Food & Drink

A Beginner's Guide to Drinking Tequila Like a Grown-up

Wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

Put the shot glass down. If you’re new to tequila, you should know that there’s more to the agave spirit than limes and salt and Margaritas. To help beginner tequila drinkers like yourself become better acquainted with it, we created this simple guide. Not only will it help you appreciate the spirit more, but it will also have you drinking tequila like a pro in no time.

How to Drink Tequila Like a Jalisco Native

Though Americans mostly drink tequila by the shot, it is actually meant to be sipped slowly, like a fine bourbon or scotch—for the most part. If the bartender is pouring Montezuma from the well, then perhaps a quick shot down the hatch is appropriate. But if you’re drinking a quality tequila (more on that later), you’ll have no need for salt or lime, because the spirit will actually taste good on its own. In Mexico, tequila is traditionally served neat, and is usually accompanied with a shot of Sangrita, fresh fruit or a meal. At dinner, Mexicans tend to drink tequila the way that we drink wine (in much smaller glasses, though); it’s meant to be sipped and savored.  

How to Identify a Quality Tequila

The best way to identify a good quality tequila is by reading the label. First and foremost, the label should tell you where the spirit is made. If the tequila is a product of Tequila, Mexico (yes Tequila is an actual town), then the spirit is most likely not a knock-off or mixto (a mix of fermented agave juice, neutral cane spirit and flavoring). After you identify where the spirit was made, look to see what it is made from. The best tequilas are made from 100 percent agave, specifically blue Weber agave. If a tequila is mixed with cane sugar, has additives or flavoring, and does not mention the word “agave,” do not drink it.

How to Distinguish Between Types of Tequila

Tequila isn’t always clear and unaged. There are four different aging categories in tequila. Knowing how to identify the age of a tequila will not only help you gauge its quality, but also how best to enjoy the spirit.  

Clear, unaged tequila is known as blanco, silver, plata, crystal (pronounced cree-staal) or platinum, and is typically rested in barrels or glass carboys for no more than 60 days. Blanco tequilas are generally lighter and spicier, with vegetal agave notes and minerality. If you’re going to take a shot (or make a classic Margarita), opt for a blanco tequila.

Reposado tequila is golden in hue and aged anywhere between two months to two years in oak barrels. On the palate, the spirit is more akin to a lighter bourbon or Irish whiskey, and has flavors like baked fall fruits, vanilla and caramel. Reposados are best sipped neat, served with food, or mixed into rich fruity cocktails like the Baja Gold.

Añejo tequila is darker and more brown in color than gold. Añejo tequilas are aged from one to three years in oak barrels, and have a robust, rich flavor. This type of tequila is generally very high in quality, and should be sipped neat or with a large ice cube.

The extra añejo is the crème de la crème of aged tequilas. Aged for three or more years in oak barrels, these tequilas are equivalent to top shelf bourbon or scotch, and have a deep amber hue almost like maple syrup. It would be a waste to shoot these tequilas or to use them in cocktails. This is post-dinner, slow-sipping tequila.

What to Make With Tequila Besides Margaritas

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a Margarita, there are far more creative and expressive cocktails out there that highlight tequila’s unique flavors. The Paloma is probably the most popular tequila cocktail in Mexico, and its refreshing, tart grapefruit flavor is the perfect foil for blanco tequila’s pepperiness. The El Diablo, a classic from Trader Vic’s 1946 book, Trader Vic’s Bartender's Guide, is like a Moscow Mule on steroids; it combines reposado tequila with bittersweet crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and spicy ginger beer. One of the best ways to enjoy the complexities of an añejo tequila (besides on its own) is stirred into a Oaxacan Old Fashioned, a play on the traditional bourbon cocktail made with agave syrup and spicy mole bitters. However you choose to consume your tequila, just make sure that you take a moment to enjoy the spirit for what it is: way more than a short cut to dancing on the bar.