The wide world of tequila is much wider than you think. Walk into a liquor store and you’ll see shelves stocked with brands like Patrón, José Cuervo and Hornitos, leading you to believe that these bottlings are all that’s out there. But these popular behemoths are just the tip of the iceberg. There are smaller, newer brands that deserve just as much attention as the beloved bigwigs.
To gain entry into the world of lesser-known tequilas, we asked Justin Shapiro, managing partner of New York’s agave spirit-focused cocktail bar Mayahuel, for his top picks. Here, five tequilas that should be on your radar.
Shapiro’s first pick, Siete Leguas or “seven leagues,” was named for General Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s loyal mare. Unlike many big brand tequilas, Siete Leguas is made using the traditional tahona method, in which a giant stone wheel is used to crush the agave. It’s also distilled in copper stills. These factors result in longer production times and higher costs, Shapiro notes, but the tequila is worth it. “This is the original Patrón recipe before they had to sell the rights to be mass produced,” Shapiro says, adding that it’s no coincidence that the two brands have very similar bottles. “The recipe was created more than 60 years ago. It’s truly a traditional tequila.”
“Suerte is definitely one of those tequilas that, once people taste it and are introduced to it, they go out and find it,” says Shapiro. Though the brand’s name means “luck,” it’s no coincidence that Suerte Tequila has amassed a small fanbase stateside. The brand was founded by two Boulder, Colorado-based agave-heads, Laurence Spiewak and Lance Sokol. Like Siete Leguas, Suerte also employs the old-school tahona method when crushing agave. The brand then subjects the spirit to an extra-long fermentation and distillation process. “Their product is solid and the price-point is exactly where it should be,” Shapiro says. “It proves that you don’t have to be from Mexico to create an amazing spirit.”
In 2009, French-born Sophie Decobecq launched this tequila brand. Shapiro says the spirit is a product of Decobecq’s French background, her experience as a microbiologist and some “very lucky” agave hearts. “She has such a love for the culture and tradition, and it comes through in her tequila,” Shapiro says. Though he is “very rarely a fan of anejo tequilas,” often preferring blancos and reposados (“what we consider the truth of tequila,” he adds), Shapiro makes an exception for Calle 23. “Sophie’s anejo is one of the only anejos I’ll drink,” he says. “It has such subtleties, warmth and hints of caramel at the end. You can bring it to a place where people swear, ‘Oh, I hate tequila,’ and the next thing you know the bottle’s gone.”
Though somewhat more common than the other brands on this list, Tequila Ocho is not as common as Shapiro would like. A collaboration between third generation tequilero Carlos Camarena and Tomas Estes (one of only two worldwide tequila ambassadors for the Mexican government), Tequila Ocho is one of the first tequila brands to place a strong focus on terroir. “It was the first true tequila to fashion itself after the way wine is being made,” Shapiro says. “Tomas believes that agave is much closer to a grape in terms of how it should be celebrated.” All of the brand’s tequilas are labeled “single estate,” with each batch of tequila made from agave sourced from a single field. Shapiro calls Tequila Ocho “one of the most amazing sipping tequilas I’ve had in my life.” And he’s tried a few.
If you’ve ever had a tequila cocktail at Mayahuel, chances are it was made with Siembra Azul. But the tequila is also good enough to sip neat. “We sip it neat when we’re just sitting around drinking and want something that’s going to be smooth and relaxing,” Shapiro says. Aside from putting out great tequila, the Highlands-based distillery is also committed to practicing sustainable and transparent production methods. “You know that every dollar you’re spending is going directly back into the community to help further this amazing tradition,” Shapiro says.