Americans first learned about tequila the same way this great nation learns about many things, through war. In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. Then in 1836 a bunch of folks in what was then northern Mexico decided they should have their own country too. Santa Ana sent an army to put down the Texas rebellion, and things got ugly (remember the Alamo?). In any case, as Mexican troops streamed north to fight, they brought a steady supply of their beloved agave spirit, some of which inevitably ended up in the hands of Texan soldiers who, ten years later, would start calling themselves Americans. And those Americans handed down their love for agave spirits, which, with time, have only gotten better. Sure, many tequilas are best enjoyed as an ingredient in a cocktail, but more and more beautiful sipping tequilas have come on the scene, from extra añejos to a rare, crystal-clear joven. Here’s our selection of 20 top ones.
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 (above) 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.
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 ($275) 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.
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 ($75) 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 Noble Selección del Fundador Volume II
Some 20 years ago, when Pepe Hermosillo first walked the land that would become Casa Noble’s agave fields, he did something few other tequileros in the region were doing at the time—he tested the soil. The plot, nestled against a volcano and surrounded by citrus groves, was as rich in minerals as he had hoped, with an ideal pH for growing agave. The high altitude would stress the plants as they matured, making the piña—the plant’s heart—that much sweeter.
Last year, in celebration of planting those first agaves, Casa Noble Tequila released the oldest tequila made from them: Selección del Fundador Volume II ($1,500). Allowed to grow for 12 years—nearly twice as long as most agaves—the plants yielded a juice that aged for eight years. Hermosillo gave the choice of barrels as much attention as the land, calling in examples from around the world and choosing a new French-oak cask that was made by Taransaud coopers and hewn from 200- to 250-year-old trees in a forest north of Bordeaux. The wood’s purity helps the tequila’s aroma and taste to develop with less influence from the wood. The resulting spirit—of which Casa Noble produced only 300 bottles—reveals white-flower and white-pepper notes, some minerality, and even hints of black cherry in the glass.
Avión Reserva 44
This extra añejo is of the high-altitude (7,000 feet) and small-batch variety, and it’s simply delicious, especially as a sipper. An ultra-slow filtration process creates an ultra-smooth tequila ($140), which is then aged in oak for 43 months. For its 44th month, it’s finished in small barrels, giving it more contact with the wood and deepening its complexity. All that wood does not disguise the beautiful agave flavor, thank goodness, it just carmelizes it.
Tequila Ocho Plata 2017 Single Estate “Los Patos”
As mentioned previously in this article, Carlos Camarena of El Tesoro is a legendary tequila maker, which is why Tomas Estes enlisted him as a partner on Tequila Ocho. Estes wanted the best, so he teamed with the best. Tequila Ocho Plata 2017 Single Estate “Los Patos” ($50) smells of peaches, bananas, lemongrass and straw. The list of flavors in the mix includes chamomile, rosemary, peppermint, avocado and green olives. It opens and develops in the glass like a fine wine.
Don Julio 1942
After all these years, the original luxury tequila remains a must-have for agave aficionados. Aged a minimum of two and a half years, Don Julio 1942 ($125) is a warm and inviting sipper replete with sun-ripened tropical fruit flavor, rich dessert notes (chocolate, caramel and vanilla) and spiced undertones. Traces of oak and almond round out a long, creamy finish.
Patron en Lalique Serie 2
Patrón has been, perhaps more than any other brand, responsible for elevating the reputation of tequila from an inexpensive source of quick intoxication to a sipping spirit as respected as the finest whiskies and Cognacs. So when the brand wanted to create a special package, they had to think big. The result was a collaboration with Lalique, the premiere French design house for fine crystal. Patrón en Lalique Serie 1, released in 2015, was a stunning, handmade crystal take on the classic Patrón bottle containing a bespoke extra añejo tequila created by master distiller Francisco Alcaraz.
Patrón en Lalique Serie 2 ($7,500) takes more liberties with both the design and the tequila. The bottle is a tall, elegant decanter with an Art Deco feel, capped with an amber-hued crystal stopper. The tequila itself, which was blended especially for the Serie 2 release, is different from any previous Patrón. The blend, again created by tequilero Alcaraz, has been aged up to seven years; a typical extra añejo is aged only four years. In addition to traditional aging in French and American oak, this spirit has also spent time in Spanish ex-sherry casks. The result is a gorgeously fruity tequila with a noticeable sherry influence of orange and raisins, along with agave, vanilla, and honey. Dry sherry notes show up again along with hints of oak on the long, smooth finish. Only 299 hand-numbered bottles of the Serie 2 were crafted by hand at the Lalique workshop in Alsace, France.
