Tequila is a spirit made from the distillation of fermented agave sugars derived from the Blue Weber Agave. It originates in Mexico and is a product of a protected designation of origin, meaning it can only be made in Mexico, and only in certain provinces within Mexico. Due to the strict regulations, there are only around 130–150 tequila distilleries that produce around 1300 different brands of tequila. It has become increasingly popular in the USA over the last few decades, leading to concerns about the sustainability and traditions of the industry.
Tequila Brands’ Prices
|Price Rank||Brand||Bottle Size||Prices|
|1||Casamigos Tequila||750ml||$40.99 - $71.99|
|2||Patron||750ml||$37.99 - $699.99|
|3||Don Julio||750ml||$37.99 - $999.99|
|4||1800 Tequila||750ml||$20.99 - $255.02|
|5||Jose Cuervo||750ml||$12.99 - $229.99|
Factors that Affect Tequila Prices
As with most spirit categories, tequila has a number of brands that are low-quality products with steep price tags, using marketing and branding to lure in buyers. Luckily, there are a number of authentic, high-quality products on the market that are priced reasonably.
In addition to the high price associated with luxury branding, tequila must be imported, which means it is subject to taxes that other spirits may not be, depending on the country you purchase it in.
Another huge factor in the price of tequila is scarcity and the length of time it takes to produce it. Even though tequila can be bottled unaged and aged tequilas are typically not aged more than three years, it still takes a very long time to produce tequila due to the long waiting period while the agave plant matures. This means demand must be accurately predicted well in advance of manufacturing, because adequate agave must be planted. When those predictions are off, there can be shortages of agave, which drives up the price of tequila. In addition, blight and other issues with growing tequila, such as TMA, a disease affecting agave plants, can limit supply and cause major price increases.
Finally, the current trend of celebrity endorsements or ownership of tequila brands often means that a brand spends more money on attracting a celebrity and marketing budget but then needs to cut corners when it comes to producing tequila. Overall, this is a bad thing for tequila and continues to flood the market with subpar quality tequila priced at a premium.
Mixto Tequila Verses 100% Agave Tequila
Tequila can be categorized into two broad categories: Mixto and 100% Agave.
A mixto tequila is a tequila that has 51% of its sugars derived from agave and the other 49% derived from non-agave sources. These are low-quality products that are effectively a blend of grain spirit and tequila, and they often have added sugar, coloring, and other additives to mask the poor quality. The brands using mixto tequila are the cause of numerous bad hangovers, poor experiences with tequila, and persistent myths about tequila quality. These poor products are often labeled as “silver” or “gold,” which has no legal standing and often attempts to confuse consumers into thinking the product has been aged when the gold color is actually due to color additives.
100% Blue Weber agave is a stamp of quality found on bottles of tequila made entirely out of sugar derived from agave. These are the bottles you want to stick to. Among these bottles, you will find tequila categorized as Blanco, Reposado, Anejo, and Extra Anejo. While these categories are often simplified into “mixing tequila” vs. “sipping tequila,” that isn’t accurate. It would be a mistake to write off sipping on a blanco tequila just because it hasn’t been aged.
- Blanco tequila is effectively unaged, having been bottled directly off the still or rested for less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. It is the most pure expression of the flavors of the agave plant, and unlike in other spirit categories, an unaged tequila is often seen as the benchmark for a distillery. You can expect to find grassy vegetal notes in blanco tequila, along with cooked agave, pepper, coriander, and mint.
- Reposado tequila has been aged for a minimum of two months but less than one year in oak barrels. The tequila takes on a straw or golden color and absorbs some of the flavors of the wood. The grassy notes of a blanco will be mellowed by the aging, while the barrel will impart notes of vanilla, oak, butter, and other flavors associated with wood aging.
- Anejo tequila must be aged for a minimum of one year in oak barrels but may not exceed three years of aging. This tequila takes on a lot more of the flavors from the wood, making for a more mellow and easy-sipping experience.
- Extra Anejo is the newest category of tequila, introduced in 2006. Extra Anejo tequila must be aged a minimum of 3 years in oak. This style is often marketed as ultra premium and aimed at people entering tequila from the whiskey world, where a longer aging period is seen as an indicator of quality. At 3 years on wood, a lot of the pronounced vegetal and agave notes have softened, and the wood flavors take center stage.
