Oct 07, 2023
12 Best Blanco Tequilas of 2023
The tequila industry is booming, with recent reports showing that agave spirits
The tequila industry is booming, with recent reports showing that agave spirits are on a trajectory to become the best-selling spirits category in the US in the next two years, surpassing both whiskey and vodka.
With such exponential growth, new brands are hitting shelves each day. Almost every cocktail bar worth its salt (pun intended) has a tequila cocktail on the menu, and celebrities are bringing unprecedented attention to the category by launching their own brands.
With so many options to choose from, it's never been a more exciting time to enjoy Mexico's most iconic liquid treasure.
With the staggering number of options available to US drinkers, this is also one of the most potentially daunting times. To identify the best, we tasted 24 bottles of unaged (blanco) tequilas that would be good for both sipping and mixing—ones that express the full aroma and flavor the agave plant has to offer, made in line with traditions that defined the category before industrialization streamlined the processes.
We considered 58 bottles and narrowed our testing to the two-dozen that fit our criteria. Then we evaluated them neat (without ice or other accouterments) and mixed into three favorite tequila cocktails: a classic margarita; a Tommy's margarita; and a Ranch Water (made with blanco tequila, Topo Chico, and a squeeze of lime).
The 12 finalists are tequilas that offer vibrant and varied aromas and flavors with good texture and a pleasing aftertaste. No two tasted exactly alike; some offered savory, herbaceous qualities while others burst with bright, refreshing citrus notes. All of them were well suited to sipping neat, and some also worked particularly well when mixed—we organized the tasting notes to highlight these attributes and to include recommendations on how to drink each one. Although there were clear frontrunners, there wasn't a dud in the bunch. All of the bottles, presented in order of price, were pretty delicious in their own right, so you can use this list as a starting point for your own agave adventures.
Note that liquor prices can vary significantly depending on where you live, and they may fluctuate over time.
Tapatío Tequila Blanco (about $40 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
Tapatío Tequila Blanco has long been a go-to both for sipping and for mixing. So when it was evaluated in a brand-concealed tasting, I was delighted to discover that it held its own among the competition as an outstanding pick. This tequila was one of the first 100% agave blancos on the market when the Camarena family launched it, in 1940, at La Alteña distillery in the highlands of Jalisco. The spirit smells bright and beautiful, with aromas that remind me of lemon pith, underscored by moss and wet pavement. With a seamless transition from aroma to flavor, the medium-bodied, well-rounded blanco bears bountiful steamed agave flavors—like demerara syrup drizzled over lightly steamed squash. The finish eases out softly, with a hint more sweetness than we got from some of the other tequilas in the tasting.
How it's made: Agaves are cooked for four days in masonry ovens and crushed with a combination of roller mill and tahona. For fermentation, the distillery includes the shredded agave fibers for extra flavor, and it employs an 83-year-old proprietary yeast culture. Double-distilled in pot stills, the liquid rests for six months in stainless steel tanks before bottling.
How to drink it: As one of the most affordable bottles on our favorites list, the Tapatío tequila offers great value for the money—it's a good everyday sipper, and it also tastes splendid in a margarita or a Ranch Water.
LALO (about $45 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
From the grandson of Don Julio González (yes, that Don Julio), LALO is named after founder Eduardo "Lalo" González, who follows the same production his grandfather once did. As a 2021 release, it's the most refreshing of the tasting, making it a fine option for newcomers who might not be accustomed to the earthy or mineral attributes other blancos offer. LALO sings with bright aromas and flavors that are so vivacious they practically leap out of the glass—like understated cool rain and white flowers, with a featherweight texture and a naturally sweet, ethereal finish.
How it's made: Using only plants from Los Altos (the highlands), the agaves are cooked in masonry ovens for 20 to 32 hours, and then they’re rested for up to 18 hours. The piñas are crushed by roller mills, fermented in stainless steel with a proprietary Champagne yeast for three to four days, and twice distilled in copper pot stills. The tequila is diluted and chill filtered before bottling, to lighten up the texture.
How to drink it: A friendly gateway sipper, this tequila worked better in the classic margarita because the spirit's zippy notes complement the bittersweet candied-citrus flavor of the orange liqueur. In a Tommy's margarita, the LALO tequila disappeared a bit. But due to its somewhat delicate texture, it played wonderfully in a Ranch Water—the minerals in the Topo Chico ease into the background, giving the agave room to shine alongside the squeeze of lime.
