Guide to Tequila for Bourbon Drinkers

Without a doubt, in every whiskey group I’m in, someone will eventually ask for advice on a ‘really good’ tequila.  These posts are heavily commented on and often with some questionable advice.  In the bourbon world equivalent advice would be along the lines of ‘Kentucky Owl Confiscated is the best’.   So I’m writing this brief high level overview on Tequila.  As in bourbon, the price of Tequila is often more a function of marketing than of quality.  Fancy bottles and ties to celebrities are hallmarks of tequila companies which typically pitch subpar products.

Tequila is a spirit produced in certain regions of Mexico and distilled from the Tequilana Weber, or Blue Agave, species of agave. The regions include 5 states including all of Jalisco and portions of 3 other bordering states and a small area of Tamaulipas.  It can be produced from 70 to 110 proof, but US laws require a minimum of 80 proof.  Tequila is protected by trade agreements with over 40 countries as a product of Mexico in the same way that Bourbon is protected as a product of the USA.

Tequilas can be broken down into 2 types, 100% Blue Agave and Mixto. Mixto tequilas must be produced from 51% Blue Agave but can use other sugar sources for the remaining 49%.  Would you buy a whiskey if 49% of the grain in the mashbill was replaced with sugar?  The answer should be no and you should not buy any Mixto tequilas which includes the entry level products of Jose Cuervo.  Tequilas that are made from 100% Blue Agave will say so on the label, if it doesn’t then it’s a Mixto and you should avoid it.

Production of tequila starts with the piñas. Whiskey is started with grains which are milled and then cooked in hot water to release the natural sugar.  The piñas have to go through a similar process but it’s longer as they are very tough and fibrous.  The methods a producer uses to accomplish this has a direct effect on the quality of the tequila produced.

The best tequilas are ones where the process starts in a stone or brick oven to cook the piñas.  This is a slow process but worth it.  A faster way is to use an autoclave; think of this as an Instant Pot or pressure cooker but on a much larger scale.

After this process the next step is extracting the sugars.  The traditional method is the use of a tahona, which is a very heavy stone wheel that rolls slowly over the cooked piñas.  The yield is low but it produces an very good tequila. A faster modern and more cost effective method is the use of roller mills, which can also produce good results. There are different designs of mills and shredder which can increase yield but also extract more bitter notes.

The above 2 steps can be combined into 1 step to produce the fastest and crappiest tequila.  This is through the use of a diffuser.  A diffuser is a very long chamber in which the raw pinas are placed and subjected to hot water/steam and/or often sulphuric acid or enzymes.  The runoff from this is then fermented and distilled to make poor Tequila.  Who would make such horrible tequila using this process?  The alleged list includes Jose Cuervo, Tequila Sauza, Casa Dragones, Casamigos, Campu Azul, Herradura, El Jimador, Cazadores and many more. 

From here we go through the normal steps that we see in whiskey production – fermentation, distillation and aging.  Tequila is typically distilled at much lower proofs from the still than what we see in whiskey.  Because of this pot stills tend to produce the highest quality of tequila with large column stills mostly processing tequila produced from a diffuser.

Most tequilas are aged in used bourbon barrels.  Blanco tequilas are unaged. Reposados are aged between 2 months and 1 year. Añejo tequilas are aged between 1-3 years, and Extra Añejos are aged for longer than 3 years.  If one prefers an Extra Añejo versus a Reposado it’s a matter of taste preference.  As with whiskey age is not necessarily an indicator of quality. 

Aged tequilas are allowed under Mexican law to contain up to 1% flavoring without disclosure while Blancos are not (see comments for more info).  Does that Anejo tequila you are sipping taste highly of vanilla?  That vanilla flavor could have very well came from the addition of a very concentrated extract.  Diffuser based tequilas are the ones that typically rely on flavoring.

If we see an unknown brand of bourbon that states it’s a Kentucky bourbon and we know that brand doesn’t have their own distillery figuring out who exactly distilled that whiskey is difficult.  Tequila has made this process much easier.  All 100% blue agave tequilas will list a 4 digit NOM number on the bottle.  This NOM tells you exactly what distiller produced the tequila in the bottle.  I wish we had this for whiskey.  There are several sites and even an app that will let you type in a NOM and see all the tequila brands that they have produced both past and present.  And yes, like sourced whiskey, many brands of Tequila have changed where they have their tequila produced over time.  Be aware that some of the tequila distilleries have multiple types of equipment and might make some very high quality and some not so much so at the same facility.

