Tequila came from Agave and has a long history of being a signature drink. Read this article about tequila cocktail recipes that we gather and you can try it yourself.
From ‘wasting away in Margaritaville’ to the last drops of Ranch Water, the legendary tequila is a time-honored spirit that surprises sippers with depth, complexity, and history.
I have the privilege of being Home Stratosphere’s resident alcoholic and I’ve rounded up and hogtied some of the easiest, most essential tequila drinks for our joint pleasure. Most of these require very few ingredients, little prep, and they’re all delicious.
For the apéro at your place before catching a cab to the club, as dessert after a taco night, or for a bright and dynamic glass of neat spirit late-night, tequila will continue to surprise you as you drink more until all of a sudden you find yourself obsessed and buying every bottle of reposado you lay your eyes on.
Below are 20 or so of my personal recommendations for a tasty and easy tequila cocktail, no matter your palette, bartending skill level, or tolerance.
1. Classic Margarita
The original! The daisy! The best! This 3-ingredient cocktail is an absolute classic and so worth having in the back pocket. The salt rim is my favorite part – play around with different salts for different effect? Sal de gusano? Montreal steak spice? The marg is your playground. I personally like mine in a rocks glass with ice but the stemmed margarita is also a fun drinking experience.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- 1 oz Cointreau
- 1 oz lime juice
- Take a lime wedge and rub the liquid along the rim of the rocks glass (or stemmed margarita glass) and dip the rim in salt. Salt rim!
- Add liquid ingredients into a shaker, add ice and shake hard and until shaker is ice cold and mixture is adequately… mixtured.
- Single strain into a rocks glass over if you like the little chunky bits of ice – serves almost to emulate a blended texture. If you don’t want the chunky chunks then double strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube
- Garnish with a lemon wedge
2. Cucumber Margarita/Tequila Eastside
You’ll see recipes for cucumber margs online that want you to like, blend and strain a bunch of cucumber slices to make a cucumber purée of some sort and then extract the juice and – you get the point. Be my guest if you’d like but I’m here to say that my favorite cucumber margs don’t require a blender but a shaker and your big, strong muscles. This drink is delicious and refreshing – double-strain to avoid little chunks of cuke pulp.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- 1 oz Cointreau
- I oz lime juice
- Cucumber piece (1” long)
- First, take your bigger chunk of cucumber and chop it into smaller chunks. Throw that into the shaker with your liquid ingredients.
- Shake hard with ice until very cold – we want to break up the cucumber pieces as much as we can.
- Rim your glass with some salt.
- Double-strain over a big ice cube if serving in a rocks glass.
- Alternatively, you can serve this in a coupette as a Tequila Eastside of sorts – maybe omit the salt rim in that case
3. Jalapeño Marg
This one requires a little bit of prep but it’s so worth if you have the time. There are a few things you can do with this: either make a jalapeño syrup or take a note from the cucumber marg and chop chunks into the shaker. The syrup option is a bit better in my opinion as the flavors meld better but both are tasty.
Pre-batch a bunch of the syrup for your next party where you want to impress and show people a delicious and adventurous iteration of the margarita.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- 0.25 oz Cointreau
- 3/4 oz syrup (jalapeño or agave nectar)
- 1 oz of lime juice
- If you’re making the syrup, I wouldn’t really infuse with more than 2 jalapeño peppers per cup of water – my opinion is that the jalapeño marg is more about a subtle spice rather than a loud and intense heat. That being said, make your syrup as spicy as you like, taste as you go!. Make your simple syrup as usual (2:1 ratio sugar to water) and toss in a few peppers sliced in half while the syrup is cooking. Strain any and all seeds out with a fine mesh sieve and bottle it for your drink!
- Add the liquid ingredients into a shaker. If you aren’t using a pepper syrup then just chop the jalapeño into little chunks and treat it like the cucumber marg.
- Shake with ice until adequately chilled and double-strain into a coupette or rocks glass over ice.
- Don’t forget your salted rim! You can garnish with a thin slice of jalapeño
4. Tequila Sunrise
Classic, sweet, and easy to toss back, the Tequila Sunrise is certified to always hit on a hot evening. You also don’t need any mixer for this drink, you build it in the glass.
- 1.5oz tequila blanco
- 1/2oz grenadine syrup
- 3oz orange juice
- This one is great because it takes very little effort. First, add the tequila and orange juice to a collins with ice
- Add your grenadine last, which will sink to the bottom of the glass. Don’t mix it, serve it with the layered look. Garnish with an orange slice and maraschino cherry
I love the Paloma and it often slips under the radar of the classic tequila cocktails. The bitterness of the grapefruit helps pull a lot of flavor out of the tequila you’re using and gives the drink a very refreshing base. If you want to use a grapefruit soda like Squirt or Jarritos, be my guest (I’m pretty sure that’s the classic way to do it).
This method is a bit more involved but I enjoy it nonetheless
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- ¾ oz lime juice
- ¼ oz simple syrup (or agave)
- 2 oz grapefruit juice
- 2 oz soda water
- If you’re using grapefruit soda, skip all the shaking and literally just make it as a highball in the traditional way – the soda is often sweet enough and citric so you can just add your 2oz tequila, ½ oz lime juice, and top with grapefruit soda in a salt-rimmed glass.
