Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.
When it comes to tequila, the basic choice is simple: 100% agave, or not 100% agave. Of course, this is like saying that when it comes to music, there’s Mozart or there’s a guy named Steve-O playing the kazoo version of Eine kleine Nachtmusik alone in a basement in Cleveland, but whatever. You get the point: One is the real thing.
So let’s ignore the mixto category, which only requires tequila to be 51% agave (the rest is typically a neutral spirit made from sugar cane) and concentrate on those labeled 100% de agave or 100% puro de agave.
The agave plant is what gives tequila its character: a kind of spicy vegetal note that’s hard to describe but is extremely distinctive; sometimes it suggests celery, sometimes pepper, sometimes earth, sometimes fresh-cut herbs and often all of the above. Regardless, it’s an addictive flavor and aroma, once you get to know it, and as far as I’m concerned, the best way to do that is to try a good blanco (also labeled silver, plata, white or platinum). The aged tequilas labeled reposado or añejo can be terrific as well, but the oak character from the barrels they rest in will, to some degree, cloak the pure expression of agave.
Top-quality blanco tequilas are equally good for sipping or mixing. (General rule of thumb for cocktails: Look at the bottle in your hand. Can you imagine drinking it straight, or does the idea make you shudder? If the latter, don’t use it for cocktails either.) For sipping, serve good quality blancos neat, the way you would a single-malt scotch, for instance - cool temperature, no ice (and no salt or lime). Even better, serve the tequila alongside a sangrita, a classic accompaniment that was originally a blend of pomegranate juice, orange juice, lime juice, chile pepper and sometimes salt and chopped onion. These days, tomato juice usually takes the place of the pomegranate.
And what the heck, today is National Tequila Day: a fine excuse for drinking some good tequila. Here are a few top-quality blancos to check out.
Camarena Silver ($20)
One of the best of a number of less-than-$20, 100% agave tequilas that have appeared on the market recently, it’s peppery and a little earthy aromatically, then appealingly smooth. It isn't the most distinctive blanco around, no question, but it's definitely good at the price.
Tapatio Blanco ($35/1 liter)
The work of famed distiller Carlos Camarena (unrelated to the brand above), Tapatio has been available in Mexico for years but only recently started being imported to the USA. It’s a terrific blanco, with minty licorice aromas and a similarly minty, intense agave flavor. (Carlos Camarena also makes El Tesoro, which is also very good.)
Unlike most tequilas, this earthy, complex bottling comes from a single estate on the western edge of the Tequila region. The agave hearts are roasted rather than steamed, and fermented with the use of native (rather than industrially made) yeasts. One note: It’s also potent, at 46% alcohol.
Fortaleza Blanco ($50)
Pricey, but hard to argue with once you taste it. Fortaleza is made by Guillermo Sauza (a fifth-generation member of the tequila-making Sauza family, which no longer owns the Sauza brand) at one of the original three distilleries used by his grandfather Don Eladio Sauza. It’s one of the purest expressions of agave character I’ve come across in a long time, its flavors lingering long after you take a sip.
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Best Modern Mexican Restaurants
Outrageous Hot Dogs
Ultimate BBQ Cities
5 refreshing tequila drinks for summer
Classic tequila cocktails
How to make a perfect margarita
© 2011 American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
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Tequila can be on par with scotch and other fine spirits. Both are amazing if done right.
I love great tequila. Try Tequila Ocho its sold in vintages like great wine. Never buy GOLD tequila its not 100% tequila. Also try Don Julio or 1942 or Milagro, NOT Patron, not great tequila but a great marketing company
And tomorrow's national "WTF did I do last night, why am I wearing a strippers thong on my head, and why is my wife yelling at me" day.
Looking forward for Friday, its me, myself and tequila........only Mexican thing I like in US.
Say again, I could not hear you through your sheet.
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila....floor!
Fortaleza is on top in the blanco category. Unlike highly recognizable brands who spend millions on advertising, Fortaleza spends cash on education. Any employee behind a bar that carries Fortaleza is welcome to attend a three day trip (hotel, and food covered) in Jalisco Mexico two times a year. Actually making the bottles, touring the facilities, and taking trips out to agave fields are all on the schedule. Educate people and give them the chance to promote your product by word of mouth. smart
Don Ramon Reposado, $35 / 750 mL
I agree completely. My father-in-law introduced me to Don Ramon and I haven't gone back. If you're not satisfied with the exceptional taste, you can marvel at the hand designed bottle. They may look similar but not one bottle of Don Ramon has the same design as another, as it is all decorated by hand.
Try Tequila Ocho, its the only tequila sold in vintages
I would like to thank LynnAnn for her completely useless comment. And also thank her for her backward ass thinking that leaves more tequila for us to drink!
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.
Ahhhhh,TeKiller,Man's second Best Friend,until the next morning. One of my favorites is Patron–XO Cafe,a coffee Liqueur. A favorite Mexican Restaurant of mine in the Dallas area would always finish our dinner with this ( slightly warm ) for Free,and Everyone knows Free is good. I've used it in my Brisket rub and it really makes a difference in the taste of the Brisket. Thanks Ray.
XO is coffee flavored Tequila its great
I never allow tequila in my house or around my family thus says the Bible.
That's no fun.
It sounds like the Bible speaks to you personally. There is help for that if you want it.
I never allow a bible in my house or around my family. Thus sayeth palintwit.
The Bible says specifically "no tequila?" Which Bible are you reading? Ah yes. That would be the Jose Cuervo edition.
I don't recall seeing the word Tequila in the Bible? I could be wrong!
Don Julio Reposado $40 750ml
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