Call it the Clooney effect, but lately during cocktail hour we’ve been gravitating toward tequila. With so many variations of the spirit available, we felt compelled to seek out some expert advice on what to look for when stocking our bar or ordering our next drink, so we reached out to Toby Darling, Spirits Specialist at Imbibe in Chattanooga, Tennessee (and a self-professed Mexican spirits enthusiast), for some pointers. Here, he breaks down what to look for when selecting a sipping tequila, how to pick a quality bottle, and the difference between tequila and its trendy relative, mezcal.
Know the source of your spirit. “The symbol for any true and honest tequila consumer should be the agave plant, which is unique and indigenous to the dry, hot regions of Mexico,” Darling says. “The natives in these regions realized the potential of the agave plant and used the high sugars and nectar to create their own alcoholic beverages, such as pulque,” Darling explains. “It wasn’t until the Spanish Conquistadors ran out of their brandy and rum that they decided to use the plant to create what we now know as mezcal, the parent category of tequila.”
Understand the distinction between tequila and mezcal. “Mezcal and tequila go hand in hand,” Darling says. As mentioned above, tequila is a type of mezcal, but to qualify as a tequila the spirit must adhere to strict regulations and rules. The most important, according to Darling, is that tequila is made from agave azul, whereas mezcal can be made from over 30 different types of the plant. In addition, tequila must be produced in specific regions of Mexico: the state of Jalisco, and limited municipalities in the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas.
Pick a tequila that suits your palate. Tequila comes in many variations, but aged tequilas are currently taking over the market in the U.S. as alternatives to whiskeys and rums—especially in the craft cocktail industry, Darling notes. When it comes to picking a good sipping tequila, Darling says it really comes down to personal taste. (The same can be said for selecting a tequila for cocktails.) Here are his recommendations for matching a tequila to your personal palate:
- Do you like lighter, crisp, refreshing drinks like a Margarita or Paloma? Try out a silver/plata tequila.
- Do you gravitate toward things that taste a bit more earthy? Pick up a bottle of Reposado.
- Are long-aged Scotches your thing? Maybe an añejo will do the trick.
- Perhaps you like the heavy, oaked flavors of a premium bourbon and the rich flavors of a Manhattan? In this case, an extra añejo tequila would be right up your alley.
Look for cues regarding quality. As a rule of thumb, Darling advises looking for age statements (“añejo” means aged) or color to help figure out what you like. “The deeper the color, the more barrel influence or age the tequila has received,” he says, before issuing this warning: “In my opinion, stay away from ‘Gold’ or ‘Oro’ tequila. This tequila is not aged, and uses coloring to give it the appearance of age. It’s often used as a marketing tactic.” Another key indicator of a tequila’s quality is the percentage of agave used in the product. Look for tequilas that are 100% agave, which Darling says is the sign of a higher quality product that is distilled solely from blue agave. “If you do not see that, then by default it is categorized as a mixto and is made with at least 51% agave, with the remaining amount often being additive sugars to mask the alcohol burn. Which will likely give you a nasty hangover.”
Be open to branching out. Once you’ve found your tequila of choice, Darling suggests taking your appreciation of Mexican spirits to the next level, beginning with sotol, raicilla, and bacanora. Here’s what you need to know about each:
- Sotol: This spirit stands out due to its key ingredient, the sotol plant (also known as the desert spoon), which is not a type of agave. “Because of the production process, sotol is not as smoky as most mezcals, and offers more vegetal and pronounced flavors,” Darling says.
- Raicilla: According to Darling, raicilla, which translates to ‘little root, was originally distilled by farmers and villagers. “Due to taxation on agave after the Spanish Conquest, these farmers would lie and say they made the spirit out of the root of the agave plant, instead of the heart.” Like sotol, raicilla is not smoky. It tends to offer more crisp flavors, and is generally softer than most mezcals, Darling says.
- Bacanora: Last but not least, bacanora is made from 100% agave pacifica, a plant that grows in the mountainous region of Sonora—the only state where the delicately smoky and earthy spirit can be distilled. “It was once produced in very large amounts, but due to a prohibition-like ban from the government of Sonora in the early 1900s that wasn’t lifted until 1992, production has been very small, and the spirit is difficult to find in the U.S.,” Darling says, adding, “If you can find it, buy it!”