Many Americans are more familiar with whiskey and whiskey aging than tequila, and so it is easy to read the age associated with each style and assume the tequila will be quite young and not comparable in quality to an older whiskey. However, due to the nature of wood aging and the hotter temperatures in Mexico, a year in a barrel in Mexico could be the equivalent of 3–6 years in a barrel in Kentucky or Scotland.
The “Mezcal” Confusion
Mezcal is often inaccurately described as tequila or even worse, as “smokey tequila”. In fact, the opposite is true: Tequila is technically a regional style of Mezcal. Mezcal is made from agave, but whereas Tequila must be made only from Blue Weber agave, Mezcal can be made from many different types of agave. Mezcal has its own separate laws and regulations from those of tequila, as well as its own protected origin separate from tequila. Mezcal must be made in Oaxaca, San Luis de Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango, Guerrero, or Puebla. Many mezcals have a smokey flavor due to the long, slow roasting period for the agave, but there are some made without the expected smoke. Mezcal also has strong vegetal flavors, and while it can be aged, it is most often unaged.
How to Choose a “Good” Tequila?
The first indicator of whether any spirit is “good” should be whether you enjoy drinking it. Beyond that, many experts and aficionados prefer the authentic flavors of traditionally made agave spirits over the adulterated flavors of mixto tequila and tequila made using non-traditional methods.
Tequila is a difficult spirit to gauge when looking for quality, but luckily, there are a few key indicators to rely on. The first is the presence of the 100% Blue Weber Agave statement on the label. This indicates that the tequila is not a mixto and ensures it will not be of the absolute lowest quality. It should be the first thing looked for when selecting a brand of tequila for purchase.
You may then also look for a NOM number. NOM stands for Norma Official Mexicana, and each distillery manufacturing tequila has its own NOM number. This number can be found on all bottles of 100% Blue Weber Agave tequila next to a small box with the letters “NOM” in it and will indicate at which facility the tequila was made. You can then research individual facilities to see which types of production methods they are using and get a better picture of the potential quality of the tequila in the bottle. The website and app “Tequila Matchmaker” is particularly useful for this purpose as they have a list of every brand made under each NOM and the processes used to make it.
How to Drink Tequila?
The traditional way of drinking tequila in Mexico is neat. Drinking tequila in this manner allows you to appreciate the flavors of agave. Often in Mexico, a neat pour of tequila may be accompanied by a side of Sangrita, a mixture of citrus juices, tomato juice, hot pepper, and other ingredients. This non-alcoholic drink is similar to a homemade bloody mary mix, and there is no official list of ingredients or recipes, with most people having their own preferences. You would alternate between sips of neat tequila and sips of chilled Sangrita. Whether with Sangrita or on its own, enjoying tequila neat is the best way to experience all of its nuances. It is especially recommended to enjoy 100% Blue Weber Agave tequila neat, as mixto tequila is harsh and often not enjoyable on its own.
In the USA, most people’s initial experiences with tequila are as a shot, preceded by a bit of salt and chased with a lime wedge. While this isn’t traditional in Mexico, it does incorporate some of the citrus and other flavor elements of sangrita. The salt and lime are most often a method for covering up the burn and bite of poor quality mixto tequila.
Tequila has also long been used as an ingredient in cocktails. Margaritas are probably the most famous tequila cocktails, but the Mexican firing squad and paloma are also becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Tequila lends itself to lime when used in cocktails, so it is often used in citrusy shaken drinks. It is also great in stirred spirit forward cocktails, and aged tequilas can be substituted for whiskey in many great drinks.
Different Tequila Production Processes
Tequila originated in the 1500’s in the region near the present day town of Tequila. The fermented agave spirit, named Pulque, had been produced by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America prior to the arrival of European conquerors. The Spanish brought distillation technology and, when they ran out of brandy, began distilling the local fermented beverage, Pulque. This combination of local fermented alcohol with new distilling technology led to the creation of new spirits such as tequila and mezcal.
