The Aztecs started it when they began distilling the juices from the roasted and crushed pulp of Mexico’s agaves. And thus, Tequila was born. Oddly enough, that basic technique has never changed, in spite of the fact that tequila has now been around for over half a millennium. And yet, it keeps reinventing itself, but never more dramatically than during the past 20 years. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales of super-premium tequilas have increased by more than 700 percent since 2002, after having emerged from the 19th and 20th century veils of dusty backbar bottles and “shooters” and into the 21st century’s spotlight of hand-blown decanters and limited editions.
What Makes a Tequila Actually Tequila
Like Cognac and scotch, tequila is geographically protected. In fact, it must not only come from Mexico, but from specific parts of Mexico, most notably from its namesake city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, as well as in certain areas of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Moreover, the best tequila can only be made from 100 percent Weber Blue Agave (often referred to as Blue Weber Agave) that range in age from seven to 12 years to reach maturity, depending on where they’re grown. Immature agaves produce shallow and bitter-tasting tequilas, and any tequila that uses less than 100 percent agaves is a mixto, a sugary flavored concoction hardly worth pouring.
The Four Styles of Tequila
There are four officially sanctioned styles of top shelf tequila authorized by the government agency CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila), which regulates the spirit: blanco, sometimes called silver or plata, it is bottled clear and unaged; reposado, barrel aged from two to 11 months, giving it a tannish hue; añejo, deeper in color and aged from one to three years; extra añejo, rich, brownish-golden tequilas that have been aged longer than three years. How long? That depends upon the taste profile the maestro tequilero is after, with The Bad Stuff (yes, that’s the brand’s misleading name) currently leading the pack with its recently released Doce XII, a superb 12-year-old silky-smooth bottle that goes for $1,000. Older than that, the barrels tend to dominate the spirit, often making it woody and overpowering. But no matter what amount of time it has spent in oak, to produce a superior aged tequila, you must start with a superior blanco.
How Whisky, Wine and Wood Influence Tequila
Blancos notwithstanding, the best tequilas have traditionally been aged in American or French oak barrels. But just as Scotch whiskies, which at one time were only aged in ex-bourbon or sherry casks but are now being finished in different wine or whiskey barrels, top shelf tequila has successfully adopted this practice. As noted below, Patrón’s Extra Añejo 10 Años is aged in a combination of used American oak and hybrid American and French Limousin barrels, while one of their newest limited editions—Sherry Cask Aged Añejo—is aged exclusively in ex-Oloroso sherry barrels. Plus, in our selection, of top shelf tequila you’ll find an even newer and rarer Patrón extra añejo that has been aged for eight years in French and American oak casks. And Volcán X.A (Extra Ages)—an ultra-premium trio of reposado, añejo and extra añejo tequilas—is aged in proprietary “Grace Casks” (basically boutique American oak barrels sourced by industry giant Moët Hennessy, which launched the brand). In addition, Juan Domingo Beckmann, CEO of his family’s Casa Cuervo empire, has been aging certain tequilas in Hungarian and Eastern European casks. You’ll find Beckman’s use of these casks—and the reason why—in one of our selections. In addition, there is ongoing experimentation with Irish oak and Japanese Minunara oak, with the possibility of even more interesting tequilas in the future.
Cristalinos, Sustainability and Estate Agaves
Another recent and growing trend is the charcoal stripping of color from tequilas, producing an entirely new caregory called cristalino (although it has yet to be recognized by the CRT), basically a clear aged tequila with distinctive flavor profiles. Cristalino was originally created by Beckmann, but since 2020 it has caught on with other tequileros as well; you’ll discover two of the newest cristalinos below.
And just as wineries have long heralded sustainability and estate vintages, many tequila fábricas are now replanting agaves to replace the plants they have harvested, and some are cultivating agaves exclusively from their own farms; both of these relatively new practices are precautions against a projected agave shortage in a few years, which is already causing prices to rise, all due to our insatiable thirst for Mexico’s national spirit. You’ll find all of these innovations—and more—in our selection of the best tequila on this side of the border. Salud!
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Clase Azul Reposado
This one also gets those gorgeous hand-sculpted, hand-painted ceramic decanters. Not quite as aged as the añejo, Clase Azul Reposado delivers a superfluity of flavor highlighted by cooked agave, tropical fruit, vanilla and toffee. Finishes with a spicy zest that is robust, but never overwhelming. Hard to decide whether to use this one in a cocktail or sip it on its own.