Siete Leguas Tequila Blanco (about $45 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
One of the most fragrant of the bunch, with aromas of light floral marigold, green olive brine, and cooked masa, the Siete Leguas tequila is a blend of two distinct distillates made with different techniques at two distilleries (El Centenario and La Vencedora, both in the Los Altos region in Jalisco). Blending the two—one clear and bright, the other earthy and warm—before bottling creates a dynamism that neither form of production alone could achieve. The blanco leads with a silky-soft texture and a light minerality that expands into full-bodied territory and flavors of black pepper, celery, and limestone. For 40% alcohol by volume, it burns a bit, but the lovely finish goes long and bone-dry.
How it's made: At El Centenario, agaves are cooked in brick ovens and crushed using a stone tahona pulled by mule (the company says the animals work for only one hour a day and have a dedicated vet to ensure their well-being). Fermentation happens with natural yeasts and plant fibers, and the spirit is distilled in copper pot stills with fibers included to enrich the agave flavors. At the second distillery, La Vencedora, agaves are cooked in brick ovens, crushed with roller mills instead of tahona, fermented without the fibers, and distilled in copper pot stills.
How to drink it: Siete Leguas tequila works wonders in a Tommy's margarita, where the heady flavors converge with citrus and agave nectar to create a seamless balance and memorable, vivid flavor profile.
El Tesoro Blanco Tequila (about $50 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
Produced by Carlos Camarena at La Alteña distillery, where Tapatío is also made, El Tesoro means treasure in Spanish—a title that matches this exceptional tequila, which first debuted in 1990. Wet grass, black peppercorn, and dulce de leche lead the aromas. And flavor-wise, the medium-bodied tequila conjures prickly pear, basil, and desert pine. I love the volcanic-soil qualities that come through prominently on the finish, which lingers and dries out the palate in a smooth way. Prior to this tasting, El Tesoro was also one of my everyday standbys, and this brand-concealed tasting solidified that status.
How it's made: Agaves are cooked in traditional masonry ovens at a low temperature for two days and then rested for a day before heading to the stone tahona for crushing. The agave fibers and liquids are both used during the fermentation process, and they remain during the first round of distillation to bolster the natural agave flavors of the spirit, which is distilled a second time before bottling.
How to drink it: El Tesoro is a pleasing sipper as well as a great value for a tequila made with 100% tahona-crushed agaves (though if you want to save a few more bucks, the Tapatío is an excellent alternative). This tequila also mixes as a robust classic margarita, leaning on the herbaceous side, or as a crystal-clear Ranch Water, where the squeeze of lime perfectly complements the zesty agave flavors.
Tequila Ocho Plata (about $50 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
This superb sipper is a contemporary blanco tequila with an old soul. A collaboration between third-generation tequilero Carlos Camarena and the late Tomas Estes (who was a restaurateur and the tequila ambassador of the EU), Tequila Ocho single-estate tequilas showcase terroir: Each one has a slightly different character, depending on when and where the agaves were harvested (designated on the bottle by the year and name of the estate). We tested a 2021 La Mula from Arandas in Jalisco. It has a rich, distinct agave fragrance—think green notes like fresh asparagus, aloe, and wet cement. That heavy vegetal quality continues into the flavor, with the minerality mellowing into the background. With a muscular texture and great balance, it evolves with each sip. The finish sits long enough so the taste buds tingle slightly, without burning.
How it's made: Mature agaves are slowly roasted over the course of two days in masonry ovens; they are then rested for another 24 hours before being crushed with a roller mill. Fermentation takes place in wooden tanks with natural yeasts, and the resulting mash is distilled twice in copper pot stills.
How to drink it: With orange liqueur in a classic margarita, the 2021 La Mula tastes a bit sharp, but it might be my favorite tequila for a Tommy's margarita—the resplendent agave flavors shine through like spring rain on sweetgrass. For the same reasons, a Ranch Water is also a good option because those characteristics sing alongside the brightness of the lime juice.
Tequila Fortaleza Blanco (about $55 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
Many bartenders are quick to sing the praises of this tequila, and after spending time with the blanco in the brand-concealed tasting, I understand why. Aromatically, it begins with a buttery, olive-like scent, plus mint and fresh sweet corn. When sipped, the tequila conjures flavors of sunbaked clay, rustic dried herbs, and roasted marshmallow. Texture-wise, when compared with the other tequilas, this one has less structure, with a fleeting dusty finish.