- The alternative is easy easy. Rim a collins glass or rocks glass with salt and add your ingredients into a shaker (except the soda)
- Shake until properly chilled and double-strain into your glass – looks great over a big ice cube
- Top with soda. Try to pour gently so that the drink comes out with a pink layered look
- Garnish with a grapefruit slice
6. Mint Paloma
This is a lovely variation of the Paloma that introduces the freshness of the mint to balance out some of the bitterness of the grapefruit.
It’s a really round cocktail that is refreshing and crushable. We’ll model it a bit closer to the margarita with Cointreau and sub out the soda. A few of these in the backyard on a summer eve are where they shine.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- 1 oz Cointreau
- 1 oz lime juice
- 2.5 oz grapefruit
- 5-8 mint leaves
- Rim a rocks glass with salt
- Save a few mint leaves for the garnish and throw the rest into your shaker with your liquid ingredients
- Use a muddler to break up the mint with the liquid mixture and add ice
- Shake hard until well-chilled
- Double-strain into your rocks glass over a big ice cube or in a coupette with a salt rim
- Garnish by laying the mint leaf over the cube
7. Tequila Collins
The Tequila Collins is a variation of the classic Tom Collins, a simple gin-based cocktail made with lemon and soda. For our drink, we’ll use lime instead and agave nectar to really drive home the tequila variation we’re playing with here. This drink just makes sense and with tequila, you get a bit more peppery and brightness at the base of the cocktail.
It’s delicious, extremely easy to make, and a favorite of mine.
- 1.5 oz tequila blanco
- 0.5oz agave nectar
- ¾ oz lime
- In the Collins glass, pour the tequila, syrup, and lime juice over ice.
- Briefly mix with a bar spoon
- Garnish with a lime wheel
8. Tequila Martini
There’s no way we’d forget the great martini and the way it’s the perfect cocktail to highlight the base spirit you’ve mixed it with. A Tequila Martini is a fantastic option if you’re not feeling vodka or gin but still want something stiff to drink. I build mine the exact same way I’d build a traditional martini, but occasionally swap out the kind of tequila I’m using depending on the cocktail itself.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- ¼ to ½ oz dry vermouth
- aromatic bitters (optional)
- Lemon twist
- In a mixing glass combine your liquid ingredients and stir them over ice until the drink is mixed, chilled, and slightly diluted.
- Double-strain into a chilled martini glass
- Zest with lemon and rub peel on rim and stem
9. Dirty Tequila Martini
While we’re going to follow a similar structure to the classic tequila martini, if possible I’d recommend you make this one with reposado tequila.
Something with a bit of age and oak flavor will serve to give the foundation for this cocktail a rounded and woody angle, as well as a bit of pepper. With aged tequila and orange bitters, the flavor profile almost hints at the structure of drinks like the Manhattan. This works really well with silver tequila too.
- 2 oz tequila (your choice of style)
- ½ oz dry vermouth
- ½ oz olive brine (however much you like, really)
- Orange bitters
- Add your liquid ingredients into a mixing glass, stir over ice until mixed, chilled, and slightly diluted
- Double-strain into a chilled martini glass
- Garnish with an olive dropped into the bottom of the glass or perched above on a bar-pick
10. Brave Bull
I love this drink. It’s dead simple to make with two ingredients and is lovely as a sweet, stiff nightcap. If you like coffee liqueur in any capacity, it’s likely you’ll enjoy this. It’s literally just a Black Russian with Tequila so an unaged, clean, agave-forward flavor is what you need – silver tequila is the choice here.
- 2oz tequila blanco
- 1 oz Kahlua
- Pour both of your ingredients over ice in a rocks glass
- Mix briefly
- Don’t garnish with nothin’, just get that drink in you!
11. Tequila Sour
If you’ve read any of the other cocktail lists I’ve worked on you’ll quickly find out how much I love a sour. You’ll know I recommend using egg whites if you can, you’ll know I like ‘em on the rocks as readily as I do straight-up in a coupette. This follows the same proportions as any other sour so by now you’ll be an expert in making these.
- 2 oz tequila
- 1 oz lemon
- ¾ oz agave nectar (or simple syrup)
- 1 egg white
- Angostura bitters
- Combine all your ingredients in a shaker without ice and shake hard.
- When the mixture is incorporated and the egg white is getting a little foamy add plenty of fresh ice and shake again
- You want to bring the temp of the drink down and really mixed well. You’re looking for foam – lots of it
- After you’ve shaken adequately, double-strain into a coupette
- If you want it in a rocks glass, single strain and top with the ice from the shaker (extra foam)
- Drop some angostura on the foam and trace a quick design with a toothpick or bar spoon
12. Ranch Water
Ranch Water is a certified Texan classic. It uses Topo Chico as a pretty firm ingredient, which is sparkling mineral water from Mexico. The drink is absolutely easy to make, which is convenient for how good it is and how many you’re going to want to toss back. Build it like a highball – the bigger the glass the better.
- 2 oz tequila blanco (really as much as you want)
- ½ oz lime juice (scale to your tequila ratio)
- Topo Chico soda water
- Not rocket science here – add your tequila into your glass over ice, add the lime juice, and top with Topo Chico
- You don’t have to use Topo Chico as any soda water will likely work. If you want the original Ranch Water, however, go to your local Latin American food store and find some of the stuff (it’s great).