Casa Dragones Joven
Joven is the name given to a blend of blanco and extra añejo tequila that’s filtered to remove the color and smooth out the flavor. And Casa Dragones is the name of the most exclusive joven tequila in the world. Aroma is fresh and floral with notes of citrus and sweet roasted agave. It’s silky and delicate on the palate, offering hints of vanilla and spiced undertones, balanced with notes of pear.
Herradura celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2020 by debuting Legend, which takes advantage of the brand’s affiliation with spirits behemoth Brown-Forman. Being under the same umbrella as Jack Daniel’s and Old Forester bourbon, and having access to Brown-Forman’s in-house cooperage means Herradura can do some interesting things with barrel aging that other tequila brands can’t. For Legend, they’ve used specially made new American oak barrels that are heavily charred and then deeply grooved—similar to those used in Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select expression. The liquid not only comes into contact with more of the wood, but the grooving lets it absorb flavors from both charred and uncharred wood. The result, after 14 months of aging, is a tequila for whiskey lovers, with lots of vanilla, caramel and black pepper on the palate, in addition to roasted agave and cinnamon.
Casa Noble Blanco
Casa Noble recently revamped its bottles as well as its range of tequilas, slimming down to a blanco, a reposado, and an añejo. Co-founder Pepe Hermosillo does things a little differently than most other tequilieros, from using all certified organic ingredients to distilling his tequila three times, where the vast majority of other brands are distilled twice. That third distillation refines the finished product without dulling it down. All three expressions are excellent, but the first one to try is the un-aged blanco. Hermosillo selected his agave fields carefully, in the volcanic soil of the mountains of western Jalisco. That rich earthiness, along with undertones of cracked pepper and light notes of vanilla, is reflected in the tequila. For an un-aged tequila, it’s an especially fine sipper, though it pairs well in a host of cocktails.
Avión Reserva Cristalino
This is the newest innovation in Avión’s portfolio—a crystal-clear, aged tequila that is a unique combination of their finest 12-month-old añejo with an added touch of three-year-old extra añejo. This blend is then double-charcoal filtered to remove all color while enhancing the thick herbaceousness of the agave, which is accented with vanilla nuances from bourbon barrel aging, resulting in an unparalleled clarity and smoothness. With its distinctive “tagged” bottle neck, Avión Reserva Cristalino is best experienced neat or on the rocks, letting the complexity of the aged tequila bring out notes of oak, vanilla, spices and nuttiness, with an overriding smoothness.
Back in 2016, a group of friendly NBA rivals—Jeanie Buss, co-owner of the Lakers; Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens; Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and his future wife Emilia Fazzalari (who now serves as CEO of Cincoro Tequila); and the Hornets’ Michael Jordan—met for dinner one evening and quickly discovered their mutual love of tequila. The result is their award-winning brand, with the toasted oak and chocolaty butterscotch notes of their añejo (aged for slightly over two years in ex-bourbon barrels), being our favorite.
Tequila Ocho Puntas and Ocho Plata 2017 Single Estate “Los Patos”
The puntas, or “distiller’s cut,” of agave spirits have long been considered the most coveted part of the distillate and are traditionally set aside by the producer to be enjoyed with friends and family on special occasions. Along with his 80 proof Tequila Ocho, this is a favorite drink for legendary tequila maker Carlos Camarena of El Tesoro fame. The single estate agaves were harvested from the Camarena family’s rancho La Ladera. Tequila Ocho Puntas comes off the still at roughly 128 proof, and is then reduced to 101 proof, using deep well-extracted water from the nearby Tequila Ocho distillery in Arandas, Jalisco, Mexico. This results in a high concentration of agave flavors, while still experiencing the essences of the Single Estate “Los Patos” 80 proof blanco, which is extremely smooth and worthy of savoring neat. It is extremely rare, but is worth searching out, although it is mainly found on the secondary market. However, as a more accessible alternative, we prefer the 80 proof Tequila Ocho Plata 2017 Single Estate “Los Patos” 80 proof blanco.