Manufacturing tequila is a long and laborious process. In order to develop the necessary amount of sugar to be viable for use in tequila production, a Blue Weber Agave plant must reach between 6 and 8 years of age. During growth, the central stalk of the plant must be cut to prevent it from flowering. Once the plants reach maturity, they are harvested by hand. The workers, who are called Jimadors, use a sharpened spade called a “coa” to remove the leaves of the plant, leaving the fibrous core, called a “pina,” which contains the most sugar. A single pina can weigh around 150 lbs.
Once the pina is harvested, there are a few different ways to proceed with making tequila.
The traditional way is to roast the pina in an earth or brick oven to convert some of the complex sugars into sugars that are more easily fermentable. Then the roasted pina is crushed in a roller called a tahona. The tahona is a large stone wheel that sits in a groove. The groove is lined with pina and a donkey or other draft animal will power the wheel, rolling it through the pina and crushing them into a pulp. The juice from this process is then fermented, sometimes with the addition of a small part of the solids, while most of the solid fiber is recycled into animal feed. The fermented agave juice is then run through a pot still a legal minimum of two times. After the second distillation, it is blanco tequila. It can then be diluted, bottled, and sold. It can also be bottled at still strength, or pumped into oak barrels to age into reposado or anejo tequila.
In modern times, scientific advances have led to controversial new methods for tequila production. The first is the autoclave. The autoclave is a pressurized steam chamber that can rapidly speed up the cooking process for the pina. It works by using steam and pressure to roast the pina and can be used at different pressure and humidity settings, which impact the final product’s flavor. Many brands have switched to this non-traditional method to keep up with demand or save money, and some use a combination of traditional brick ovens and autoclaves.
The second method worth mentioning is the diffuser. This method involves spraying the pina with enzymes and acids that break down the sugars for fermentation without using heat. Most experts regard this as the least authentic and lowest quality method for producing tequila. However, many brands use this method because it is extremely cost-effective. Most brands using this method are cheap, and they try not to make their use of diffusers public knowledge.
A third method recently introduced to tequila production is industrial crushing methods, namely the roller mill or screw mill. These are two methods used in substitution for the traditional tahona to crush cooked pina. The roller mill is an industrial machine which shreds the pina using rolling blades, while the screw mill is an alternative crushing method that yields results that are not drastically different than the tahona. Both of these methods can be used together with a tahona to process pina. The roller mill, when combined with the diffuser method, is the most cost-effective way to process pina, but results in the least authentic flavors.
Ten Most Popular Cocktails with Tequilas
- Margarita: Blanco Tequila, Lime, Orange liqueur, optional Agave syrup. The king of tequila cocktails, found in many variations, including skinny, tommys, and spicy.
- Paloma: Blanco Tequila, grapefruit soda, optional lime. A refreshing grapefruit tequila highball.
- Batanga: Blanco Tequila, Coca-Cola, lime, salt. Traditional Mexican answer to the rum and coke.
- Mexican Firing Squad: Blanco Tequila, Lime, Grenadine, Angostura bitters. An old classic from the 1930’s, and a refreshing twist on the tequila sour.
- Ranch Water: Blanco Tequila, lime, carbonated water. Austin, Texas’s modern obsession. Refreshing and crisp.
- Cantarito: Blanco Tequila, lemon, lime, orange juice, grapefruit soda, salt. A working class tequila cocktail often enjoyed by the folks who produce tequila themselves.
- Oaxacan Old Fashioned: Reposado or Anejo Tequila, Mezcal, Agave Syrup, Angostura or Chocolate Bitters. The ultimate stirred tequila cocktail, created by Phil Ward in 2007.
- Bloody Maria: Tequila, Bloody mary mix, lime. A twist on the bloody mary that comes close to the classic tequila and sangrita pairing.
- The Amoxicillin (Penicillin No. 2 or Oaxacacillin): Reposado Tequila, lime, agave syrup, ginger, mezcal. A tequila variation of the classic Scotch cocktail.
- Tequila Sunrise: Tequila, Grenadine, and Orange juice. A leftover from the dark ages of cocktails. Try adding a bit of lime to boost the acidity and make it not suck.