- Garnish with lime wedge
13. Agave Mule/Mexican Mule
I love me some ginger beer! I find it to be such a fantastic topping for any drink and I love putting it in all my cocktails. It adapts really well to the tequila and the bite of the ginger helps pull out some of the pepperiness too.
It also works well with smoky mezcal. Build this with ginger syrup and soda if you don’t want to use ginger beer and shake it with the tequila and lime, topping with soda after
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- ¾ oz lime juice
- 3-4 oz ginger beer
- With the ginger beer you’re absolutely in business, just build it in the glass.
- Add your lime juice and tequila to a mule mug or metal cup over ice
- Top with ginger beer
- Garnish with lime wheel and straw
14. El Diablo
Did someone say more ginger beer? Yes, that’s correct, we have another delicious tequila and ginger beer cocktail to explore over here. El Diablo is a fun cocktail built with cassis syrup as the main sweet base so it has a really nice berry flavor to it.
It’s recommended to use something with a bit of age to it to compliment the cassis. Otherwise, just build it like a mule.
- 1.5 oz tequila blanco or reposado
- ½ oz crème de cassis
- ¾ oz lime juice
- 3-4 oz ginger beer
- Add the lime, crème de cassis, and tequila into a shaker
- Add ice, shake hard until nice and cold, then single-strain over ice into a mule mug or collins glass
- Top with ginger beer
- Add a straw and lime wheel
15. La Siesta
This drink is La Siesta, translating into “The Nap.” After a few of these, you might be ready for a nap yourself (or a dance party, depending on your tolerance). It follows a similar principle to the Paloma but leans away from the sweetness and soda, opting instead to highlight the bitter flavors of the ingredients and pulling a bright mineral flavor from the tequila.
With less grapefruit and more Campari, La Siesta gives a more herbal bitterness that’s welcome with this blend. These are great – if you like drinks like Boulevardiers or Negroni, you’ll enjoy this one.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- ¾ oz lime juice
- ¾ oz simple
- ½ oz Campari
- ½ oz grapefruit juice
- In a shaker add all your ingredients
- Add ice, shake hard and briefly
- Double-strain into a chilled coupette
- Garnish with small grapefruit slice or lime wheel
16. Bloody Maria
As the name suggests, we’re in the world of Bloody Mary and Caesar – following that recipe we use tequila as a delicious base for this savory and salty cocktail.
I’d recommend playing around with the Clamato and making your own unique Maria Mix, like using some spices and hot sauces that might be a little more Mexican, who knows? I would recommend at the minimum to spice your Clamato with pepper, salt, lemon, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and Sriracha. Go crazy with some sal de gusano or jalapeño spice – the world is your oyster (or clam, in this case).
- 2 oz tequila (opt for blanco to maintain neutrality)
- 4-6 oz of your Maria Mix
- Steak spice/sal de gusano
- Garnishes and fixings: celery stick, olives, pickles, etc
- Rim your Collins glass with some steak spice or sal de gusano
- Fill the glass with ice, add your tequila, and top with your Maria Mix
- The garnishes are where you can really let your personality shine: pickled peppers? Tiny tacos perched on a toothpick surface? Classic celery stalk? It’s up to you, make it your own!
17. Tequila Old Fashioned
Taking initiative from the delicious Oaxaca Old Fashioned that uses the smokey and spicy flavor of many mezcals, we’ll use reposado tequila to tap more into the pepper, vanilla, and woody elements of an oak-aged spirit.
There are a few alternatives to what sweetener you can use and even what bitters are best. While the Oaxaca Old Fashioned has a number of additional ingredients, I’ve really enjoyed a Tequila Old Fashioned built simply and cleanly, highlighting the tequila you’ve picked like a good Old Fashioned highlight its bourbon.
- 2 oz tequila (blanco or reposado work, I’d recommend reposado – even añejo if you’re feeling luxe)
- 1 cube of brown sugar
- angostura bitters
- orange bitters
- two orange peels
- In a mixing glass, muddle the first orange peel with the sugar, 2-3 dashes of angostura, and 2 dashes of orange bitters
- Add your tequila over fresh ice and stir until the mixture is incorporated and adequately chilled
- Double-strain over a big ice cube in a rocks glass
- Zest with orange peel
18. Tequilano/Tequila Negroni
These are so good – especially if you already like bitter, herbal drinks. The Tequila Negroni is balanced with lots of depth. It’s a great alternative to gin with the same proportions, but you’ll find a lot of cool interplay between the Campari and the tequila that gin doesn’t have. Expect a cleaner, slightly more booze-forward taste than the classic Negroni. Expect to drink a few of these.
- 1 oz tequila (blanco for clean and straightforward taste, which plays nice with the other ingredients)
- 1 oz Campari
- 1 oz sweet red vermouth
- Orange zest (or grapefruit zest)
- Add all three into a mixing glass over ice and let ‘em get to know each other
- Stir until well-chilled
- Single-strain into a rocks glass over a big ice cube
- Zest with orange (or grapefruit if you’re feeling freaky)
19. The Marble Queen (Fishbowl @ Dream Midtown Bar, NYC)
Sometimes it’s worth saving the best for the readers who make it through to the bottom. The Marble Queen is a drink invented at Dream Midtown Bar in NYC and oh boy, this thing is delicious. It’s simple, sweet, and easy to toss back – you’ll find this in your repertoire in no time.
