If you’re one of those people who likes to make jokes about tequila’s potency or honestly believes that drinking it must involve licking things and sucking on limes, you’re probably not ready for good tequila. And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous “worm.”
Actually, I don’t blame those people for augmenting their tequila shots. Lots of lower priced tequila is heinous stuff (unlike bourbon, which can be at least decent even at dollar-store prices), with a terrible alcohol burn and a sugary, hangover-inducing viscosity. So the old salt-and-lime routine is probably the best way to drink it if you have no option to avoid it altogether. It’s a drink people use to get drunk as quickly as possible, not to enjoy.
But tequila wasn’t intended for that, and the good stuff — which is often served in snifters, like brandy, so its heady, often quite subtle, nose can be properly appreciated — doesn’t need any help getting it down.
If you’d like to graduate to advanced tequila (or are already a fan), there’s good news. Premium tequila is becoming increasingly popular — major celebrities like Justin Timberlake and George Clooney are big enough fans that they’ve invested in tequila companies — and the competition has prompted the entry price to drop. And you have our handy list detailing our 13 favorite tequilas to help you make the right choices.
Crótalo Tequila Añejo
Crótalo has a big reputation and a busload of awards — and deservedly so. It’s aged for two years. The first year is in French oak barrels (which is not too far out of the ordinary), but the second is in barrels that the company will only ever refer to as “proprietary.” So, like Coca-Cola’s secret formula, Crótalo’s secret ensures that nothing else is quite like it. Do yourself a favor, and serve it in a snifter large enough so that you can get the most of its alluring nose, which offers caramel and a rich supply of fruit, especially pear. It’s delightfully thick without being syrupy or oily, and brings the spice in a tasteful way. But it’s the smooth, burn-free finish that I’m smitten with. It’s in limited production, so if you see any, grab it while you can.
Penca Azul Tequila Reposado
The company says that four generations of the Ruiz family contributed to the evolution of this high-buck drink, and it shows in its craft nature. As with Crótalo, this is a tequila with a nose that is well worth appreciating, with notes of cinnamon and distinct vanilla to go along with the more obvious blue agave. The vanilla, from its oak barrel aging, is again pronounced, but it shares the stage with several flavors, with honey, oak, black pepper and anise comingling without conflict. Another thing it shares with Crótalo is a long and smooth finish, but instead of just the primary flavor tones, it also brings some cinnamon back for a non-alcohol heat. Definitely not one for the shot glass or the blender; instead, savor it after a long meal.
ArteNOM Seleccion de 1146 Tequila Añejo
ArteNOM isn’t a traditional tequila company. Instead it selects small artisanal tequilas and exports and markets them. And this one — from Casa Tequileña — is very special. It’s a blend of two stocks — one of which was aged in French oak for two years and one aged in French oak for three years — that are then aged together in American white oak. Do I have to tell you that it’s both distinct and complex? From start to finish, the dominant, but not overwhelming, tone is agave. This thick and very dark tequila starts with caramel, giving way to flavors like Brazil nuts and raisins before giving way to black pepper and oak, while the agave only reluctantly gives up to end the finish. It’s difficult, maybe impossible to go wrong with anything from ArteNOM, but this is special even by that lofty standard. Serve when you would normally go with a bourbon or smoother scotch.
Tequila Fortaleza Blanco
Many high-buck tequilas are frequently compared to other premium spirits, particularly scotch and bourbon. Often, that’s because oak barrel aging can impart many of the same qualities. But fine tequila makers are not merely looking at whiskey and shouting “me too!” many are proudly different, and none more than Tequila Fortaleza Blanco. The company points out that their product “never touches wood.” That makes is distinct in this market, of course, but it also leads to a subtlety that requires patience to enjoy. It’s absolutely clear and opens with olive and orange peel over agave. In the mouth, it’s not as thick as many others on this list, but hardly as thin as the cheap stuff. Black pepper, lemon and something I’d like to call oregano introduce themselves politely. And at the end there’s the tiniest hint of mint. It’s not big, heavy experience, but rather a delicate one. It’s more like an aquavit than a whiskey, so serve accordingly.
Pueblo Viejo Orgullo Tequila Añejo
I have a close friend who serves this tequila to unsuspecting whiskey drinkers without telling them what it is. Invariably, they ask him after their first sniff, and he’s actually made a few converts to the cause. If you try it, be prepared for a sweet, but not sugary nose and taste. The scent is full with butterscotch over a lightly floral background. It’s fairly thin on the tongue with caramel mixing with dark berries and a touch on unobtrusive oak. The finish brings some alcohol heat over caramel, pepper and orange peel. Though some might be put off by its sweetness, it can be in your heavy rotation.
Muchote Tequila Reposado
Not all lower-cost tequilas deserve to be ignored (just most of them). Muchote Tequila Reposado doesn’t cost a lot, but it’s actually very rewarding. Reposado means “rested” in Spanish, and to qualify, a tequila must have spent at least two months aging in wood barrels. This one, though, spends at least seven months in charred oak barrels, and you can tell. It comes through right away in the powerful vanilla and orange nose. In the mouth, the deeply sweet and woody flavor is augmented by allspice and cinnamon. That same combination continues in the finish, with a slight alcohol burn. Consider this if you’ve never really gotten into better tequilas, and would like to give it a try without spending too much.
