Food & Drink

9 Things to Know About Tequila That Will Make You a Better Drinker

Tequila sometimes gets a bad rap, especially among those who took too many shots of some less-than-great stuff in college. But the spirit, which is distilled from agave, is actually quite delicious when imbibed correctly—and it tastes even better if you’re educated about what you’re drinking. So, to help you become a more enlightened tequila drinker, we enlisted Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo, founder of Casa Noble, and Tom Koerner from tequila bar Las Perlas Austin to help break down the most important things to know about tequila.

Tequila Is One of the Most Regulated Spirits in the World

There are a lot of rules about what constitutes an official tequila: It must be made with at least 51 percent blue Weber agave—though most truly great tequilas are made with 100 percent—and it can only be produced in a certain region, giving it a denomination of origin just like Cognac. It can be produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, as well as parts of four other Mexican states. Be sure to read the label carefully when purchasing a bottle and look for a CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) sticker to know it’s genuine. “If suddenly you get a tequila from China, it’s not tequila,” Hermosillo says.

There Are Two Categories of Tequila (But Only One Is Good)

There are two main categorizations of tequila: 100 percent blue Weber agave and tequila mixto (mixed). “100 percent comes strictly from blue agave,” Hermosillo explains. “And mixto is 51/49. That means 51 percent of the sugars come from the agave and 49 percent of the sugars come from other sources. I highly recommend people picking 100 percent blue agave because that’s true tequila. And that’s very easy to distinguish because it will say on the label. If it doesn’t say on the label and it only says ‘tequila,’ that’s a mixto.”

There Are Four Main Types of Tequila

Learning the differences between the four main types of tequila can help you determine which bottle to order. There’s blanco (or silver), reposado, añejo and extra añejo, and they’re essentially defined by how long they are aged. Blanco is a favorite amongst drinkers since it’s typically not aged and reflects the natural flavor of the spirit, but Hermosillo recommends starting with reposado, which is aged in wood barrels for less than one year. “That gives somebody, if they’re not a big tequila drinker, the ability to come into the category with something that is easier to enjoy,” he says. “Añejo is very good for bourbon and whiskey drinkers. It really depends on your palate what you want to go to, but when you’re being initiated into tequila, reposado is a good starter.”

Emily Zemler

Tequila Is Mezcal, But Mezcal Is Not Tequila

Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal, although the production methods and regions of origin are different. While tequila can only be made with blue Weber agave, mezcal can be distilled from several types of the plant. “Back in the day tequila was actually known as mezcal de Tequila,” Koerner explains. “The brighter minds in the business decided to simplify the name to merely tequila and put into effect legislation decreeing that only mezcal made from the blue Weber agave in certain regions within Mexico could be called tequila. This essentially makes tequila a distinct style of mezcal much like bourbon or scotch are distinct styles of whiskey.”

There Is a Right Temperature for Tequila

While there are many delicious tequila cocktails, you’ll never truly know tequila until you sip it straight. While Hermosillo prefers his neat, he says it’s OK to add ice—as long as it’s a large ice block rather than small cubes. “That’s so you don’t dilute it,” he notes. “You’re just going to cool down the temperature. I enjoy tequila at around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. You don’t want to drink tequila hot—then you’ll get that big hit of alcohol and you won’t be able to enjoy all the notes.”

You Can Still Take Tequila Shots (But There’s a Better Way to Do It)

Traditionally, many Americans prefer their tequila in a shot glass with some salt and a lime, which is OK. “There is no wrong way to drink tequila,” Koerner says. “Shooting spirits has always been a means to achieve the effect of imbibing spirits while minimizing the consumer's experience with the flavors of poorly made and often alarmingly cheap spirits. If you do decide to take a shot of tequila—again, no judgment here—some of our favorite chasers are fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon or spiced salt, or a fresh slice of lime.” And try to avoid bottom shelf brands when taking shots. “If you shoot something nice, you won’t regret it the next day,” Hermosillo adds. “If you shoot something bad, you will definitely regret it the next day.”

Emily Zemler

There’s More to Tequila Cocktails Than Margaritas

The best Margaritas are made with three ingredients: lime juice, tequila and agave nectar (in place of the usual triple sec). But you don’t have to stop there. “There are some natural flavors that go with tequila,” Hermosillo says. “Citrus is very typical—orange, lime, grapefruit. Then analyze your tequila—what are the essences? What will go with it or compliment it? I love ginger with tequila, for example.”

“Some of my favorite ingredients to pair with tequila are bitter ingredients such as grapefruit and the aperitif Aperol, which I like to balance with agave nectar, fresh lemon juice and, as a surprise to many, a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters,” Koerner says. “The balance of flavors makes the complexities within 100 percent agave tequilas really pop while allowing it to still play well with the rest of the ingredients inhabiting the glass.”

Storing Your Tequila Correctly Will Make It Last Longer

Once you get into tequila and start building your own collection at home, it’s essential to remember that the spirit will never go bad as long as it’s stored correctly. “Tequila won’t go bad if you keep the top on and keep it well sealed,” Hermosillo says. “What goes bad is when you leave it open and it evaporates. When it evaporates you start getting this really bad tasting water, so you want to keep it well closed.” And be sure to keep it in a cool place.

Good Tequila Doesn’t Have to Be Super Expensive

While there are some very pricy tequilas on the market, you don’t necessarily have to spend your entire paycheck to get a good bottle. Look for middle-shelf brands that are 100 percent blue Weber agave for the best quality and value. “You can find well-made 100 percent agave tequilas in the sweet spot from about $17 for something like Lunazul and $23 for Milagro, to exceptionally well made marks like Fortaleza starting at around $50,” Koerner notes. “There are plenty of tequilas asking for well above that price range, but I think there is a ton of value to be found in the low $20s to $60s, especially if you are looking to mix up some cocktails.”