How it's made: Tequila Fortaleza officially launched in 2005, but its roots date back to the mid-1800s, when founder Guillermo Erickson Sauza's great-great grandfather Cenobio Sauza founded Tequila Sauza. To remain true to the way the family produced tequila before industrialization, the tequila is made using mature agaves that are grown in Los Valles and cooked in masonry ovens, and then tahona-crushed, fermented in open-air wooden tanks, and double-distilled in copper pots.
How to drink it: Fortaleza makes for an earthy, warm margarita (classic or Tommy's) that teases out the flavors of cooked agave (roasted pumpkin and honey) from the distillate. For a case study in tahona-crushed blancos, try this one as a sipper alongside El Tesoro, Cascahuín Tahona, or Patrón Roca to see how they compare and contrast.
Siembra Valles Tequila Blanco (about $60 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
The Siembra Spirits company is founder David Suro-Piñera's love letter to tequilas made with pre-industrial techniques, as a means of expressing the terroir of the spirit. Siembra Valles tequila is produced in the valley of Jalisco at the Cascahuín distillery, where volcanic soil is the hallmark of the region. The aroma suggests a tequila that will taste crisp and bright, with notes of lime peel oil and images of soapy bubbles popping midair appearing in my mind's eye. On the palate, it's just as animated, like juicy lemon peel with a ribbon of salinity and a lovely oily mouthfeel. It checks all the right boxes balance-wise, with a sturdy-yet-demure quality that makes for satisfying sipping.
How it's made: Siembra Valles tequila is made from agaves cooked in masonry ovens and crushed by hand-operated roller mills. The fermentation takes place in brick tanks with wild yeasts, and it includes the shredded agave fibers to deepen the agave-ness of the spirit; then it is distilled in pot stills made of stainless steel with copper coils.
How to drink it: This one is a sprightly and intriguing sipper; the refined layers of sophisticated flavor also shine bright when it's paired with bubbly Topo Chico and lime in a Ranch Water. I found most of the subtle nuances of the tequila got lost in the margaritas, though.
Siembra Azul Tequila Blanco (about $60 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
Also from the Siembra Spirits family, Siembra Azul (created at the Vivanco distillery in Arandas, in the Los Altos region) is a case study in terroir. With a finessed structure and elegant texture, Siembra Azul is a buoyant, almost chewy tequila that opens with an enchanting perfume of toasted coconut and lemon curd. The tropical notes extend into the flavor, starting with juicy cooked pineapple and shifting into light limestone territory at the end. This is a fun one to sip and see how its identity evolves from moment to moment.
How it's made: Siembra Azul is made with agaves cooked in masonry ovens and crushed by hand-operated roller mills. The key difference that distinguishes it from Siembra Valles (aside from the location of the agaves and distillery) is that it is fermented in steel tanks using a proprietary yeast and then distilled in copper stills.
How to drink it: Like the Siembra Valles, this tequila was made for sipping or being left mostly unadulterated, such as mixed into a Ranch Water. A fun experiment: Compare and contrast the Azul with the Valles to see how the two differ.
Cascahuín Plata 48 (about $60 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
Cascahuín has been made at El Arnal, in the Los Valles region of Jalisco, by the Rosales family since Salvador Rosales Briseño opened the distillery in 1955. The delicate aromas of fresh-cut green herbs and Anaheim pepper suggest a lightweight texture to follow. But at a heady 48% alcohol by volume, the tequila lands in a punchy burst of sharp lilac and zippy dill, mixed with a whisper of woody cedar. It's a great option if you’re looking for powerful flavors. Bonus: Despite this tequila's higher proof and bountiful body, the finish isn't too aggressive—it slides off into the ether relatively quietly, which makes for a good sipping tequila.
How it's made: Cascahuín Plata is made using agaves cooked in masonry ovens, crushed with a roller mill, and fermented in stainless steel tanks without the fibers; it is twice distilled in a stainless steel pot still with copper coils.
How to drink it: This one is a sublime sipper for those who can handle the proof, and it provides robust fodder for a bold classic marg or a Tommy's, where the tequila's floral qualities, like lavender and wildflower honey, emerge alongside the lively lime juice. For extra credit, try this bottle alongside its sibling, Cascahuín Tahona Blanco, to see how the crushing method of the tahona versus the roller mill influences the disposition of a blanco.
