If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.
Tequila is unique in its versatility. Open-air fermented blancos can have the wild essences of mezcal, while extra añejos are smooth and as pleasing as sweet, woody XO cognacs. But tequila is an often-misunderstood spirit in the United States, despite the fact that a staggering 80 percent of the tequila from Mexico’s five tequila-producing regions is sold and consumed in the U.S. In fact, stateside bars have larger selections of regional mezcal made with agave tequilana variedad azul (or blue agave) than you’ll find in Mexico. The dizzying array of options is perhaps why interested drinkers facing a wall of tequila behind a bar or the well-stocked aisles of liquor warehouses are often lost when venturing out from Don Julio or Patrón.
Getting to know the various styles of tequila is key to choosing the right bottle for all occasions, whether drinking palomas at your Mazatlán beach condo, sipping aged tequila as a digestif, or slowly savoring fruity, smoky ancestral tequila at the end of the day. And as the pandemic increased demand for premium tequilas, including artisanal productions that are turning back the clock to pre-industrial methods, now is a particularly exciting time to expand your tequila shelf. Here’s everything you should know to shop for tequilas in the four main categories — silver, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo — plus a few recommendations for the best well tequilas for mixing up any tequila cocktail you desire.
A tequila primer
Tequila is a regional style of mezcal, traditionally called tequila de mezcal, or vino de mezcal. To make tequila, producers bake the hearts of the agave plant in an oven or autoclave. The juice is then extracted by a stone wheel called a tahona, or a roller mill, and is fermented in stainless steel or wood tanks, and, typically, distilled twice.
The most popular tequilas fall into a few categories: silver, unaged tequila, called blanco; and reposado, añejo, and extra añejo, aged in new oak or used whiskey casks. For all of these, blue agave must mature between seven and eight years before jimadores (agave farmers) remove its leaves with a coa (agave-harvesting tool) to send to the distillery. Less popular are mixto tequilas made with 51 percent blue agave and 49 percent sugars, and tequila joven, or gold tequila, which are adulterated blancos. The latest trend is pricy platinum tequilas, which are aged, triple-distilled, then filtered to remove the color, producing a smooth, white spirit.
Tequila is actually a denomination of origin comprising all of Jalisco, and some municipalities in the states of Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, and Guanajuato. To qualify as a tequila, Mexico’s most famous spirit can only be made with agave tequilana Weber azul, or blue agave, from this region. The finished tequila must have a minimum of 51 percent blue agave, although the majority of tequila is 100 percent blue agave,