Coco Lopez (or other creams of coconut) can be tough to find because you want the stuff that’s pre-sweetened (not coconut cream, which is confusing). Most international grocery stores will carry something similar and worst case, just add a bunch of syrup to a can of coconut cream.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- 1.5 oz cream of coconut (Coco Lopez)
- 0.25-0.5 oz lime juice
- pinch of salt
- lime wheel
- Super straightforward – combine all your ingredients into a shaker with ice
- Shake hard and briefly, long enough to chill the drink completely and foam up a bit of the syrupy coconut mix
- Single-strain into a rocks glass and top the mixture with some of the ice from the shaker
- Garnish with a little lime wheel
20. El Agresor (Dorsey at the Venetian, Las Vegas)
Originally conceived by a bartender working at Dorsey at the Venetian in Las Vegas, El Agresor is a bright and elegant drink that seems to be at odds with its name of ‘The Aggressor.” Regardless, the apple juice helps give sweetness and structure but doesn’t actually mask the tequila at all – it’s a delicate combination with a bit of simple syrup and some lemon juice, resulting in a very balanced and easy-drinking cocktail traditionally served in a champagne flute (but not necessary).
- 1.5 oz tequila blanco
- 0.5 oz lemon juice
- 0.25 oz simple syrup
- 3-4 oz apple juice
- Much like you would build a French 75, El Agresor calls for mixing and shaking a few ingredients before topping with the apple juice
- Combine the tequila, lemon, and simple syrup in a shaker. Briefly shake hard to incorporate the mixture and blend the syrup in
- Double strain into a champagne flute, top with apple juice and serve with a thin apple slice on the rim
21. Cherry Tequila Cocktail
It’s not too often I use cherry juice in my cocktails, whether professionally or casually at home. Cherry juice is pretty tasty and has a unique flavor to it but it often can drown out other ingredients if the mix is too syrupy or not bright enough.
Much like cranberry juice, however, cherry juice really opens up once you mix it with some citric acid, making it a great topper for simple, highball-style cocktails.
We’ll take it up another level or so by mixing in some soda and lime juice with the tequila.
- 2 oz tequila blanco
- 1 oz lime
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 3 oz of cherry juice
- 2 oz of soda
- In a shaker, combine the tequila, lime, simple syrup, and cherry juice
- Add ice, shake hard and briefly to avoid dilution but to get a cold temperature
- Single-strain into a rocks glass filled with small ice and top with soda
- Garnish with a lime wheel or cherry on a stem
As (likely) the original American spirit, tequila is truly one of the juggernauts in the pantheon of bottles you need in your home bar setup. Much like a delicious whiskey or complex gin, tequila has beautiful versatility when mixed in a cocktail but equally shines when served on its own.
It is distilled in traditional manners through the fermentation of the agave plant and has a number of key distinctions that separate it from other American spirits.
Uniquely Mexican, tequila is a drink primarily known in its provenance from the central-west region of Jalisco (around Guadalajara and a town called – you guessed it – Tequila), distilled from a single specific species of agave (agave is also known to the locals as maguey) and strictly geographically regulated by overarching liquor authorities in Mexico, the EU, and the USA. We’ll dive into distinctions and specifications a little later, and define a few terms to help you familiarize yourself with your new favorite spirit.
What is Agave/Maguey?
Agave is the genus of a large family of over 200 species of rosette leaf-bearing plants that grow in arid and tropical regions of the Americas, especially in central and southern America. They have a very unique look to them and their long, meaty leaves make the plant look almost cactus-like, especially given the small spines that are often found along the edge of the leaf.
These plants are a type of flora with a monocarpic flowering process, meaning that all the leaves in the rosette – the flower as a whole – will die after flowering.
With only a few flowers, after the appearance of a ‘bloom stalk’, the agave will not live much longer but can be tended carefully to slow this process down. Some agave plants, those that are tended to closely, will live for up to 20-25 years.
The long leaves of the agave plant and the core are where the magic happens. Composed of strong fibers, a dense stem rich in carbohydrates, and large amounts of nectar that can be processed into a delicious syrup, the agave plant has an important ethnobotanical role to the people of Mexico and those that lived in the area long before.
It has numerous uses in medicinal, nutritional, and even spiritual contexts; this is a plant with a long history and intimate connection to the traditions and peoples of the beautiful world of what we now refer to as Mexico.
Among the 200 different species in the entire agave genus, there are a few that stand out in their use historically and into modernity. It is important to recognize that tequila is only one of the many different uses for this plant, and is even only one of a larger family of agave-based spirits. This is where it gets useful to outline a few terms that will help us navigate the world of tequila and in a later article, mezcal.
To start, we should really specify the difference between tequila and mezcal. We often hear of them in the same context, with the oft-spicy and smoky mezcal being the more uncommon choice but quickly growing in popularity over the last few years. As we’ll see, tequila is actually a type of mezcal, not a separate spirit altogether.
Through the fermentation process similar to a traditional alcoholic drink called pulque, which we’ll chat about in a bit, the sap and core of Agave americana and other agave species become the fundamental structure for the overarching body of spirits called mezcal.
Within this body of spirits and among the 200+ different species of agave, different drinks and methods of distillation emerge, the greatest distinction being the legendary tequila.