Primo 1861 Tequila Blanco (about $70 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
Primo 1861 may be the newest release from the El Pandillo distillery—it debuted in the US in 2022. But the first sips prove that it has just as much staying power as its older siblings, G4 and Volans. From the get-go, the tequila comes out swinging with a savory aroma and flavor, with an arc that shimmies from spicy green peppercorn and banana peppers to citrusy notes on the palate, all of which hang out in harmony over a long, heavy finish. At 43%, the proof is a touch higher than that of some others, but because the tequila is made with 100% spring water, the texture is sublimely soft.
How it's made: Like G4 and Volans, Primo 1861 is made by third-generation distiller Felipe Camarena (industry insiders call him "the mad scientist"). The agaves are cooked in stone masonry ovens and crushed using an invention unique to El Pandillo: a combination of shredder (called Igor) and mechanical tahona (called Felipestein) working in tandem to pulverize the fibers efficiently while enhancing their flavor. Wooden tanks are where 20% of the fermentation happens, and the spirit is distilled twice in copper pot stills.
How to drink it: Primo 1861 makes for an invigorating margarita—both Tommy's and classic versions. The proof of the liquor helps boost the structure of the drink, but it isn't an aggressive punch; the texture of the cocktail still lands soft and round on the palate, thanks to the spring water used in the distillate.
Caballito Cerrero Azul Blanco 46 (about $75 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
Instead of the vegetal or citrusy markers of most blancos in this tasting, the aromas of Caballito Cerrero beckon with a bouquet of fire, ash, musty forest floor, and caramelized agave. This unique spirit carries those rich elements through the flavor, buffered with a punchy texture that pounces in like a lion and eases out like a lamb. It is the most mezcal-like of the bunch, with higher proof (46% alcohol by volume) and layers of flavor that beg for further exploration. The price is also among the highest of our picks, but with good reason—Caballito Cerrero is a revelation of what blanco tequila tastes like when the production methods skew as close to tradition as possible.
How it's made: For agave enthusiasts, Caballito Cerrero has one of the most interesting backstories of the bunch. Even when doing a brand-concealed tasting, I knew from the first sniff that the tequila had something dramatically different to offer. Don Alfonso Jiménez Rosales started making the spirit at the Santa Rita factory in Amatitán, Jalisco, in 1968, after separating from Tequila Herradura (which he co-founded). In 2018, the family decided to stop certifying the spirit as "tequila" with the CRT (the regulatory body that certifies tequila), since they did not want to use certain industrial techniques they believed would negatively impact the integrity of the distillate. This is why the label reads "destilado de agave," or spirit distilled from agave, instead of "tequila."
Though the spirit is called a destilado de agave, it is still tequila in essence, since it's made using 100% Weber blue agave, steamed in masonry ovens, and milled in a triple-pass mill. It is fermented for a week in stainless steel tanks with a combination of wild and custom yeasts plus spring water. And it's distilled twice: first in stainless steel and again in copper. The spirit rests for 45 days in stainless steel tanks before bottling.
How to drink it: If you’re a mezcal fan, dive into this one neat first to revel in its complexities. It also brings the most depth of the bunch to a classic margarita, which coaxes out a ripple of savoriness in the spirit.
Cascahuín Tahona Blanco (about $80 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication)
I almost did a double-take when I discovered that this earthy tequila was the sister to Cascahuín Plata 48, since the two have completely different aromas and flavors. Made with agaves that were crushed only by a large volcanic stone (tahona), this old-school beauty has a dark profile reminiscent of cooked ancho pepper, piloncillo syrup, and handfuls of wet volcanic soil. At 42% alcohol by volume, the Tahona Blanco is a touch lower in proof than the Plata; this allows the flavors to mix and mingle like more of a mellow hum from start to finish. This bottle is pricier than some of our other picks, thanks to the more-labor-intensive process the tahona crushing requires. But because this tequila offers a glimpse into that very specific, time-honored tradition—and since I’m an agave nerd looking for that next-level nuance—it had me coming back for more.
How it's made: Cascahuín Tahona Blanco is made using agaves cooked in masonry ovens, crushed only by the volcanic stone tahona, fermented in a cement tank with shredded agave fibers and ambient yeasts, and twice distilled in a stainless steel pot still with copper coils.