So, from above we know a quality tequila will follow some or all of these steps:

  1. 100% Blue Agave
  2. Cooked in a stone or brick oven
  3. Sugars extracted using a Tahona wheel and/or gentle extraction methods
  4. Distilled in a pot still

Beyond this, the age and the region where Blue agave is grown has an influence on the taste.

What brands of tequila do I recommend that use most or all of these processes?  Start with these listed in alphabetical order:

ArteNom 1414
Cascahuín
El Tesoro
Fortaleza
G4
Siembra Azul
Siete Leguas
Tapatio
Tequila Ocho

They vary in price but some of these are under $40 for the Blanco versions and under $60 for the Anejo.  If you want inexpensive tequila for cocktails, I’d suggest Olmeca Altos Plata.  It’s 100% Blue Agave and cooked in brick ovens.  They mix production with part from Tahona wheels and part from roller mills.  It’s copper pot distilled and costs around $20.  Not on the list and not recommended are Clase Azul, Casamigos or Don Julio 1942 so just stop suggesting those.

15 thoughts on “Guide to Tequila for Bourbon Drinkers”

  1. There is a loophole in the CRT that allows blanco to contain some “extras.” Will try to dig up the sections. There is absolutely no way Clase Azul blanco does not have sweetener added. That stuff was undrinkable next to the likes of Ocho and Fortaleza blancos.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I did a little digging. A NORMA ruling in 2012 & effective in 2013 was what I was going by. But apparently there are some loopholes and ways to interpret in other sections of 4.36.1 and 6.1.1.1 that still have some producers getting around this.

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  2. Milagro didn’t make the list? Always consider it a great value and tasty silver.

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    1. It’s a fine choice for the price point. Cooked the artisanal way in brick ovens, shredded using roller mills, distilled in both pot & column.

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  3. Thoroughly enjoyed the article, even learned a thing or three.

    I highly recommend el Mayor Añejo! It is the smoothest sippin’ tequila that I have tasted to this point!

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  4. I don’t think my abc store carries any of these go figure. Love living in bama for the most part but abc her really sucks.

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    1. El Tesoro is owned by Beam Suntory and is widely distributed. Check on that one. Siete Leguas is a Sazerac brand and probably next easiest to find. I’m lucky living in Texas as I have access to all of these. Update – I just looked at the Alabama ABC lists and El Tesoro is listed.

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  5. Just curious as to why Clase Azul and DJ1942 are not recommended? I’ve never tried either of them but work in the spirits industry and these sell pretty well for $100+ bottles of tequila. Personally I drink Gran Centanario Anejo.

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    1. Clase Azul is all about the marketing/packaging. If you put in a blind tasting it scores in line with $25 tequilas. DJ 1942 IMHO is an overpriced, poorly made and over oaked tequila.

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  6. Agree with wadewood…

    Azul is a brand ‘pushed’ by certain retailers as an ‘upscale’ tequila when it is really an ‘house name’ and nowhere near the quality at that price point.

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  7. Wade, A very informative article as always. I guess I’m not as negative on the 1% in additives as you are since it’s actually within the rules for making aged tequila (at least there are some rules…unlike much of the rum world). Consumers look for different things in their spirit of choice, and some of the things that you or I like may not be what others are looking for. I’ve had to learn that in recommending products to customers, but my bias still comes through more than it should sometimes. In other words, different strokes for different folks.

    I do like Clase Azul Reposado as an occasional sipper, and there is no doubt they are taking full advantage of the 1% rule. Their unaged Plata is also pretty good…not sure if they are sneaking any “dosage” in that line or not. I agree with you that this brand is very much about the packaging and marketing, and is overpriced…like a lot of things these days. The new Cincoro brand is also very much about the branding and packaging, and likely takes full advantage of the 1% additive allowance…the Anejo is still a very tasty sipper, if that’s the style someone is looking for and is willing to pay the price.

    I’m not a fan of Don Julio or Casimigos, and I agree that they are overpriced, but they are still very popular brands amongst the “taters,” to use your favorite term. I‘ll have to look into Siete Leguas and El Tesoro since I know they are available in my market.

    Best Regards…look forward to our next lively discussion over a few drams at the GN gazebo. Cheers!

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    1. One interesting twist is even though Mexico allows the 1% rule, under US federal code Tequila is prohibited from having any HCFBM added. See Ch. 7 of the TTB BAM.

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