I'm a liquor store yenta. That's right; if I see you picking up one of those neon green bottles of margarita mix, or God forbid the bilious-looking piss-yellow bottle with the Cuervo garbage already mixed in, I will come over and strike up and awkward conversation in which I try to convince you to buy something better, because that stuff is a one-way ticket to a hangover.
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The best is seeing people with a cart full of $35 vodka and $40 whiskey looking at José Cuervo Gold. Why not spend $3 more and get something better? Did that Tracy Byrd song ("I went ten rounds with José Cuervo-o-o...") really have such an impact on you?
And another thing... why are you spending so much money on sipping tequila? Is it the Cristal effect, where the Don Julio and Patrón brands are the "cool" brands, so it's worth paying $50 for a fifth of tequila that half the bars in America serve ice cold anyway?
It's a nationwide epidemic, this affinity for bad or overpriced tequila, and it's time for it to stop. Read on for my opinionated, completely unbiased opinion after two decades drinking tequila here and in Mexico. Don't like it? Tell me what a pendejo I am in the comments--but show your work and leave your own suggestions!
1. If it comes in a pretty or interesting bottle, it's generally mediocre
If you're thinking about buying of those fugly glass monstrosities in the shape of a gun, a cactus, a woman with enormous breasts, or whatever, just stop. Go buy a bottle of La Cofradia tequila instead, because it's cheaper and it's the same tequila--they all come from La Cofradia. One of the best tequilas for mixed drinks, Tequila Tapatío, comes in a plain bottle that could just as easily have housed rum, Scotch, or wine. My house tequila, Volcán de Mi Tierra, comes in a similarly plain bottle. Cuánto más se ve fresa, menos me interesa. The fancier it looks, the less it interests me.
2. If it's "created by" or linked to a celebrity, it may be good, but it's almost certainly overpriced. It may also be rascuache--crap
"There are huge advertising budgets only when there's no difference between the products. If the products really were different, people would buy the one that's better. Advertising teaches people not to trust their judgment. Advertising teaches people to be stupid." --Carl Sagan, Contact
Cabo Wabo tequila is massively popular because Sammy Hagar is affiliated with it, not because it's any good; Xzibit flogs Tequila Bonita, which every Spanish speaker knows is bogus, because it should be Tequila Bonito (it's el tequila). And then there's Daddy Yankee, who wins the Pendejo Tequilero award for lending his name to a tequila called El Cartel, made by the same distillery as the overpriced Avión. Celebrities are famous for not having any taste--have you seen Keeping Up With the Kardashians?--and so choosing your tequila based on who flogs it is just idiotic.
3. If it's not 100% de agave, leave it for the frat boys.
It gets wearisome beating this drum, but I'll say it once again: every percentage of tequila that is not made from Agave tequilana Weber is a percentage that might as well be cat piss. It isn't, of course--it's usually cane alcohol, which has its own uses (mmmm, pajaretes...), but it makes for a harsh tequila that hits you with all the subtlety of a Warner Bros. anvil to the head. Make sure it says "100% de agave". Don't worry about whether it says blue agave, because it can't be called tequila unless it's made from blue agave.
4. Añejo does not mean "best"; it means "oldest"
The indicators of age are just that: how long it spent in the oak barricas before being poured out and bottled. Some places, like Cazadores, make good reposado and just okay añejo; some places, like Fortaleza, make an amazing blanco that gets overwhelmed by the wood taste of aging. The prices are always higher for the older tequilas because there's less añejo than reposado, and less reposado than blanco. Which brings us to...
5. Price is not a good indicator of quality
"You get what you pay for." If you hear someone say that about tequila, tell him he's telling you pendejadas. Many of the best tequilas in the world, particularly reposados, retail for $20-$30 per 750 mL bottle. Are there expensive tequilas out there that are worth it? Absolutely... but just because it's got a nice elegant bottle doesn't mean it's worth the money. In fact, some of the expensive tequilas come from distilleries where they make cheaper brands--and they all come from the same tanks.
So what should I buy?
First of all, the only thing worth buying with the name Cuervo on it is Reserva de la Familia, and even then, there are better tequilas out there. Second, the Sauza family doesn't own the Sauza brand anymore; it was sold off two generations ago, and the fifth and sixth generations of the Sauzas now make tequila under the Fortaleza distillery (you may see some old Mexican bottles that say Los Abuelos--it's the same exact tequila).
Second, no matter how desperate you are for a tequila bender, do not ever, ever, ever buy Montezuma Tequila. While expensive tequilas are not necessary good ones, extremely cheap tequilas are nearly always bad ones. You have been warned.
Third, never buy tequila that doesn't come in glass. There are plenty of beehive-shaped five-liter plastic jugs of yellow liquor that is technically tequila, but it is all garbage--don't be tempted.
Now, on to specific recommendations:
If all you can get is nationally distributed brands, because you live far from the border or in one of those ridiculous liquor control states like Oregon and Pennsylvania, drink Corralejo. If you can't get that, stick with Espolón or El Jimador. If you can only get Cuervo and Sauza, Sauza's Tres Generaciones is your best option.
If you're looking for bargains and you live in Southern California or Texas, try La Puerta Negra reposado; if you're going to Mexico, come back with a bottle of Volcán de Mi Tierra reposado. If you're out and about in the rest of the country, Camarena makes a good margarita or paloma.
Nice mid-range tequilas, meant for sipping rather than shooting, include Real de México, Tapatío, Cazadores, and--even though opening the oddly shaped bottle feels like performing a glass circumcision--Asombroso.
If you've got to impress someone, skip the so-mediocre Patrón and the shockingly overpriced Don Julio; go get a bottle of Arette añejo. You may change people's minds about tequila just with this one bottle, and it's less expensive than Don Julio. Also worth buying are Fortaleza (particularly the blanco, which will blow your mind with its almost grassy agave taste) and Siete Leguas.
Are these all the good ones? Not a chance. If you're ever in Tijuana, you need to stop at Leyva's Liquors on Avenida Revolución between 6th and 7th and put yourself in Gilberto Leyva's capable hands and his 600-brand hoard of tequila.
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Finally, please, enough with this lick-sip-suck business. Lime and salt are there for when you need to cover the noxious aftertaste of poor-quality tequila or you need to counter the shock of taking a whole shot at once. Go for some sangrita instead--usually made with equal parts tomato and orange juice, with lime juice and chile powder or hot sauce to give it a little zing. You can buy sangrita as well, but be aware that the most popular brand both here and in Mexico, Viuda de Sánchez, is not exactly made from whole ingredients. It's worth making your own. Sip your tequila, then sip your sangrita. Alternate until it's time to refill. ¡Salud!