The tequila we know and love is thus a type of mezcal that is brewed from a single species of agave. Just one, one that is relatively rare, flowers quickly (and thus dies quickly), and is found only in a very specific part of Mexico – tequila is fundamentally defined through its geographic and botanical distinction.
Among the rolling hills of the Jaliscan highlands, the valleys that border them, and in the arid regions around Guadalajara and Tequila a special kind of agave called Agave tequilana azul grows, also known as the legendary and inimitable Blue Agave.
Among the 270-something species of agave, there is a solitary species that makes tequila. This is the plant that is used for our spirit; there is only one and it grows only in one place.
What’s so special about the Blue agave? Why does it only grow where it does? In the highlands and connecting valleys of Jalisco (as well as a few limited municipalities with appropriate growing conditions), this species of agave thrives and has become one of the central exports of the country to meet the massive demand for tequila in Mexico and internationally.
The secret resides largely in the red volcanic soil of the region which, combined with the varied elevation, the arid biome, the cultural attachment to the plant, and the temperature of the region, the blue agave plant finds a place for it to grow steadily with over 300 million of these unique blue-tipped plants successfully harvested every year in the region.
The cultural, spiritual, and economic importance of the region and this flora prompted UNESCO to name it a World Heritage Site in 2006, the Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila.
To match this global importance, Tequila has been strictly standardized by its country of origin and has DOP status in the EU, equally protected internationally through the Canadian-American NAFTA.
Let’s learn a little bit more about the process of actually creating mezcal and tequila in more detail.
Tequila and the Human Touch
While the agricultural processes used to harvest grain and wheat for your whiskeys, gins, and vodkas are becoming increasingly automated and tech-oriented at large-scale productions (if not already completely automated), the cultivation and distillation of the agave plant is almost wholly manual and done by highly-skilled workers with intimate knowledge of the plant passed through generations.
These skilled farmers are called jimadores and they are the cultivators, caretakers, and general founts of wisdom in all aspects of the tequila-making traditions. The presence of an intimate human touch at every step of the process is interesting to consider as every moment in the movement of agave toward the final result of tequila is tended to personally by someone with deep knowledge of the plant and its significant historical and cultural weight.
This spirit has gravity to it, both in its origins and in the traditional process leading to the final result. I think this is important to remember.
Tequila becomes much more than simply a spirit to get buzzed off: it is a reminder of the intense connection human culture has shared with spirits since we learned how to distill them, a reminder of universality long before global interconnectivity, a reminder of the role these drinks have in our lives and how they’ve shaped the unique features of our cultural reality across the world.
Whether geographically-oriented like scotch to the Scottish highlands, sake to Japan, and tequila to Jalisco, or culturally/spiritually charged like wine to the blood of Jesus or pulque to Aztec gods, alcohol has long-played a central role in the way people view themselves, their environment, their spirituality, and their culture.
Tequila is no different and is thus a beautiful and special representation of this relationship. Through the relatively unchanged nature of the cultivation process over time, a way of life and a story is preserved.
Each stalk, each ripened core, each extraction of sap is carefully tended to maturity by the hand of a knowledgeable person, one who learned what they know through the teachings of the generation before. They are thus more than caretakers of the plant; they are caretakers of a tradition.
In ensuring that the knowledge of the plant and the knowledge of the distillation remains an innately human experience that is rooted in a celebration of tradition, the drink becomes more than a commodity for those that create it: it becomes a deeply intimate connection to the land and to the plant.
Being a jimador likely strengthens the way one would approach their natural environment and the world they inhabit, so much so that this knowledge and distillation process becomes a way of life.
When you drink a shot of delicious artisanal tequila, it is likely that the drink you’ve ingested was cultivated by hand – someone kept an eye on the stalks and leaves of the plant for years until they decided it was ready, chopped it, and cooked it, processed it, distilled it, and oversaw it.
This sort of heavily involved process emphasizes its connection to people, the relationship between culture and spirits over thousands of years. There is love in this spirit and it’s truly a pleasure to be able to enjoy it across the world. With such a rich history and connection to those that create it, tequila merits the respect it has by story alone – that being said it also helps that the drink is really delicious.
The Tequila-Making Process
The mezcal and tequila-making process are broken down into six general steps, give or take a few depending on the final product and the species of plant used. These steps are harvesting, baking, shredding/extraction of juice, fermentation, distillation, and aging.
The harvesting step is a broad way to describe a long-term and closely devoted process taken by agave farmers. Before any harvesting even happens, the farmers must be keeping a close eye on the plant to gauge levels of maturity and stages of flowering. If you remember earlier, agave plants are monocarpic, meaning that they die after the flowering stage.
This already makes agave a bit more complicated to deal with as changes in weather and varied stages of the growing process can contribute more to an already-volatile live ingredient.
To combat this and stave off the monocarpic process, jimadores will regularly trim the quiote of the agave, the large central stalk that grows out of the middle of the plant. In doing so the agave is ‘tricked’ and prevented from dying early so the growth and harvesting process can be controlled (to an extent).
Despite this ability to slightly control the natural process, only the jimadores know when the agave is ripened enough to be harvested meaning that the core of the agave, the piña, has accumulated the right levels of natural sugars and carbohydrates needed to promote a healthy fermentation.