How to drink it: In a Tommy's margarita, the savory nature of this tequila underscores the lime's brightness with contrasting earthy notes. It's also great as a sipper if you like tequilas that have more of that warm, earthy profile. Try it side by side with the Plata to see how the crushing method (this one done via tahona, the Plata via roller mill) creates a distinct difference in flavor. Or taste it alongside the Fortaleza, El Tesoro, or Patrón Roca, which are also made with 100% tahona-crushed agaves, to see what commonalities they have.
Our picks for the best tequilas hit the highest marks for balance, texture, and depth of flavors and aromas. They all communicated a potent snapshot of what a well-made unaged agave spirit tastes like. The other tequilas we tasted weren't bad, they were just less expressive of those hallmarks. If none of our top picks strike your fancy (or are unavailable in your market), the options in this section could be great substitutes.
Gran Dovejo Tequila Blanco (about $35 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): Hailing from the Feliciano Vivanco family in Los Altos, Gran Dovejo is an estate-grown agave spirit with a texture that shifts from thin to somewhat prickly. This one's a sturdy and reliable workhorse for everyday cocktail mixing. If you’re sipping, look for traces of grapefruit peel and honeyed white flowers emerging in the mid-palate and a finish that disappears in a poof of dusty ash. This makes for a mellow classic margarita or a crisp, lean Ranch Water.
Tanteo Blanco (about $35 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): Made by a cooperative of agave farmers (most of whom operate in the Ciénega region of Jalisco), Tanteo has strong cooked agave aromas, like raisins left out in the sun, and a savory undercurrent of kalamata and hazelnut on the palate. The texture oscillates between waxy and bristly, and it has a sharp and aggressive finish that rules it out as a good sipper, but it does make for a decent margarita. It's a good option to put in your well for mixing cocktails at a more affordable price point. Lime juice and orange liqueur help soften the harsh finish, so I’d opt to use this one for a classic margarita.
ElVelo Tequila Blanco (about $35 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): A good case study in how a tequila tastes when it's made with the more soil-forward characteristics of agaves grown in the Los Valles region, ElVelo has flavors bearing notes of warm cocoa and desert dust. When sipped, it tingles on the palate because of the slightly high proof (44.5% alcohol by volume), but it finishes with a soothing, lingering coat of buttery minerality. Topo Chico brings out a hidden vegetal-ness (like roasted green pepper), so give this one a whirl in a Ranch Water.
Tromba Tequila Blanco (about $40 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): Made in the iron-rich soil of Los Altos, Tromba is a delightful option for folks looking for a sprightly, light-bodied tequila that leans into the mineral side of the category (soot on cement, dried chamomile, limestone). When mixed, it creates a silky-soft margarita or Ranch Water. Fun fact: To make this tequila, distiller Marco Cedano—who makes Tromba with his son Rodrigo—designed a custom copper pot without an internal heating coil; the company says this reduces energy consumption by at least 20% compared with the stills that have one.
Tepozán Tequila Blanco (about $45 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): From agave farmer turned master distiller Carlos Padilla, Tepozán has been made in the highlands of San Julían, in Jalisco, for the past 25 years using natural spring water, wild yeasts, and estate-grown agaves. When tasting, I revisited this bottle half a dozen times, because instead of the usual vegetal or herbaceous notes I am used to finding in unaged agave spirits, this tequila boasts an abundance of spice—like a big flush of cinnamon flavor, similar to coffee cake, which softens into a finish of subdued ash and cocoa. Balance-wise, it feels a little fiery on the palate and rough around the edges. Sip it neat to appreciate what's going on in the glass. When it's mixed into cocktails, a lot of that intrigue gets lost.
G4 Tequila Blanco (about $45 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): G4 is a favorite of many bartenders. It's made by celebrated tequilero Felipe Camarena (see: Primo 1861 and Volans), with the same production processes as other tequilas, except it features an equal-parts blend of rain and spring water, which creates a silky mouthfeel. I found the flavor to be somewhat one-dimensional when compared with the other two from the same distillery. But there is still plenty to enjoy about its robust black pepper notes, which sit alongside jalapeño, mint, and bell pepper. With a chiffon-like texture, G4 has a temperament that leans on the delicate side, so I’d suggest sipping; the light flavors get somewhat lost in a margarita, and it clashes in a Ranch Water.
