This definitive guide to the best tequilas of 2021 explores everything you need to know about the world’s most popular agave spirit, including important tequila terms — such as blanco, reposado and añejo — how to drink it and a list of the best tequila bottles and brands worth tracking down.
Best Overall TequilaEspolòn Blanco Read More
Best Upgrade TequilaSiete Leguas Blanco Read More
Best Budget TequilaCimarron Reposado Read More
Fortaleza Blanco Read More
Siembra Azul Blanco Tequila Read More
There is perhaps no spirit as villainized or misused as tequila. In America, it’s all about getting trashed; glugging with cheap margarita mix; doing shots that are so unpalatable you need to assault your own tongue with salt and acidic lime; toeing the line between lit up and throwing up. At least absinthe gets to be the bad boy.
Incredibly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for tequila’s problems. Seven out of every ten bottles are exported out of Mexico, and 80 percent of those end up in the States. Our drinking culture, with its collegiate attitude toward the spirit, has reflected back on the way the spirit is now made, and its place in Mexican culture.
“Americans did fundamentally change the industry in Mexico,” says Chantal Martineau, a spirits writer and the author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit. “By the time official laws defined tequila in the 1970s” — it must be made using at least 51 percent blue weber agave, and only in five regions of Mexico — “the spirit had already gained popularity in the U.S., to the point where producers in Mexico were having trouble keeping up with demand. They had to change how they made the spirit, which modernized and mechanized it,” Martineau says.
And so the bar for tequila (which is actually part of the mezcal family) was lowered. We became consumers, largely, of what’s known as mixto — tequila made using only 51 percent agave and 49 percent non-agave sugars, usually cane sugars. If we broke tequila, however, we can also fix it. Made with 100 percent agave, our picks are affordable, expensive, subtle, aromatic and everything in between.
Types of Tequila
Of all tequilas, blancos offer the purest expression of agave, Martineau says. They are “unaged,” though sometimes kept in a vat for several months to settle. “A really good blanco should have, above all, a very rich nose and body of cooked agave,” she says. “Besides that, there are so many different flavor profiles. Some are really green and herbaceous. Some have chocolate notes. Pineapple in some, jalapeño in some. The best ones have really interesting finishes, too, like pepper or mint. You see why in Mexico they drink tequila with food.”
Reposado refers to tequila that’s been aged between two and twelve months in oak barrels. “The amount of time makes a huge difference,” Martineau says, and you can expect different flavor profiles to follow. It’s also worth noting the color of the spirit. “I always raise an eyebrow when I see [a reposado] that’s really, really dark,” she says. “It suggests to me that maybe color was added. I don’t mind seeing a light aged spirit because 11 months is not that long to spend in a barrel.” A good reposado should maintain the agave-forward flavor of a blanco but it’s going to show some barrel: sweetness, vanilla, spice. According to Martineau, however, the best examples are not overwhelmingly influenced by the barrel. “Reposado means rested, not aged,” she says.
Añejos are tequilas that have spent anywhere from one to three years in barrels. After three years, the spirit becomes an extra añejo, which is a rather new category, Martineau says. “Maybe I’m biased here, but I think [some] añejos shouldn’t be. A lot of distillers come out with one to complete their line but aging a spirit is a whole other ballgame, and not every spirit maker knows how to do it.”
Still, there are good añejos out there. They’ll have more color than a reposado, though Martineau warns that very dark ones could be doctored with additives. “I think of [añejos] as something you reach for with dessert,” she says. “You still want that cooked agave, almost pumpkin flavor. But on top of that, you’ll find other flavors, too.” For example, the chocolate notes found in some blancos become sweeter, like milk chocolate, after aging.
Aging influences the weight and texture of a tequila, too. “Once it’s been left in a barrel for this long, you should expect it to have an almost syrupy quality to it,” Martineau says.