Other than sombreros, few things are more 'Mexican' than tequila. But there are a few things to know about the different grades of tequila before you use it to inspire you to sing karaoke Thursday nights...
I remember when I thought a shot of Jose Cuervo Gold tequila was living it up. In fact, it may have been just a step above bar stock once I got to know my tequila. I remember the ritualistic licking of the salt, downing the shot and biting the lime. Now I know this is just a marketing gimmick to help you suffer through bad tequila.
A good tequila can be sipped with pleasure, like a fine scotch. Yes, at between 62 to 110 proof, even the finest tequila provide a bit of a burn, but you shouldn't have to 'suffer' through something your paying $10 a bottle and up for!
First, let me say the best tequila is the one you like. There are also various tequila for various occasions. You can spend fromabout $7 for 750Ml of some white or silver tequila and these work just fine for that large vat of margaritas at the college dorm or back yard barbeque. But it is certainly not something I would pour in a glass for a shot, at least since I turned 30. In the US tequila start at about $10 for 750ml and a fine tequila can set you back over $500USD.
Now, what is tequila? Like true champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, true tequila can only come from Mexico. Mexican laws state that tequila can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the western Mexican state of Jalisco. By international regulation Mexico holds the rights to the term 'tequila', although today some Caribbean islands are selling Agave beverages, likened to tequila.
There are defined grades of tequila as well. Right out of the distillery's second run we get silver or white tequila. With the harsh edge, these are the tequila that may have spawned the ritual of lime and salt. Packing quite a bite, silver tequila are often used in mixed beverages. For this purpose I personally like that Sauza Silver Tequila , but this isn't a category from which I chose often. A silver tequila is usually inexpensive, around $10-$17USD, Although Patron makes a Silver Tequila for around $50.
Gold or Joven tequila are the next stage up, but may not be entirely of agave. Mescal is also a form of the agave, but not the sanctioned 'blue agave' that makes tequila. Gold tequila are allowed to be a blend of abocado and mescal along with the blue agave. Sometimes aged tequila that didn't quite make the cut to be bottled as a reposado or añejo aged tequila is used in the blending. With a limited production of just about 300 million plants, mixing the product with a more common 'filler' keeps the price down. Gold tequila make a fine bar margarita and gets the crowd rolling at a big party where you don't know everyone personally. Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila is one of these tequila and this level also usually requires the use of salt and lime to stomach. My favorite in this category is again the Sauza Gold Tequila.
Once you get into the Reposados (meaning "rested") tequila you can start to drink them with a little more pleasure. Reposado tequila must be aged from 2 to 12 months in white oak. It almost seems a shame to use a reposado tequila in a mixed drink, although it sure makes them smooth. Reposado tequila are 100% blue agave. In addition to the superior smooth taste I've found a distinct reduction in the level of hung-over the next morning. A re posada tequila is appropriate for sitting around with friends who are intent on drinking tequila. Reposado tequila run from about $25USD to $60USD. One of my favorites in this category is the Cazadores Tequila Reposado which runs around $25USD for 750ml.
Añejo tequila are the first real grade of 'fine' tequila. An Añejo tequila is 100% blue agave, aged at least one year in white oak barrels not to exceed 600 liters. If you want to say you know tequila, you must at least play to this level. Putting an añejo tequila in a mixed drink is probably the 8th deadly sin. Some woosies put this drink on ice, but I think that is also an offence in need of lashes. An Añejo tequila can be sipped, just as a fine scotch or excellent bourbon. You may drink this in slammers at your bachelor party, but this is a gentleman's drink.
But as you aspirate it into your pallet, enjoying the rich bouquet and smooth taste, know that the carpet will rush up at your face after indulging in Añejo, as sure as it will with Jose Cuervo in college. Añejo tequila is the grade most commonly given as a business gift around the holidays. It can be served to good friends at a private party and for after-diner conversation. Añejo tequila start at around $45USD and go up from there to over $300USD. A very popular brand for Añejo tequila is Patron Añejo Tequila My personal favorite is Sauza Tres Generaciones Añejo Tequila, this may be in part because it was the first fine tequila I enjoyed with my sister and her husband years ago. Without a doubt, the Kah Tequila wins the most outrageous bottling award, with the painted calaberas (skulls) and makes a great gift.
Extra Añejo is the finest grade of tequila. 100% agave, aged in white oak barrels, not tanks. To earn the title of Extra Añejo the product must be aged at least 3 years, although some brands age their finest product much longer. A mixed drink with an extra añejo tequila would be an exorbitant luxury or a criminal offence. One sips and enjoys every moment of a fine extra añejo It is shared in the best of company and by tradition, straight up. One does not bolt down a shot of Extra, nor is chasing it with salt or lime required. The taste is smooth and lingers on the pallet. Extra añejo would be considered a special gift and something to be shared on the finest of occasions. Often you will find your conversation elevated, for at least the first couple of rounds. Cazadores Extra Añejo Tequila makes a decent 'entry level' extra añejo at around $60 but a very good tequila is Sauza Tequila Extra Añejo Limited Edition at around $175USD. if you are looking for that extra special deal closing gift, nothing would beat a bottle of an extra special bottle would be Deleon Tequila Extra Añejo just under $260USD a bottle.
Editor's Note: Making a good maragarita certainly can benefit from getting away from the Silver and Gold bar grade tequilas. However, using an Extra Añejo tequila in a mixed drink could result in representatives in dark suits and sunglasses from the Mexican Department of Tequila knocking at your door.