Food & Drink

How to Drink Tequila Like a Pro

Katie Burton

You might think you know how to drink tequila, but if your tequila drinking style includes a shot glass and a lime wedge, then we can assure you, you’re doing it wrong. Real tequila enthusiasts know that tequila should be sipped, not shot. It should be savored and studied, not unlike a fine wine or scotch. Don’t be scared. Drinking tequila like a pro is easy—as long as you’re talking to the right pro. Luckily, we enlisted a serious expert to help.

Courtenay Greenleaf is the beverage director of Rosa Mexicano restaurant group and the brains behind Masa y Agave, a subterranean cocktail bar that boasts more than 400 agave spirits. She’s a certified mezcalier and has spent a lot of time in Mexico with local distilling families studying different agaves, terrains and aging processes. She’s basically a walking tequila encyclopedia. Here, her best advice on how to drink tequila the right way.

Noah Fecks

Learn to Read a Tequila Label

Before you even pop open the bottle, Greenleaf suggests checking the label to make sure you know what you’re about to drink. First, skim to certify that you’re not about to drink anything less than tequila made from 100 percent agave. Some tequilas, known as mixtos, are mixed with sugar cane spirits, additives or flavoring. “While tequilas are rarely labeled as ‘mixto,’ indicators to look for are ‘Product of Tequila’ or just ‘Tequila,’” she says. If you want the really good stuff, make sure the label states that you’re drinking 100 percent agave.

The next step is to look for one of the four aging categories used for tequila. This tells you if the spirit is aged or not, and for how long. “The longer it ages in the barrel, the more oils and tannins are pulled from the barrel into the tequila,” Greenleaf says. “Aging imparts notes of oak, vanilla, caramel, dried fruits, baking spices, tobacco and leather, creating a spirit that drinks more like a whiskey.” Commit these four aging categories to memory:

  • Blanco, Silver, Plata, Crystal, Platinum: Mellowed in a barrel for 59 days or less but most commonly unaged. These tequilas are clear, vibrant, and often include pepper, citrus, floral, herbal or mineral flavors.
  • Reposado: Rested in an oak barrel from two months up to one year. Reposado tequilas are light caramel-colored with flavors of oak, vanilla, baked pear and caramel.
  • Añejo: Aged one to three years in an oak barrel, which gives the spirit a deeper, darker color. Añejos include complex flavors of toffee, vanilla, baking spice, cocoa and dried fruits.
  • Extra Añejo: Aged three or more years in an oak barrel. The color is a much darker amber, almost like maple syrup.

If you’re a real tequila pro, you’ll also check the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana). “A lot of us agave geeks refer to the NOM a lot,” Greenleaf says. “It’s a four-digit number printed on every bottle of tequila that basically functions like a zip code to indicate the distillery that produced the bottle.”

Katie Burton

Learn Proper Tasting Techniques

After you’ve thoroughly studied the bottle, it’s time to study the spirit. Put down the salt and the lime—here’s the right way to take the first sip:

First, observe the color and body of the spirit.

Swirl the glass so the spirit coats the walls. Open your mouth slightly and take a whiff. Make sure to sniff from the bottom lip, the middle of the glass and the top lip because different aromas shine through from different parts of the glass.

Reset and Re-smell
“To reset my sense, I often smell the back of my hand to establish neutral grounds again,” Greenleaf says. “You will notice that the longer tequila sits in your glass, the more aromas become present. This is because the alcohol is dissipating and the aromas are able to shine. Once I get a good understanding of the nose, I move on to sipping.”

Take a very small sip and let it sit in the center of your tongue for a few seconds, then swallow. “I don’t judge immediately because I am just getting started—my palate has to acclimate to the alcohol before the flavors come through,” she says. By the third sip, you’ll begin to notice different flavor notes.

Don’t Mix Just Any Tequila Into Cocktails
If sipping tequila straight isn’t your bag, there’s no shame in shaking or stirring it into cocktails—as long as you’re using the right types of tequila. For example, the Margarita is a near perfect cocktail that’s delicious with either a classic blanco tequila or more rounded reposado. But Greenleaf cautions against mixing with expensive añejos and extra añejos. “A lot of the nuances from the barrel will get lost in the citrus, so it's a bit wasteful,” she says. “If I want to add citrus to my tequila, I stick with a blanco or reposado.”