Too often, tequila gets a bad rap. Mention the Mexican spirit to someone, and you’re reasonably likely to get a response along the lines of, “I don’t drink tequila anymore, because there was that one time in college …”
But the liquor distilled from blue agave has a rich history, and aficionados would argue that the best tequilas rival the quality of high-end European brandies.
A bit of nomenclature: Agave is a plant that grows throughout Mexico. When the sap of the agave is fermented, the result is pulque. Distilled pulque is mezcal. When the Tequiliana Weber Blue variety of agave is used, the distilled product is tequila, so while all tequila is mezcal, all mezcal is not tequila.
As explained on tequilaconnection.com, tequila is by far the most popular and widely known variety of mezcal, and it has has been around a long time. Indigenous peoples in what is now central Mexico were drinking pulque in the 1500s. Commercial production of tequila began around 1600, and exports to the United States commenced by the mid-1880s.
Since 1978, the Mexican government’s Tequila Regulatory Council has regulated production, but as Dan Meyer, editor at The Daily Meal emphasizes, “Cheap tequila is always a bad idea.” Good tequilas are made using 100 percent agave; many drinkers will be surprised to learn that tequilas that don’t carry that designation (they’re known — but not labeled — as mixto) are “half-tequila, half-other stuff,” he says.
And that other hangover-inducing stuff is often cane sugar, extracts, caramel coloring and other things that — let’s be honest — don’t belong in your glass. You’ve probably heard of the most popular mixto tequila: Jose Cuervo Especial.
Paige Scully, co-owner of Mountain Madre Mexican Kitchen and Agave Bar, says that mixto types have given tequila an undeserved sketchy reputation. “People are basing their opinions on [memories of that time] they took 10 shots of Cuervo gold, which has food coloring,” she says. “It’s not even real!”
In a 2018 article for The Spruce Eats titled “Everything You Need to Know About Tequila,” Colleen Graham explains that there are five varieties of tequila: blanco or silver, which is a clear, generally unaged spirit; gold (the mixto type “responsible for many bad tequila experiences,” Graham writes); reposado (“rested”), aged anywhere from two months to a year, and taking on a light gold hue; and añejo (“aged”) tequila, stored in French oak or used bourbon barrels for one to three years. The fifth category, “extra añejo,” was established in 2006; it defines tequila aged more than three years.
But not all lovers of tequila enjoy the aged varieties. Time spent in a barrel imparts flavors that change the character of the spirit. “I don’t like whiskey; therefore, I don’t really enjoy an añejo,” says Scully. The bar at her downtown restaurant boasts an impressive tequila list featuring 40 blancos, 30 reposados and more than 25 añejos. Mountain Madre’s proudly mixto-free list also features dozens of rare tequilas and mezcals for the well-heeled and/or intrepid drinker.
Papa’s and Beer keeps an impressive variety of tequilas on hand as well. “We have about 30,” says Terrah Borsh, bartender at the Tunnel Road location of the popular eatery.
That selection includes all types, and each has its own place, Borsh says. Silver and reposado tequilas are good in mixed drinks like the classic margarita. Borsh says that Patron is among the most popular quality brands.
If you’re up for spending a bit more, she recommends Don Julio añejo as a good sipper, because — despite what you or your fellow students might have done on spring break that one year — tequila is primarily designed for sipping, not slamming.
But tequila does mix well; how else to explain the near-universal popularity of the margarita? Borsh offers some good-natured advice about making margaritas at home. “If you’re going to wash it down with sugar, use an inexpensive silver tequila,” she says. The subtle character of aged tequilas is easily overpowered by other strong-flavored ingredients.
Both Borsh and Scully have good things to say about the widely available Espolón blanco. “I wouldn’t call it cheap,” Scully says. “You can sip on it at a decent price; it’s yummy.” She also recommends the slightly harder-to-find Siete Leguas añejo tequila. No matter how attractive the bottle or label, a good guiding principle is that 100 percent agave means quality; other tequilas are best avoided.
Our own exploration — focused on balancing quality with affordability — has found good choices in Lunazul reposado and Olmeca Altos blanco and reposado. When we feel like something a bit fancier, we opt for Tres Generaciones añejo; all are found at Asheville ABC stores.
Emphasizing that doing shots of tequila is a poor idea — and a waste of a quality spirit — Scully observes that “people go with what they are exposed to.” She suggests branching out. “Experience the range, sip on it and find out what you like.”