Harvest too early or too late, in the wrong temp in the valley or in too hot of a season in the highlands, the piña is ruined and cannot be used to make tequila (but can still make fibrous products and syrup from the sap, so it’s not a whole loss).
Jimadores use a unique tool to cut the stalks and the core of the agave out, called a coa. If you’ve ever seen a video of someone harvesting agave you might notice the circular blade on the end of a long pole used by the farmers to chop leaves away from the middle of the plant. Given the small barbs and pointy, firm leaves, it makes sense to have something with a bit of reach that can get to the stalks easily without pricking yourself.
When they’ve decided (without seeing the core) that the plant is ready, jimadores use their coa to hack away the leaves surrounding the piña, which can often weigh up to 240 pounds. Seriously, 240 pounds.
Now that the harvesting of the bulb of the agave is done, the piñas are taken to the tequila makers oven where the cores are baked to extract the sugars inside that will be used as fuel in the fermentation process. Often, the cores are baked in an ancient way: in a large pit lined with rocks.
Today, despite advances in industrial tools that can allow tequila-makers to bake the piña with a greater degree of sensitivity, many of the legendary tequila houses opt to still use pit ovens, clay ovens, or brick ovens (hornos).
After the complex sugars have broken down into more malleable fructose compounds, they are removed from the ovens and prepared for the next step.
Now that the core is plenty sugary and baked to perfection, the sweet juice can be extracted by shredding or mashing the fibrous bulb. You’ll often see large stone wheels called tahonas used to mill the piña, evocative of the classic methods used for centuries (millennia) to make mezcal and its predecessor of pulque.
The juice is collected and the fiber is reused in composting processes, animal feed, and even sometimes reintroduced to the tequila fermentation tanks in order to manipulate and strengthen the flavor of the final product. The juice that is extracted is called the mosto.
Now the first of the two universal steps to any spirit: the fermentation process. The mosto must-o (hehe) be converted to alcohol through the chemical transformation of simple fructose compounds to ethanol – or ethyl alcohol. Combined with yeast, water, and occasionally the remnants of the piña fibers, all the ingredients are incorporated and placed in a fermentation vat, the most traditional of which are large wooden barrels.
Modern tequila-makers also use stainless steel vats to preserve a more untouched flavor in the final product. This fermentation takes a few days and the resulting liquid is called (in English) a wort, the word used for other traditional post-fermentation liquids in most of our well-known eau-de-vie processes.
After the mosto has been converted into a low alcohol fermentation, the distillation process begins in the hopes of removing impurities and drawing out a highly-concentrated alcoholic liquid that will eventually become the tequila we sip on. After the first distillation, the resulting liquid is called ordinario, which is not often drunk and is usually re-distilled right away. After the second distillation is when the liquid can begin to be called tequila, the most basic variety of “silver” or blanco.
Most tequila distillers don’t re-distill after the second time as the continued process can begin to strip the liquid of its innate agave flavor, something that is meant to be protected and highlighted in the final product.
Now that we have a working product, the aging and bottling process is all that remains. As I mentioned earlier, the result of the second distillation is called “silver” tequila and can be bottled (almost) immediately. All tequila must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 14 days, after which the minimally-aged blanco (silver) can be bottled and sold. After this, the variation among the different types of tequila is shown through the aging process.
The next tequila after the aging process is called reposado, which is aged from two months to a year. Añejo is aged from one to three years and the grand-daddy extra añejo is aged for over three years, with no maximum age specified. The oak barrels and the aging process are what give the older tequila the iconic gold and amber color. There are also the joven or oro tequila variations which, similar to the scotch whisky blends of the highlands, are made by mixing silver tequila and reposado.
As such, we now have a tiny understanding of the incredibly complex and intimate work that is the tequila-making process. From the flowering agave plant to a 10-year oak barrel-aged extra Añejo, the steps that make this delicious spirit has been handed down for many generations and retain the same sense of history and tradition that transcend the physicality of the drink itself.
The Original North American ‘eau de vie’
Thousands of years ago, the original inhabitants of what would later be known as Mexico had a close relationship with the agave plant. The Aztecs were actually known to ferment agave into a drink like pulque from the sap of the plant’s meaty leaves. This liquid, once fermented, was milky and alcoholic and played a special role in the spiritual facet of Aztec life.
Two of their gods, Mayahuel and Patecatl, were wife and husband and were respectively the deities of the agave plant and of the pulque drink.
Pulque and the agave plant thus always had an innately spiritual and reverent context behind them. In many ways, that spirit of reverence has been maintained over the years in the modern tequila and agave harvesting processes typified through the close and dedicated human labor associated with the final product.
Anthropologists would find significant evidence for the fermentation process and the spiritual relationship of the people to the plant among paintings and writing on stone walls, first appearing around 200AD.
By the 15th century, pulque and agave were solidified into the culture of the indigenous peoples of the area. When the Spanish arrived, they were coming from a culture that drank alcoholic beverages with their meals as the only alternative to unpurified water, and as such, Conquistadors arriving in the New World would likely quickly catch on to the practical role of pulque separate from the spiritual context.
This drink would become secularized and the Aztec pulque would quickly make it back to the Old World and the distilled spirit would begin to emerge – with already-existing distillation methods in Europe, knowledge would be transferred back and forth between the two cultures. There is even mention of a distilled drink out of pulque called ‘mexcalli’ in Torbio de Benavente’s notes, a Franciscan friar that lived in the area around Jalisco in the 16th century.
