Reading tequila labels is literally reading another language. But forgetting all of your high school Spanish isn’t the only roadblock to understanding the nuances of the Mexican spirit, especially because there are multiple types and aging processes to know. Tequila can only be made from blue Weber agave in five Mexican states (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas), which makes the process relatively simple compared to other agave spirits that have looser varietal restrictions. So the true distinctions between tequila types happen after the juice is extracted and the aging process begins. If you need a crash course in Tequila 101 to help you understand the differences between the blanco, reposado and añejo varieties, our handy guide is here to help.
Other Aliases: Silver, Plata, White
Blanco tequila never sees the inside of an oak barrel. Without the influence of the wood, blanco tequila provides the purest expression of the agave’s natural flavors and clearly captures the terroir of the region where the blue agave was grown. Some producers choose to rest the tequila in steel tanks for less than two months to let the flavors settle a bit across batches before distributing it into individual bottles. But even this slight delay leaves most of the vivid, young, fiery flavors intact.
Blanco tequila is often hotter than its mellowed, aged peers and blasts the palate with raw vegetal agave, grassy herbal notes, various types of citrus, black pepper and other spices, and even some natural sweetness from the agave itself (think agave nectar). This strong profile makes blanco tequila great in cocktails as the bold flavor can go toe to toe with any mixer you throw at it. By the same token, blanco can be a bit harsh for some palates. If you’re considering straight shots, choose an extra smooth brand like Los Azulejos Silver (which layers on a smoky aroma) or Don Julio Blanco (full of citrusy grapefruit notes) for a complex taste without the harsh burn.
Other Aliases: Rested, Aged
After pounding shots of blanco tequila on your 21st birthday
, you still have a few lessons to learn in the ways of agave. Patiently waiting for good things to come is the first of those lessons, which is immediately evident when sipping a reposado tequila. To make reposado, distillers take blanco tequila fresh from the still and store it in American or French oak barrels. Legally, reposado sits between blanco and añejo on the aging spectrum and must rest in the barrel for between two months and one year, which gives it just enough time to develop a unique flavor profile without losing younger notes from the original agave juice.
During its time in the barrel, the tequila darkens to a subtle gold hue as it pulls tannins from the wood to create the warm flavors of caramel and honey. The tequila’s natural citrus and spice flavors don’t decrease but tend to round out as the tequila ages, which creates complex notes of dry chocolate, chilies, vanilla and cinnamon. Some producers opt for used barrels that previously housed bourbon, Cognac or wine, which contribute even more flavors to the tequila’s evolution. Some reposados are hardy enough to support cocktails while subtler expressions are best sipped neat or over ice.
Other Aliases: Extra Aged, Vintage
If you leave tequila in the barrel for longer than a reposado, it becomes an añejo. Aged one to three years, añejo tequila takes on even more character from the wood, proving that true distinction comes with age. The barrel
size for añejo tequila is limited to 600 liters, so every drop gets a decent amount of interaction with the wood.
That extra time intensifies the colors and notes of a reposado, darkens the tequila even further and produces a richer taste. Often, añejos move beyond the intense—and occasionally harsh—bite of young tequila when acidic tones are replaced with sugary, caramelized ones. That’s not to say añejo can’t have some edge. For example, we love spiking our horchata with Riazul Añejo because of its distinct funky notes of nuts, coffee and honey.
Other Aliases: Ultra Aged
If the producers leave tequila in the barrel a day more than three years, it qualifies as extra añejo. This ultra aged spirit category was established in 2006, making it a relative newcomer in the long history of tequila
. Extra añejo must be cut with water to temper the proof, which smoothes out the final product even more. While the extensive aging and occasional peatiness elicits comparisons to well-aged scotch, no age statement is required on extra-aged agave. Given the added prestige that comes with longer barrel time, many extra añejos fetch top dollar.
Other Aliases: Gold, Oro
This smaller category of tequila can be tricky to navigate in your local liquor store. Gold tequila often refers to mixto tequila, which is made by adding sugar, colorings, flavorings, oak extracts or glycerin in order to emulate aged reposados and añejos. Because these tequilas aren’t made with 100 percent agave, the entire category tends to demand lower prices than honestly aged tequila.
On the other hand, joven tequila is made by blending a majority of blanco with a smaller cut of aged tequila without the added sugars and flavorings commonly found in Gold. Combining several types of tequila produces a nuanced product reminiscent of blended scotch. Joven is particularly adept in cocktails as it provides the bright citrus of blanco and the vibrant character of rested tequila all in one neat package. Give joven a try if you happen upon a bottle, but chances are slim that your local corner shop will stock this relatively rare variety.