Gran Coramino Cristalino by Kevin Hart
Comedian Kevin Hart has joined forces with 11th generation tequila producer Juan Domingo Beckmann, CEO of Casa Cuervo, to create one of the few reposado cristalinos on the market, with an unusual twist of first being aged in Eastern European oak casks for six months before being finished in California Cabernet Sauvignon wine barrels for up to four additional months. It is then filter-stripped of its color, using Beckmann’s exclusive process. A sharp vegetal agave flavor dominates, but is intertwined with notes of burnt rose petals and dandelions. As for the “Coramino” name, “It is a made-up word,” Beckman admits, “combining corazón, which means ‘heart’ and is also Kevin’s last name, and camino, which is ‘road,’ thus making this tequila a heartfelt journey down a smooth and winding road, which is further represented by the bottle’s design.”
El Tesoro Paradiso
Few if any tequileros are held in higher esteem than El Tesoro master distiller Carlos Camarena, who pioneered the use of Cognac cask aging for tequila. El Tesoro Paradiso is an extra-añejo that spent five years resting in ex-cognac barrels (instead of traditional American oak). The result is an elegant spirit flooded with flavor, from butterscotch and herbs to soft hints of smoke and tropical notes.
Maestro Dobel Pavito Pechuga
Reminiscent of the ancestral days when special tequilas were created to celebrate special occasions, the limited edition Pavito Pechuga incorporates traditional seasonal Mexican fruits and spices with pechuga (turkey breast) to enhance the flavor of the tequila. Lowland Blue Weber agaves, sourced from a single-family estate, are double copper pot distilled to create a base of Maestro Dobel’s Silver tequila. Then, after a brief period macerating the fruits and spices, an unusual third distillation is performed—a first for the Maestro Dobel portfolio—during which the pechuga is placed at the top of the still, thus infusing the tequila vapors which are condensed with aromatics of the fruits, spices and the now-savory turkey breast, which is cooked in the distillation steam. This greatly intensifies the tequila, creating layers of complexity with sweetened notes of cooked agave, fruits and spices, along with heavily floral accents and a hint of caraway. Indeed, this is like no other tequila you’ve ever tasted before.
Don Julio Ultima Reserva Extra Añejo
The late Don Julio González began his tequila-making career in 1942 and developed an extraordinary sense for taste and aroma, resulting in some of the finest tequilas in Mexico. In celebration of the brand’s 80th anniversary in 2022, Tequila Don Julio Ultima Reserva has been released, representing the final agave harvest planted by González and his family in 2006 and set aside for this special distillation. This 36-month-old extra añejo has been matured in ex-bourbon barrels and was then finished in seasoned Madeira wine casks. The resulting liquid is golden in color, with a bouquet of toasted oak and caramel, followed by flavors of apricot and citrus, and with a smooth, honeyed agave finish. As a fitting tribute to Don Julio, it should be enjoyed neat.
Launched in Australia in 2015, Sesión arrived in the U.S. in late 2018. When they were setting up shop, the Oz-based founders of Sesión sought out an experienced tequila-making partner In Mexico, and found a good one in the Beckmann family, proprietors of a little brand you may have heard of called Jose Cuervo. Sesión Blanco is light and fresh with a touch of spice, complemented by sweet citrus and green pepper notes. Lingering finish boasts a white pepper streak and a bit of mint.
Patron en Lalique Serie 3
The brand that’s perhaps most responsible for elevating the reputation of tequila first partnered with one of the finest French crystal design houses starting in 2015. Patrón en Lalique Serie 1 was followed by its sequel, Serie 2, in 2017, and now comes Patron en Lalique Serie 3. It’s a remarkable blend by Patrón Master Distiller David Rodriguez and his team, of 14 different extra añejo tequilas, each aged for up to eight years in French and American oak casks. With hints of spices, dried fruits, sherry and intense wood. The individually numbered crystal decanters were created by Lalique’s creative director, Marc Larminaux, and are reflective (literally) of the harvested green-topped agave piñas. Only 299 individually numbered decanters are being released at select fine spirits stores worldwide, as well as on Blockbar.
This distiller’s blanco, reposado and añejo expressions are each contained in captivating skull-inspired sculptures representing the Mayan, Peruvian and Nicaraguan cultures, and fashioned by local artists. The tequila itself is created by master distiller Arturo Fuentes, using water from the distillery’s volcanic artesian wells and aged in specially toasted American oak casks. Kah, which means “life” in the ancient Mayan language, is the only tequila to use Mexican silver in its water treatment process, which results in an exceptionally smooth flavor. With overtones of peppery agave, caramel and vanilla, at 18 months of age the añejo is not only an ideal sipping tequila, but it makes one helluva Margarita.
