. 1942. It’ll reset your expectations on what a sipper Tequila can be. Illegal is a fantastic on here for Mezcal.
The Refined One - Anjeo and Extra Anjeo
These tequilas & mezcals are aged for at least one year with the “extra” label being applied after three years. The same casks used in the Reposado are often used here. This is where tequilas start to vary wildly in flavor profiles. It’s a fun place to explore.