London, England - You know the ritual - lick some salt, knock back a shot of tequila, then stuff a lime wedge into your mouth before you involuntarily shudder from head to toe. It's a drink that's best known for getting sozzled in record time.
But times have changed, and if you haven't already been introduced to the world of quality tequilas, you're in for a treat. Whether you're looking to make the ultimate margarita or prefer to sip your spirit neat, there's something for everyone. Here's our guide to the best of the bunch, plus tips on what to look out for before you make your purchase. From Bohemian get-togethers to party nights, we'll help you get your tequila choice sussed.
How To Buy The Best Tequila
The name tequila is protected, so all brands and types come from Mexico. The spirit is mostly produced in the area surrounding the actual city of Tequila, and in the highlands of the central western Mexican state of Jalisco. Here, the blue agave plant needs at least eight years to mature, after which harvesters extract the piña from the plant's core, stripping its leaves before distilling.
What Types Of Tequila Are There?
There are four main types of tequila. Blanco is a white-colored spirit, bottled or stored straight after distillation or aged less than two months in stainless steel or oak barrels. Then there's Reposado – literally, a "rested" tequila which has been aged in oak barrels for between two and 12 months.
Moving up market brings us to the Añejo, or "aged" tequila. This stays in the barrels for longer – generally between one and three years – and the barrels themselves are smaller which adds to the flavor. Finally, we come to Extra Añejo tequilas, which remain in the barrel for at least three years.
The different tastes are quite distinctive. With Blanco, the agave flavors tend to be more intense, while Resposado or Añejo are usually smoother and more mellow and complex – and just like other spirits aged in casks, they can take on the flavors of the wood. The best tequila is 100% agave, so always check the label.
How Do You Drink Tequila?
In Mexico, tequila is usually drunk neat, often with a chaser of fruity sangrita. In the rest of the world, a shot is commonly accompanied by a dash of salt and a slice of lime – the salt to reduce the burn of the tequila and the sour fruit to enhance its flavor.
If you're wincing at the thought, however, you'll be pleased to know that many of the higher-quality tequilas have no burn at all, and are made for sipping, not gulping. There's also a range of great tequila-based cocktails, notably the Margarita and Tequila Sunrise.
How Strong Is Tequila?
Tequila can be a stiff drink, but it's no stronger than any other spirit. When produced for consumption in Mexico it's usually 38% ABV – although in the United States, it must be at least 40% alcohol to count as the real deal. For consumption in the rest of the world, it can be anywhere between 31% and 55% ABV.
The Best Tequilas To Buy
1. Calle 23: Best Tequila for Margaritas
Sophie Decorbecq, the creator of this smooth, clean and ever-so-slightly smoky tequila, was a chemist in the cognac industry before upping sticks to follow her passion for tequila. This one is double distilled in traditional pot stills, then matured in oak casks originally used for bourbon. That gives it a delicate complexity: on the nose, you get oak, vanilla and cocoa, while taste-wise it's a rich and balanced combination of dried fruit, fresh herbs and vanilla, with a hint of oak continuing through. It's light for a resposado – possibly too light for some – but its unique combination of flavors saw it take the gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2009. Great for sipping, and delicious for margaritas. Key specs – Alcohol content: 40%; Bottle size: 70cl; Type: Añejo
2. Patrón Silver Tequila: Best Big-Name Brand
If you know anything about tequila, you've heard of this top brand. Crisp, clean and pure, it's perfect for those who are less keen on oaky flavors, and since it's velvety-smooth you can sip it with a single cube of ice, or mix it with more or less anything. Despite being made only in small batches, it's widely available and we like the snazzy bottle too. Key specs – Alcohol content: 40%; Bottle size: 35cl; Type: Blanco
3. Herradura Añejo Tequila: Best All-Rounder
Produced a short walk from the town of Tequila itself, this tequila is a testament to traditional methods of production. First, the piñas are roasted in clay ovens; then they're shredded by rollers and fermented with wild yeasts, after which the mixture is doubly distilled and matured in American oak barrels. The result is a beautiful golden-colored tequila with flavors of citrus, honey, vanilla and oak, along with cinnamon and black pepper. Ultra-smooth, it also boasts a long lingering finish. As with most premium tequilas, you can drink it neat, or mix it in a cocktail. Key specs – Alcohol content: 40%; Bottle size: 70cl; Type: Añejo
4. Tequila Don Julio 1942: Best Luxury Buy
1942 is the year in which Don Julio Gonzáles established his distillery, Tequila Tres Magueyes. Aged for at least two and a half years, this high-end tequila technically stops just short of being an extra Añejo, but don't be put off – it's ridiculously smooth and aromatic, with whiffs of caramel, wood and vanilla and a party of flavors in the mouth including vanilla, fruit and spice that make for a creamy, full-bodied indulgence. We suggest you don't mix it – that would be a terrible waste – but instead sip it neat from a balloon-shaped snifter. It's not cheap, but it's a real treat for special occasions. Key specs – Alcohol content: 38%; Bottle size: 70cl; Type: Añejo
5. Gran Centenario Reposado Tequila: Best for Tequila Sunrise
Aged for around six months in French white oak casks, this tequila is then blended with other aged tequilas, giving it a unique flavor that perfectly combines sweet and spicy, with everything from vanilla, pepper, tropical fruits, oak and smoke coming through. It tastes great neat, but really comes to life in a Tequila Sunrise. It has a proud heritage too: the brand was founded by Lazoro Gallardo back in the late 1800s and the label depicts an angel who is believed to watch over the agave growing in the fields. Key specs – Alcohol content: 38%; Bottle size: 70cl; Type: Reposado