Villa Lobos Extra Añejo
Originally slated only for the UK market, this passion project of legendary distiller Carlos Camarena was recently made available in the US. His goal is to make as expressive a tequila as possible, and nowhere is that more evident than in the extra añejo. After four years aging in barrels, there’s the expected battery of oak, vanilla, toffee and caramel, but what makes Villa Lobos special is those flavors travel hand in hand with roasted agave that somehow still tastes fresh, alongside pepper and a bit of earth.
Tanteo’s flavored expressions have been around since 2009, but their unadulterated blanco expression didn’t launch until 2020. It was worth the wait. Only fair-trade agave is used to make Tanteo—in fact, the distillery is owned by the co-op of farmers who grow and tend it. The good intentions are matched by an excellent final product, with a strong minerality and big notes of pineapple and other citrus. It’s bottled at 42.5 percent ABV, a little higher than tequila’s typical 40 percent. That small amount of extra alcohol amplifies Tanteo’s flavor profile enough to make it really stand out in a margarita; it also makes a terrific highball, with a squeeze of grapefruit or lime for good measure.
Siembre Valles Ancestral Blanco
This labor of love aims for nothing less than a faithful recreation of how tequila was made 200 years ago. Tequila zealots will invariably decry the industrialization of the spirit, so enter Siembre Valles Ancestral, for which even a donkey pulling a stone is too efficient. This “no machine” spirit is hand-harvested, cooked in an earthen pit like mezcal, crushed by a team of men with wooden mallets and distilled in an ancient alembic still made of pine, yielding a smoky, complex sipper that is simply unique on the market. Some tequilas want to be smooth—this tequila wants to take you back in time.
Siete Leguas Reposado
Siete Leguas, named for Pancho Villa’s horse, has been family made since 1952 at the distillery where Patrón got its start. Indeed, Patron even kept the method pioneered by Siete Leguas: Agave is crushed two ways—one by roller mill, the other by a “tahona,” a traditional large volcanic stone pulled in a circular pit by a donkey. These two liquids are fermented and distilled separately, then blended together for the perfect balance. The reposado is heady with roasted agave, a kiss of dry oak, vanilla and tropical fruit.
Corralejo 1821 Extra Añejo
Corralejo is one of the few brands that’s permitted to distill tequila outside of Jalisco—they’re located in the state of Guanajuato. Their bottles are also among the tallest in the tequila category, with this expression outdoing even Don Julio’s towering 1942 vessel. The tequila itself is noteworthy as well. It’s distilled twice in copper pot stills, using the centuries-old Charentais method traditionally used to make cognac, before aging in American oak barrels for 36 months. It does have a gentle fruitiness reminiscent of a brandy, mingled with a dry herbaceousness and a surprisingly vibrant agave presence, given all that wood aging. The only problem with this tequila is finding a shelf tall enough to store the bottle.
Produced by a female tequiliera, reinvesting a portion of profits back into the community through the Mijenta Foundation and committed to leaving a minimal environmental footprint, Mijenta ticks all the boxes for how we’d want a modern-day tequila brand to conduct itself. But none of that matters without good tequila to put in the bottles with the sustainably produced labels. Fortunately, Mijenta’s is excellent. After launching with a blanco in 2020, they followed up with a reposado a few months later. Aged for six months in a combination of American white oak, French oak and French acacia casks, the nose is big and fruity, with notes of apple, banana and melon alongside vanilla and cooked agave. Those same fruity notes carry over on the palate, along with hints of cinnamon and clove. It coats the tongue like velvet, and leaves a long, sweet and satisfying finish.
Jose Cuervo Reserva De La Familia
This extra añejo tequila is hand-selected from the Cuervo family’s private stash at La Rojena, the oldest active distillery in Latin America. The spirit at the heart of Reserva De La Familia is aged a minimum of three years, then married with reserve tequilas that have been around as long as three decades. You get almonds, apples and olives on the nose. In the mouth, vanilla and cinnamon are the dominant notes. As an added bonus, the collectible packaging is graced with the artwork of well-known Mexican artists (this edition’s artist is Mario Garcia Torres).