With a European eye watching agave’s use in all forms, a distillation of the plant material would be commonplace in the area around Guadalajara as early as 1620. The first private-use tequila factory would open in the early 17th century under Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, Spanish nobility that built the Hacienda Cuisillos and heralded the future of tequila and mezcal production in the region forevermore.
There were tensions with the crown around Spanish goods and trade protectionism, causing friction with the colonies of the New World and the interests of the Old. With taxation and regulation set in place, the governor of New Galicia (Jalisco state today) would welcome agave harvesting and distillation and the spirit only continued to spread.
Cuervo Family and the Creation of the Margarita
Fast forward nearly 100 years after the Hacienda Cuisillos and the first licensed tequila distillery would open under Jose Antonio Cuervo, whose last name you may recognize from the bottle out of which your last hazy tequila shots were stored in. Jose Cuervo is likely one of the most famous brands of tequila out there, period. One-fifth of all tequila drank worldwide comes from Don Cuervo’s stash so it’s safe to say that you can find this booze everywhere.
In 1758 he bought a parcel of land in Jalisco from the Spanish King Ferdinand VI and received permission to open an official Mexican distillery in 1795. He and his family were the first to legally grow and harvest blue agave for tequila production following the end of Spanish prohibition under King Carlos III. This would be a watershed for the world of commercial tequila, an allowance that essentially created the foundation for an entire industry at a time when demand was at its highest point.
The Cuervo household would specialize in the production of their specific style of mezcal de tequila and thus set the standard for the product we would come to just call tequila. The timing was perfect; Casa Cuervo was an instant hit and would go down in tequila mythology from then on.
Tequila and mezcal remained central facets in the lives of the people in the area. In the Mexican Revolution, the spirit became symbolic of a Mexican patriotism – French goods would be boycotted altogether and replaced by the heritage spirits of the region. Tequila and mezcal would be smuggled into Texas and California during the USA’s prohibition era, planting the seeds for its popularity up north thereafter.
Then, during the Second World War, Americans would be massive consumers of Mexican spirits, buying mezcal and tequila in droves to offset the lacking availability of European commodities. Slowly but surely, the iconic drink from the low valleys and rolling highlands of Jalisco would spread all over the world and find its place among the great Eau-de-vies of history.
We would also see the emergence of a delicious little cocktail that cemented tequila as a must-have in any decent bar, whether out or at home. In 1936, after Prohibition had ended in the USA, the already well-known-through-the-Americas tequila would become even more well-known through a drink that would come to be the Margarita. Its origins are hotly debated – some claims debunked, others as unprovable as they are irrefutable.
The ever-murkier mist of margarita historiography, unfortunately, clouds our vision of the inception of one of the great classics of all time.
One story is that it would find popularity after a newspaperman and his wife visited a Tijuana bar and tasted a ‘Tequila Daisy’, a tequila remake of the Brandy Daisy. The owner of the bar, an Irishman named Madden, supposedly stated that the drink was a lucky mistake he once made but a welcome one regardless.
The newspaperman fell in love with the drink, wrote about it, and it would soon explode in popularity. Daisy would over time come to be replaced by its Spanish name: margarita.
Alternatively, given that the cocktail is pretty much 3 ingredients in the same flavor profile and proportions of most standard cocktails, it’s likely that the Margarita was being made in iterations across Mexico in some fashion long before it was popularized by any newspaper or Irish expat.
Regardless, the drink became an instant hit and as such, the infamous and inimitable Marg was born. Much like the Daiquiri, the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, the Martini, and others, the Margarita quickly became a staple cocktail in every bar worth its salt (or lime).
Tequila’s role in modern cocktail culture was thus cemented and the opportunity for new original cocktails from tequila and other mezcals would open up completely: from the Oaxaca Old Fashioned (so good) to Ranch Water to Mexican Mules, there is definitive proof of this spirit’s versatility.
Tequila is an eau-de-vie with lots to say, many exciting variations to explore, a storied history, and constant surprises. If you like to nerd out on stuff like whisky and wine, you’ll love getting into mezcal: while the bar rail classics are often good, the artisanal stuff is where your melon will pop.
Today, tequila has maintained a central role in high-class bars and competitive mixology, evident through the persisting presence of iconic and legendary mezcal and tequila bars like Mayamezcal (inventors of the Oaxaca Old Fashioned) and Leyenda.
Any cocktail-forward bar will have some creative rendition of a delicious tequila drink and you’ll find lovers of the spirit everywhere you look. Smoky mezcal is really starting to push into the North American mainstream as well, an exciting choice for people wanting to broaden their interest in Mexican spirits.
Now that we’ve partaken in a little history and definitional understanding, we can get into the fun part, where we take a gander at some of the tequilas you can buy! And then drink! What a deal! What an evening! Let’s dive in.
Jose Cuervo is the grand-daddy of commercial tequila. It obviously deserves to be up at the top just given its history and role in popularizing the stuff everywhere. You can find a lot of variations in their products at prices ranging from very accessible to the highest shelf crème-de-la-crème.
