Bottoms Up

A Beginner’s Guide To Drinking Tequila

Margaritas are just the tip of the iceberg.

Originally Published: 
A Beginner’s Guide To Tequila: Cocktail Ideas, Tasting Tips & More

Tequila can be polarizing: While some people love a good margarita, others haven’t touched the stuff since they did one too many shots on their 21st birthday. But frankly, the liquor has so much more to offer than just those clichés — and you don’t have to be a master mixologist or expert to appreciate it.

If you’ve ever had a particularly bad experience with the Mexican spirit, you might be a bit hesitant to restart your tequila journey. But if you choose the right bottle, those two days of post-GNO recovery will be a thing of the past. If this sounds familiar, chances are you may have been drinking a mixto tequila versus a true tequila, says Lauren Mote, global director of on-trade excellence for Patrón. The way to know you’re drinking the good stuff is to be cognizant of what you’re actually looking for.

“Whenever someone is nosing and tasting a tequila for the first time, they should be aware that it’s supposed to smell like cooked agave,” Mote says. “If you’re unfamiliar with what that [cooked agave] profile is, it could be like [the smell of] a cooked sweet potato — like a caramelized, cooked sweet potato. That’s really the quintessential note.” Along with cooked agave, white peppercorn and green bell pepper are also flavor notes present in true tequila.

You can learn a lot about what’s inside a tequila bottle from reading its label. Is it a mixto versus a true tequila? Has it been aged? What additives are included? And once you choose one that’s right for you there are plenty of ways to enjoy it. Below is everything a beginner should know about tequila including how it’s made, how to pair it, and how to make those next-day headaches a thing of the past.

What Is Tequila Made From?

Agave is king when it comes to tequila products, and more specifically, blue Weber agave is what’s used in legitimate tequila. These plants have to be grown in one of five areas in Mexico (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, or Tamaulipas), where the dry climate is ideal for these plants to thrive. After the eight to 10 years agave takes to grow, trained jimadores harvest it by hand at peak sweetness.

While every brand produces its tequila differently, the agave is then processed, cooked in an oven, and ground up to be mixed with water and yeast to start the fermentation process.

What Are The Different Types Of Tequila?

“Mixto are some of the biggest, highest volume products in the agave spirits category, but they are only 51% agave by law,” Mote tells Bustle. “Anything 49% above that could be made up of virtually anything. It doesn’t even have to be agave [the main ingredient of tequila]. I think quite a lot of people have this idea that tequila is mixto, but in fact, mixto is just one style of tequila.” These mixtos are the likely culprits of your several-day hangovers but don’t speak to all that the tequila industry produces.

The Tequila Regulatory Council (TRC) is the governing body that holds tequila producers to regulations for how the liquor is produced, from the growth of the agave plant to the way it is labeled and distributed. According to its standards, there are five main types of tequila — blanco, mixto/joven, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo — all of which are differentiated by their aging process.

Blanco: unaged tequila

Mixto (often referred to as joven): unaged tequila blended with a small amount of aged tequila

Reposado: aged for at least two months and up to a year

Añejo: aged for at least a year

Extra añejo: aged for at least three years

The TRC allows only 1% total of four specific additives (glycerin, caramel coloring, oak extract, and sugar-based syrup) to be included in tequila for it to still be considered 100% agave spirit and say so on the label. This is why if you ever buy a “flavored tequila” you won’t see the 100% agave spirit message on the bottle. On the other hand, bottles like Patrón are always additive free.

What’s The Difference Between Mezcal & Tequila?

Tequila is exclusively made with blue Weber agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, is made with any species of agave — by this definition, tequila technically is a type of mezcal, though the reverse is not accurate. You also may have tasted mezcal before and noticed its characteristically “smoky” taste; that happens when the piña (the core of the agave plant) is cooked in an underground pit versus the industrial ovens used for agave cores destined to become tequila. Mezcal often clocks in at around 15% higher ABV than typical tequilas (which contain 40% ABV), so it’s a stronger liquor overall.

What Should You Mix With Tequila?

Margaritas, most often made with blanco tequila, orange liqueur, and fresh lime juice, are the most popular tequila drinks on the planet. The paloma, made with tequila, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and sparkling water (or just grapefruit soda) is another classic cocktail known for being fruity and refreshing. Ranch waters, made with tequila, lime, and sparkling water are another staple.

But Mote and the team at Patrón want tequila fans to think — and drink — outside of the box. “We’ve been waiting for people to catch up to us and say ‘We’re totally ready to try what else is possible beyond the margarita,’” she says.

Espresso martinis, for one, can be made with an aged tequila like Patrón Añejo subbed in for the typical vodka. Aged tequila offers a more complicated flavor than blanco because of the notes it picks up from the oak barrels it’s aged in. Old-fashioneds and negronis, which are normally made with bourbon and gin, respectively, can also be made with an aged tequila instead for a lighter take on the classic cocktails. At La Casona, Patrón’s invite-only guest house on the Jalisco property where every bottle of its tequila is made, they even make a tequila martini with a slice of cucumber that mirrors the martini trend taking over the beverage industry over the last year.

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