Patrón Estate Release
Step out of the Spanish-Colonial buildings of Hacienda Patrón in the village of Atotonilco el Alto, and you walk into a field of Blue Weber agaves. Like many other tequila fábricas, however, Patrón usually buys the most mature and healthiest of their Highland agaves from neighboring farmers, similar to winemakers who purchase the finest grapes grown by outside suppliers. And, just as “estate wines” are made using only grapes grown on the winery’s vineyards, for the first time Patrón has created a limited edition bottling of a blanco made from Blue Weber agaves that have been grown only on the distillery’s grounds. The Patrón Estate Release ($100) has been bottled at 84 proof, an extra oomph over the 80-proof Silver expression, resulting in more body to capture the sweet agave and fresh grass nuances of this tequila, along with the additional hints of citrus and black pepper, an ideal expression of the hacienda’s unique Mexican terroir.
Clase Azul Añejo Edición Indígena Mazahua
Clase Azul, a boutique tequila fábrica located in the Jésus María region of Arandas in Jalisco, Mexico, has an incredible, handcrafted añejo. After slow-roasting the organic Weber’s blue agaves (which are at least 9 years old) in traditional brick ovens called hornos, workers ferment the pressed tequila nectar using pure spring water and Clase Azul’s proprietary yeast, then double distill it in copper-lined stills. The spirit’s true transformation, however, takes place during 25 months of aging inside ex–Jim Beam bourbon barrels. The rich añejo that emerges from these vessels is deep amber in color—much darker than most—and possesses flavors of caramelized cedar and citrus. The tequila is then triple filtered and bottled in handmade, hand-painted Talavera ceramic decanters that feature both glazed and unglazed surfaces to symbolize the Old and New Worlds. Christened Clase Azul Añejo Edición Indígena Mazahua ($450) to honor the indigenous Mazahua people who still create these decanters.
Tequila Fortaleza Blanco (Still Strength)
No two ways about it, when it comes to the world’s tastiest tequilas, Fortaleza belongs in the conversation. The brand’s latest expression is Still Strength ($59), which was previously available only at the distillery and weighs in at a potent 92 proof. The agave is brick-oven cooked, stone crushed and mixed with natural spring water before being open-air fermented and twice distilled. Brighter and more rustic than lower-proof Fortaleza Blanco, it comes straight from a small copper pot still, with no water added before bottling, thus enhancing the spicier, vegetal notes.
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 ($150) 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 year’s artist is Mario Garcia Torres).
From the company that brought us Ford’s Gin, a field-to-bottle single estate tequila produced in the Los Altos region of Arandas in the Mexican highlands, where the agave tends to be smaller and sweeter than the plants that grow in and around the town of Tequila. Cabeza ($38) is an earthy agave bomb, seasoned with dashes of citrus and black pepper.
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 ($43) 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.
Santo Fino Blanco
A handshake agreement between rock god and spirits pioneer, Sammy Hagar, and TV’s bleachiest food personality, Guy Fieri, begat this brand-new tequila. Go ahead and roll your eyes if you must. Or you could check that bias, head to Flavortown and enjoy Santo Fino Blanco ($50) for what it is — old-world style tequila designed for session drinking.
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.
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.
Patrón Añejo 10 Años
This 10 year old extra añejo is not only the oldest to come out of Hacienda Patrón, but it’s also one of the oldest in the world. Considering Mexico’s hot and dry climate, aging any liquid for 10 years is a challenge and makes for a very limited amount of perfected spirit. It requires constant monitoring to see how flavors are melding over time. In this case, master distiller Francisco Alcaraz used a combo of American bourbon and French Limousin barrels, which infuse the rich, golden tequila almost with Scotch whisky-like notes of vanilla and dried fruits and citrus, all set against a backbone of mellow agave.
Qui Rare Extra Añejo
If the debut of Patrón’s new X edition caught your eye for its 10-year stature, this limited edition extra añejo should too. It’s spent 12 years aging in Tennessee whiskey and French Bordeaux casks, making it also one of—if not the singular—oldest tequilas out there. Also like the Patrón, this has some of those most delicious Scotch notes of caramel, dried fruit and vanilla from all that time in oak, but we also caught some toasted coconut and banana hints on the palate and plenty of peppery agave heat. There’s nothing mellow about this honey-hued beauty. Fewer than 2,000 of the cut-glass decanters are available, and for every one sold, the company is donating $50 to the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Employee Relief Fund.