There are some folk who mistakenly believe that tequila is nothing more than a cocktail ingredient. And while a carefully constructed margarita or tequila sunrise can be among the best cocktails around, the vast range and quality of tequilas and mezcals make it a superb straight sipper that should be as widely as appreciated as the best whiskies, gins or rums.
For the tequila and mezcal novice, knowing what to opt for can be a little confusing, but understand a few basics and you’ll soon be buying with confidence. Both drinks are made from the agave plant, but in order to be labelled a tequila a few restrictions are in place: it can only be produced from the blue agave and distilled in the Mexican state of Jalisco, or four other specific regions within Guanajanto, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Mezcal can be made from any one, or a combination of, around 30 agaves (including blue agave) and can come from anywhere in Mexico, although most production is centred in Oxacana. Mezcal producers also tend to use a different method of production which includes roasting the agaves in a pit, so they’re more likely to have smokey notes to the flavour.
Within each category you’ll also see terms that relate to the age of the spirit which can be loosely explained as follows: Blanco or Silver (tequila) and Joven (mezcal) are bottled within two months of distillation; Reposado (tequila and mezcal) has been kept in oak for between two months to a year; Añejo (both) has been aged in oak for between one and three years; and Extra Añejo spends a minimum of three years maturing in oak barrels.
In this list we’ve included a few of the cheaper, more readily available tequilas to help set you on your way, along with a few more expensive treats for the experienced agave drinker, but to compare the range of flavours within each category, it’s worth considering a sample set. Drinks by the Dram produce excellent tequila and mezcal sets, with the latter containing a particularly impressive line up of drinks.
And if you’re in any doubt as to how big a business tequila production can be, even celebrities have been cashing in. George Clooney established the Casamigos brand with a few pals before selling it last year for a reported $1bn (£750m). Unlike many celebrity endorsed boozes, Casamigos is actually a mighty fine product, if a little pricey, and would be worthy of a place in our list… but with loads of great tequilas and mezcals available, we want to introduce you to 10 more to try.
Tapatio Blanco Tequila, 40 per cent: £24.45 per 700ml bottle, The Whisky Exchange
The distilled agave flavour is often compared to bell peppers, and there’s certainly a touch of bright, fresh capsicum in both the aroma and flavour of this tequila. It has a good mix of vibrant green vegetal and grassy flavours, with some punchier spicy notes, and a fruit syrup sweetness. Some roasted pepper flavours give it depth to make it a very well balanced tequila. It may be cheap but don’t tip your Tapatio into any sickly cocktails.
Tequila Cabrito Blanco, 40 per cent: £27.50 per 700ml bottle, Amathus
For us, the goat is a sign of great booze. The excellent German beer Ayinger Celebrator comes with a plastic goat hanging round the bottle neck and Cabrito, ("little goat"), has a magnificent horned beast on its label. It has a clean fragrance with hints of straw, and the initial fresh taste of agave intensifies while drinking. Toffee, cinnamon and nutmeg also join the flavour scene, making us think it would make a good Christmas cocktail, while that agave flavour seems to become fruitier.
Calle 23 Reposado Tequila, 40 per cent: £37.90 per 70ml bottle, Amathus
Calle 23 produce a superb, full-flavoured Blanco tequila and this great value golden reposado. Aged in ex-bourbon casks it has all the oak flavours you would expect but also a honeyed sweetness that makes it effortlessly drinkable. The flavours coat the palette, rather than etch their way in like some harsher spirits, and the dry, charred, figgy finish leaves you wanting more.
Patron Silver Tequila, 40 per cent: £25 per 350ml bottle, Waitrose
Patron is one of the biggest tequila brands so you won’t have trouble tracking down one of these bargain bottles. The distinctive flavours of agave are easy to identify before the mouth-tingling spices kick in. It’s smooth and clean, so you can easily enjoy it neat, but it’s also a great choice for bringing a boozy shot of agave to cocktails.
Tequila Centinela Añejo 3 Years, 38 per cent: £133.50 per 700ml bottle, Amathus
We figured this list had room for one high-priced tequila and this exceptional drink from a distillery that’s over 100 years old gets the nod. Having been aged in casks for three years it has some of the oak and vanilla perfumes you might expect in a whisky, but it very much tastes like an agave spirit. It’s amazingly smooth and has the fruity richness, toffee sweetness and spicy warmth of a comforting apple pie. A special treat.
Montelobos Joven Mezcal, 43.2 per cent: £44.45 per 700ml bottle, The Whisky Exchange
This mezcal is made with roasted Espadin agaves and a whiff of beefy barbecues is immediately apparent. Herby and savoury notes come through while sipping, with the barbecue notes being reduced to ash flavours. Mezcals tend to be higher priced than tequilas so, at under £45, this represents great value for something so full of flavour and would certainly suit any budding bartenders looking for a flourish of smoke in their cocktails.
Mezcal El Jolgorio Mexicano, 47 per cent: £82.63 per 700ml bottle, Master of Malt
If you’ve got the cash to splash then this mezcal made from the Mexicano variety of agave is well worth investigating. It has a heady, smoky aroma that immediately invigorates the senses and such a peppery kick that you have to check it has not been flavoured with chilli. To soften the spicy blow there’s some soothing honey sweetness and, as the intensity subsides, a softer mix of citrus fruit and cinnamon develops.
Marca Negra Dobadán Mezcal, 47.6 per cent: £67.53 per 700ml bottle, Master of Malt
The Dobadán variety of agave doesn’t get many opportunities to shine in mezcal production, but it has put on a star turn in this bottle. There’s some light hay in the aroma and it initially tastes like quite a simple drink of sweet agave and smoke, but allow it to develop on the palette and more complex flavours emerge including some dry, herby notes and an exotic touch of orange blossom.
Derrumbes Michoacan Mezcal, 46 per cent: £50.95 per 700ml bottle, The Whisky Exchange
This mezcal is made using ancient production techniques, with the two varieties of agave (Cupreata and Cenizo) cooked in an underground pit before distillation. It smells very fresh and summery, with a few hints of smoke, and displays a very well-rounded mix of typical mezcal flavours. The agave is prominent among the peppery notes while a touch of citrus brightens things up and smokey wood lingers in the background.
Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas Mezcal, 48 per cent: £77.95 per 700ml bottle, Amathus
Del Maguey produce mezcals from single villages, made by Zapotec Mexican Indians, and there’s a huge range to choose from. This mezcal from Santo Domingo Albarradas is one of the more unusual drinks in our list, and it may not appeal to everyone, but certainly excited our taste buds. It’s so fresh and light that you might think the agave is a tropical fruit, but it also has more rustic flavours of apples and pears, a decent amount of spiciness and an unusually dry finish.
Verdict: Tequilas and mezcals
To experience the taste of agave without breaking the bank, you’ll find it hard to beat Tapatio Blanco. Let your agave adventure start here...