You’ve come a long way, tequila. No longer strictly the rallying cry of college kids demanding shots, the by-product of the agave plant is—just like bourbon—a sipping spirit as much as it is a late-night standby.
As Dushan Zaric, a Los Angeles–based spirits expert and co-founder of famed New York City cocktail bar Employees Only, puts it: “The quality of tequila today is unprecedented. A great deal of tequilas that are fantastic come from different regions showcasing [the respective] terroir.” Tequila, Zaric says, “is just like wine.”
Extracted from the heart of the blue agave plant, the liquid must be distilled twice: The first tequila that comes out of the copper distilling pots is called ordinario and is “full of impurities.” When redistilled, it emerges at 55% alcohol by volume (ABV), and is called blanco.
Typically producers add water to cut down the ABV. And some will inject the spirit with oxygen in order to “mellow” it more quickly, says Zaric. He frowns on this process, calling it “super-invasive.” Tequilas mellowed naturally “are much more pleasant; every distilled spirit needs time to rest and settle.” He equates pumping a tequila with oxygen to “shaking a gin martini or Manhattan,” and dislikes the texture the process creates.
Science aside, when you’re at the bar you’ll typically see tequilas categorized four ways, depending on whether or not they’ve been aged and, if so, for how long. (And look for 100% blue agave tequilas: mixtos are not made using the pure plant extract, and are “what you know from when you were 17,” warns Zaric.)
Here are Zaric’s pointers on what to expect from each type, which foods to pair them with, and—of course—which type to use in a margarita.
Blanco: “If tequila experts are judging your tequila,” says Zaric, they’re going to taste the blanco, which is bottled shortly after redistillation and typically not aged in oak. “If you f)(** up your blanco you can always pop it into a barrel and make it palatable. Artistry comes from really knowing how to make a blanco.” You know it’s good, says Zaric, if you “can’t taste black pepper alone: You want agave, citrus, honey, and florals.” Blanco, Spanish for “white,” should in fact be transparent, says Zaric. It pairs wonderfully with a plate of ceviche, and this is the type you want in your marg: “You don’t want a $60 reposado in your margarita!”
Reposado: Any tequila that has spent two months to a year in an oak barrel is called a reposado. Blanco’s elder sibling gleams “a light golden to a full copper color,” says Zaric. On the nose and palate, it will have a balance of oak and agave. Pair this style of tequila with a plate of tacos; as is true of pairing an oaked Chardonnay with chicken or some types of fish, reposado's time in oak makes the elixir more food-friendly, says Zaric.
Añejo: Now we get into the elder statesmen of the tequila world, including añejo, which has been oaked for one to three years. This one pours deep amber, like “a nice aged whiskey,” says Zaric. Expect “a huge amount of oak on the palate” from the tequila whose natural pairing partner is—wait for it—a cigar! “When I go to Mexico all these people who own distilleries all bust out their Cubans the moment you sit down after dinner. I’m like, ‘I don’t smoke anymore… I would love to! But I can’t.’” If you, like Zaric, don’t smoke cigars, “go with chocolate: spiced chocolate; sea salt chocolate; Mexican chocolate,” or a mole poblano.
Extra añejo: At $300 a bottle and up, these beauties are aged in oak at least three years, are “expensive because they’re hard to make,” and are best sipped on their own. Sure, you could pair them with “chocolate truffles,” he says, but a sip of extra añejo boasts a whole world of flavors: “oaky, has a lot of vanilla… a full-palate flavor. A luxurious taste in your mouth.” Zaric compares it to an XO Cognac.
So set aside the lime quarters, wash that salt off your wrist, and embrace a whole new world of sipping tequilas.