Tequila Casa Noble Añejo
Many reviewers have called this the best tequila in the world. That might be taking it a little far, but this French oak-aged, USDA-certified organic tequila is a rare treat. The nose is very whiskey-like, all vanilla and oak, but with a little extra caramel sweetness and perhaps even a touch of honey — yeah, it’s pretty complex already. Those same flavors continue on the tongue with cinnamon added to the mix. This is something that is hard to get used to, every sip seems to make you want another. The agave comes through in a big way in the finish — perhaps to remind you that you’re not drinking whiskey. And that might be its greatest strength; it’s so smooth and easy to drink, it can change the minds of many whiskey drinkers who might never otherwise consider tequila.
901 Tequila Silver
Yes, this is the Justin Timberlake tequila. And, yes, its marketing machine says it’s called 901 because that’s when “the evening ends and the night begins.” Get it, like 9:01 p.m.? Or was it September 1st? either way, forget the party-party hype (and keep in mind that, for his part, the eminently likeable Timberlake says that the name actually comes from the area code for his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee), because this is a tequila for sipping and enjoying, not shouting and chugging. It’s actually close to the opposite of rotgut tequila with its subtle and complex nature. Taken from a snifter, the nose is delightfully citrus-filled with clear notes of grapefruit and lemon zest over agave. It’s playfully sweet, but not cloying, with more lemon and a touch of black pepper at the start for contrast, followed by a cinnamon warmth, but no alcohol burn. The finish is sweet and floral, much more delicate than its party on marketing team would probably prefer it to be. Whether a celebrity endorsement makes you want to buy a product or makes you want to avoid it, taken on its own, 901 is a fine tequila.
Casamigos Tequila Reposado
While it would seem that mention of Timberlake’s tequila would make equal time for George Clooney’s tequila, Casamigos Tequila Reposado is actually here because it deserves to be. Look past the Casamigos Tequila Blanco (which isn’t bad, but just isn’t special), and instead reach for the Reposado. It’s aged for seven months in old bourbon barrels (Clooney is from Kentucky, after all) and the process has been kind. While Timberlake’s tequila is floral and delicate, Clooney’s is buttery and smooth, even from the nose. It brings cinnamon and other spice in its pleasantly creamy thickness, and finishes with wood and caramel. Don’t buy this because you loved The Descendants or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Buy it because it’s an excellent tequila.
Republic Tequila Añejo
Speaking of unnecessary marketing ploys that distract, rather than attract, tequila drinkers, this otherwise fine Añejo comes in a bottle shaped like the state of Texas. That’s too bad, because this is a fantastic bargain. USDA-certified organic, aged in old Jack Daniels barrels and chill filtered using technology developed for sake, it’s not at all what you’d expect to come out of a gimmicky bottle. The nose is heavy with agave, with oak and green apple. That’s followed by a smooth and thick dose of vanilla, with oak over more agave. The finish is oaky with vanilla that gives way to black pepper and dark chocolate. For its price, this is an absolute steal.
Tequila Corrido Añejo
The makers of this tequila say that it is made using a triple-barrel process. The third barrel is for tasting because of their philosophy of “taste, not time” — by which they mean they periodically taste the contents of the third barrel to decide when it should be bottled, rather than sticking to a schedule. Although that makes me think that there might be a great amount of variability from barrel to barrel if not from bottle to bottle. The one I tried, at least, began with vanilla with a hint of walnut on the nose. On the tongue it gives sweet agave over butterscotch, and closes with a touch of orange peel, and warmth coming from cinnamon and nutmeg. It was an excellent bottle, and one I would recommend.
Marquez de Valencia Tequila Reposado
This reposado really does repose. Aged for 10 months — very long by tequila standards — in white oak barrels, this one has won several major international awards. The oak comes through in the nose, as you’d expect, along with cinnamon and nutmeg with maybe a tiny bit of strawberry underneath. It’s surprisingly light on first taste with the most subtle vanilla, more of the same spices and a lingering agave sweetness. It finishes with many of the same notes, but much stronger. If you’re not yet a tequila drinker, this light and subtle one could be a perfect introduction to the type.
Partida Añejo Tequila
If you’re looking for the smoothness and complexity that only aging can impart, you might want to try this one. Aged 18 months — an eternity in the tequila world — it’s darker than you might expect, and has a very distinct set of characteristics. The powerful nose has divided critics, but once you get past the initial blast of alcohol, there are subtle floral and citrus tones. But it’s the actual drinking of this tequila that wins it fans. It’s thick like a good bourbon, but without any of the insipid syrup-feel you get from cheaper brands. The big taste for me was butterscotch, with grapefruit, agave, and vanilla with a nice bit of smokiness. The finish is far smokier — which is nice, very scotch-like. This is not a tequila for everyone. It’s not delicate. It packs alcohol burn and sweetness in no small amounts, which could turn off many who are looking for a lighter after-dinner drink. But for those looking for a tequila of a more spirited nature, it’s hard to beat.