Their traditional silver tequila is clean and delicious but be sure to try some of their more small-batch stuff, especially the añejo they carry. They also make canned tequila cocktails, flavored tequila, margarita mix, and even sell pre-bottled margaritas. Jose Cuervo is everywhere, some of the cheaper stuff is a bit meh but don’t let that deter you, Don Cuervo’s family recipe still persists and their artisanal tequila is very tasty.
This tequila hasn’t stuck around by accident.
Danny Ocean, the slick and smooth-talking leader of a ragtag heist group in the ‘Ocean’s 11’ series, probably liked tequila. He seems like the type. In my brain that logically means that the man who played Danny Ocean – George Clooney – probably likes tequila. He might even like it so much that he and a few friends would want to start a tequila distillery and dump a bunch of superstar disposable income into it.
And then they actually did and guess what: the tequila is pretty darn good.
They work with a master distiller in Jalisco and (from what I understand) really leave the distillation to the experts. As such, they’ve more than anything facilitated the awareness of this sort of small-batch artisanal tequila and brought a pretty authentic spirit to the forefront of the industry.
The Cloonster (that’s what I call him, we’re pretty close) seems to be a true lover of the spirit, wanting more than anything to allow genuine and traditional flavors to shine from the region.
It’s won plenty of awards and offers aged tequila, silver tequila, and classic mezcal. You’ll find it at most cocktail bars, don’t shoot it with salt and lime – it’s great on its own.
Don Julio is pretty high-class stuff. Since its creation in 1942 by the producer’s eponymous founder Julio González, this brand has maintained a reputation of consistently high quality with tequila that attempts to pursue excellence in flavor as its guiding vision.
According to their website, they refined the traditional skinny and tall tequila bottle (easily hidden under tables in prohibition times) to the squat, rounded bottle that we see so often today. Don Julio saw that “his new spirit had no business hiding on the floor, so he designed a shorter tequila bottle for his guests to pass around the table while still being able to see each other”. Pretty neat.
Source: Total Wine
Named after the chance occurrence of seeing “a majestic stag roaming the fields of blue agave in the highland town of Arandas”, Cazadores is a distillery founded in 1922 with a long-successful family recipe derived over many years and iterations from an even-older pulque recipe.
The name means “The Hunters” in Spanish, emblematic of both the stag’s rare appearance among the agave but also perhaps of the founder’s journey to chase down and pin his final tequila recipe.
They are committed to sustainable farming initiatives while retaining their traditional feel – today their tequila can be found all over North America and both the silver and the reposado I’ve tasted are delicious. I’m sure the añejo follows suit.
Patrón is often seen as the big baller stuff. It was originally distilled by one of the oldest distilleries in Mexico, the Casa 7 Leguas. Since being bought by another company in 1989, they marketed this tequila as a real high-class premium Mexican spirit.
This was targeted at nightclubs and cocktail bars and actually made its way into popular culture through bling-era hip hop and country music. The tequila is honestly pretty good, albeit expensive, but it’s not one I usually go to. It’s flex at the club though – ordering shots of Patrón as an alternative to the rail stuff is a step-up that definitely doesn’t require the salt and lime.
Casa Noble is an artisanal and high-end tequila made by a master Tequilero named Jose Hermosillo. Their traditions and recipe are derived over a 7-generation relationship to agave and mezcal distilling.
This company is firmly rooted in a traditional approach to the spirit and caretaking of the plant: the sustainable farming and organic nature of their process is something that has been core to the company since its inception and they were among the first certified organic tequilas.
Another interesting feature about these tequilas made by Casa Noble is that most of them are triple-distilled as opposed to the classic double-distillation typical for most tequila. Their tequila is thus known for its very clear and clean taste, especially among the high-shelf stuff.
Source: Tequila Matchmaker
Cenotes are swimming holes that form when a limestone surface collapses and reveals an underground reserve of mineral-filtered water. They’re beautiful and were celebrated as sacred by the Mayan people, calling them ‘windows to the underworld’.
Staying true to the name of the tequila, this distillation uses water sourced from a natural well at the base of the Jalisco volcano, whose minerality has become a part of the recipe for this tequila.
They are marketed as ultra-premium tequila and while I’ve only had it a few times, I really liked it. At this price point of bottles like Cenote and other high-end tequilas, however, I usually feel it’s better to sip on its own, although I’m sure it’s delicious in a marg. They also make an agave liqueur and a highly-filtered reposado tequila.
Source: Tequila Matchmaker
Fortaleza is a tequila brand built out of 5 generations of tequila-makers. In 1873 Don Cenobio founded La Perseverancia distillery in the town of Tequila. His son would be instrumental in pushing mezcal and tequila as patriotically-Mexican commodities that were to be celebrated and shared.
He lived through the Mexican Revolution and helped make tequila Mexico’s national drink while he founded another distillery. Equally, his son would be key in making tequila a geographically-protected commodity. Its DOP status is largely due to the efforts of every tequilero in every generation and they are iconic in the overarching story of tequila’s rise to fame.
Their hope in the tequila they make is “honoring [their] great-great grandfather, great grandfather, and grandfather”, as the fourth and fifth generation of Cenobio tequileros continue to preserve and celebrate the traditions of this spirit with their tequila.
I hope you enjoyed learning about this unique and delicious spirit with me today. I hope that you, dear reader, have the opportunity to taste many different kinds of mezcal, including the delicious tequilas that can be found across the world today.
Sittin’ pretty with a salt rim, this is Graham. Thanks for reading.