Tequila! Just the name of this Mexican spirit, or its agave-based cousin Mezcal, is enough to get you in the party mood, dreaming about what cocktail you might conjure up next.
Perhaps the increasingly popular Paloma? One of the many types of Margarita? Or maybe you’ll plunge an agave spirit into a Negroni, Martini or Old Fashioned in place of their more familiar ingredients?
Whatever you opt for, you might want to carefully consider which particular tequila or mezcal best suits your cocktail needs.
First it’s worth knowing the differences between tequila and mezcal. Both spirits are distilled from the agave plant, but to be labelled a tequila there are a few extra boxes that producers must be able to tick.
The first is that they have to be made from the blue agave, rather than any of the 30 or so other agaves available to mezcal producers. Tequila must also be distilled in specific places.
The most well known of these is the state of Jaliso, but other regions within Guanajanto, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas are also permitted.
Although mezcal can be made throughout Mexico, most distillation is centred around Oxacana, and these producers also tend to use a slightly different method that includes roasting the agave in a pit – this lends a distinctive smoky edge to the resulting spirit.
Both tequila and mezcal are also distinguished by their age, with the following terms commonly used: Blanco or Silver (tequila) or Joven (mezcal) is bottled within two months of distillation; Reposado (used for both tequila and mezcal) is aged in oak for between two months to a year; Añejo (both) is aged in oak for between one and three years; and Extra Añejo (both) is aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
Despite its Mexican origins, tequila and mezcal are becoming big global businesses, with producers now cropping up the world over.
VIVR is a new British company with agave fields in Jalisco that produces a range of tequilas that is becoming popular with UK bartenders, while Storywood produces tequila in Mexico before ageing it in Scottish whisky barrels.
To give you an idea of the range of tequilas and mezcals available we’ve picked out some of the best, highlighting a serve that suits each of them.
But don’t just think they’re drinks solely for cocktails: a good agave spirit can also be enjoyed by sipping neat.
Best for: sipping neat
When setting out on your agave adventures it’s worth getting your flavour bearings by finding a quality tequila blanco that you can enjoy neat. And we would suggest Tapatio – a business created by the legendary Camanera family – makes a good entry point, not least because it’s such a bargain.
There’s a juicy greenness to both aroma and flavour that is akin to a mix of green bell peppers and crunchy apples, but with many more layers of complexity that reveal themselves throughout sipping.
There are the kind of warming spices that get rolled out at Christmas and a touch of white and black pepper heat, as if seasoning that green pepper for a stint on the grill. It’s a winning combination of fruit, vegetable and spice that makes the agave flavours so unique and tequila such a deliciously complex spirit. Sip this neat and savour.
Best for: a Tequila Sunrise
Patrón is one of tequila’s most recognisable names, being one of the first premium brands to make it to mainstream bars and having a profile boost due to its recent acquisition by Bacardi. Despite this elevation to big league status, it is still very much a hand crafted product, and the range of tequilas it produces is of excellent quality.
Patrón Silver is as clear and fresh tasting as you could wish for, ideal for drinking neat besides using for cocktails. The agave’s sweet, earthy, fruity flavours come packed with zesty citrus and there’s a light prickling of spices that help with the party feel of the spirit. While hard to beat in a Margarita we also think its fresh, lively character is ideal for the colourful, orange-topped Tequila Sunrise, but it would be equally happy in the company of any other cocktail ingredients you care to choose.
Best for: a Paloma
Mijenta is a new tequila brand that arrived in the UK in June 2021. Produced in the highlands of Jalisco it boasts sustainable credentials that include labels made from recycled agave waste, and a community foundation that promotes and protects the specialist crafts used in tequila production.
The tequila itself is one to enjoy for its aroma as much as its taste: breathe deeply and you get a complex mingling of citrus and blossom that would give an artisanal gin packed with botanicals a run for its money. Its creamy, velvety feel puts to bed any thoughts that tequila is rough when sipped neat, and a hint of spice helps the sweet, fresh grass and melon flavours linger.
Magenta tequila deserves to be in only the finest cocktails, such as the classic Paloma, where the grapefruit and lime will add bucket-loads of zesty sharpness without diminishing the tequila’s expertly crafted flavours.
Best for: sipping
As with most spirits, the price of tequila and mezcal can get very high, with the factors contributing to price usually down to rarity of ingredients and time. The Lost Explorer is a new brand with three mezcals on the market, each named after the variety of agave used to make them. Espadín uses agaves aged 8 years and costs around £60; Tobalá uses rarer 10 year old wild agaves and costs over £100; and Salmiana, costing nearly £140, features a much less well known variety which is harvested at 12 years.
Lost Exporer’s Salmiana is harder to get hold of so we suggest you turn to Tobalá for some neat sipping action. It’s full of character, with the freshness underpinned by rustic notes of wood, leather and tobacco. We also detected some hints of sweet, smoky vanilla and a slight burst of orange juice but, as with expensive Scotch whisky, every drinker will discover their own flavours within each sip.
Best for: a Tequila Negroni
Considering there’s just one main ingredient – the blue agave – tequilas can display a huge variety of flavours across the range of products. This means that besides using them for traditional tequila-based cocktails you can also switch them for any number of spirits to extend your mixing and shaking options. If, for example, you like a citrussy, flavoursome gin and want a twist on a gin cocktail, then Calle 23 Blanco will be a willing substitute.
The agave in this tequila has an orchard freshness (we imagine crunching into a crisp, juicy Granny Smith) and some earthier fruit flavours of poached pear. It’s so vibrant that it will sing out in most cocktails, but we also detect some fragrant notes of citrusy herbs that has us reaching for the sweet and bitter flavours of Vermouth and Campari for an intriguing twist on the Negroni.
Best for: a Tequila Old Fashioned
If you like spirits which take on the flavours of the barrels they’ve been aged in, then 1800 Anejo is the tequila for you. A combination of French and American oak has muted the fresh grass and vegetal agave flavours of younger tequilas and brought in toasty spices and vanilla, coated in a honey and butterscotch sweetness.
Its deep amber hue and combination of sweet and charred oak flavours are reminiscent of bourbon, making it an appealing alternative for an Old Fashioned – a drink that is simple enough that you’re still able to detect those subdued agave notes. This tequila is generously priced and well suited to those who want to explore agave flavours in a less in-your-face way than through a blanco.
Best for: a Mezcal Manhattan
If you like a cocktail with a few smoky flavours weaving their way through the mix then you should consider a mezcal, such as this joven from Casa Montelobos. And if you’re also looking for a cocktail recommendation then allow us to suggest the sweet and smoky Mezcal Manhattan.
Motelobos Joven is made from organic Oxacanan Espadin agaves which are roasted and smoked beneath the Sierra Madre mountains. The smoke it imparts on the spirit has a savoury tinge of barbecued meat to it, while sweet honey and citrus flavours help prevent the smoke from dominating. As the herby, vegetal flavours of the agave recede, a coating of ash lingers on the palate. Mix a Montelobos Mezcal Manhattan and you’re in for a sweet and smoky treat.
Best for: El Diablo
Established in 1959, El Tequileno is a popular brand in Mexico that could well become a hit in the UK, thanks to its good quality tequilas pitched at a very reasonable price. This reposado has spent a short period ageing in wood, which has given it some colour and warming spicy notes of cinnamon and vanilla, along with flecks of sawdust which dry out at the finish.
There’s also plenty of fruity agave flavours that carry a subtle sweetness with them, and it would be suitable for a wide range of cocktails. If you’re looking for something that often uses a reposado then El Diablo (‘The Devil’) is a great option. The ingredients include ginger beer, which complements those warming, woody spices, while varying fruit flavours of cassis, lime and, of course, the agave send the overall flavour in all sorts of exciting directions.
Best for: a Tommy’s Margarita
G4 is made by Felipe Camarena, another member of the famous family, and is named for his sons who became the fourth generation to enter the business. G4 Blanco is deliciously smooth, with the vegetal flavours of the agave enhanced by hints of exotic spice, tingling on the tongue and coating your insides with a comforting warmth.
It’s so effortless to drink neat that you might want to lengthen the enjoyment by serving it in a cocktail: but be careful not to overpower those glorious agave flavours. The G4 team suggests Tommy’s Margarita, a cocktail created in 1980s San Francisco by tequila expert Julio Bermejo that is named after his family’s Mexican restaurant. Simply drop orange liqueur from a classic margarita and replace with agave syrup and, with G4 Blanco at its heart, you’ll have the complete flavour of agave in one glass.
Best for: a Mezcal Martini
Corte Vetusto claims to be the world’s most highly awarded mezcal and this unaged, double distilled spirit is certainly worthy of the accolades. Espadín agaves (and a few secret wild agaves) are roast in an earthen pit oven (known as a horno) that is lined with volcanic rocks, with local mesquite wood covered with river stones used as the heat source, cooking the agave for three to five days.
The resulting mezcal is full of flavour, with charred oak and smoke conjuring visions of a meaty barbecue with flames licking, while some sweet agave flavours jostle with a peppery heat. It’s rich and creamy, giving those dry, smoky notes an extra long finish, and we think it works well with the bitter, herbal flavours of vermouth. Simply switch out the gin for Corte Vetusto in a Dry Martini recipe and award yourself the prize of the best Mezcal Martini you can muster.
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