Volans Tequila Blanco (about $45 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): Volans also comes from Felipe Camarena at El Pandillo in Los Altos. But it is made with spring water, harvested rainwater, and well water, which create a harmonious texture and agreeable balance. The spirit is aerated after distillation but before bottling, which opens up its aromas and flavors. Overall, it is the most vigorous of El Pandillo's current releases—a piquant tequila with tarragon-like freshness and a raw woodiness underlying the aroma, plus a medium-bodied texture. When mixed with lime juice and agave nectar, à la the Tommy's margarita, Volans shines through with a beautiful green flavor and a balance that suggests it would not be out of place at a great neighborhood cocktail bar.
Paladar Tequila Blanco (about $50 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): This tequila was the most tropical in our tasting by a mile. The poolside pineapple and pine aromas that kickstart the Paladar shift into a juicy caramelized version of the fruit. My first tasting notes read: "Lovely, like lying in a hammock on a sunny day at the beach." Produced in the Los Valles region by the Orendain family—whose legacy of tequila production stretches back to 1844—Paladar offers a key production technique that distinguishes it from others: The fermentation takes place in a custom open-air pine box fermentation vat. The full-bodied tequila adds a tropical boost to a Tommy's margarita and a Ranch Water.
PM Spirits Tequila Blanco (about $55 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): I really liked how this 80-proof blanco—the flagship tequila from new-school importer PM Spirits—landed on the darker end of the aroma spectrum in a good way, peppered with vegetal notes of dried oregano, black tea, and edamame. The rest of the journey was similarly agreeable: The temperament of the tequila felt uniform from start to finish—soft spoken but still palatable, with a medium body and sunbaked green agave flavor. Sip it, especially if you prefer a tequila that's light-bodied with a consistently subtle sweetness and slightly dry finish.
Patrón Silver (about $55 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): When the company launched its first "premium" 100% agave tequila, in the early 1990s, it changed American perceptions about the spirit. (Author's note: I’ve done copywriting for Patrón in the past, but I do not currently work with the brand.) Today, the mainstay is made in Atotonilco, in the Los Altos region of Mexico. The Silver tequila offers a nice big aromatic bouquet of cooked agave and chalky soil, with a lightweight texture on the palate. Well balanced from start to finish, it is a great entryway into the category for newcomers. This one is a no-brainer in a Ranch Water, and it makes for an even-keeled classic margarita that teases out the citrus notes of orange liqueur.
Patrón Roca (about $70 for a 750-mL bottle at the time of publication): Patrón Roca is made in the same way as the Silver, with one key difference: It features 100% tahona-crushed agaves instead of a combination of tahona and roller mill. In turn, the Roca has a very different flavor profile—more rustic and savory—with a lot more depth of flavor. For me, the difference between the two is night and day, with the Silver offering a broader appeal, and the Roca likely speaking to tequila fans looking for more-elaborate shades of character. Try sipping the Roca side by side with the Silver to see the difference between the two. It also makes for a dynamic margarita that's on the earthy side.
When I first started writing about alcohol, in 2010, I quickly developed an appreciation and respect for the category of agave spirits. My first print feature, published in English and Spanish, was an introduction to mezcal for the Austin American-Statesman. My first book, Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World's Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award and a Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for best beverage book. I have since co-authored several books about cocktail culture (one of which won the James Beard Award in 2022). I’ve written stories about Mexican spirits of all kinds for Punch, Imbibe, Eater, Good Beer Hunting, and beyond. And I’ve presented on agave spirits at drinks-industry conferences, including Tales of the Cocktail, Mexico in a Bottle, and the San Antonio Cocktail Conference.
To narrow the scope for this tasting, I looked at industry trends to identify which type of tequila to explore in more detail. I sought out a diverse group of scholars, experts, and producers—from both Mexico and the US—as primary and secondary sources. I attended presentations about tequila and talked with industry experts at the Agave Heritage Festival in Tucson, Arizona, and I revisited seminal books such as Divided Spirits, by Sarah Bowen, and How the Gringos Stole Tequila, by Chantal Martineau. I read articles in SevenFifty Daily, Decanter, Robb Report, and Punch. And I combed through agave-centric Facebook groups and Reddit threads to make sure I wasn't missing anything notable. I also looked at trends that are driving the spirits market as a whole, to see how those global movements might be bleeding into the tequila world. These include the rise of conscious consumerism—that is, making decisions on what to buy based on social and environmental impact—and an increased interest in spirits that deliver a sense of provenance or terroir.
Today the world of tequila is vast and varied, with many styles and sub-categorizations allowed under the set of rules, known as the NOM, that define the category. Between blanco, reposado, añejo, extra añejo, and cristalino expressions, cask-strength bottlings, flavored tequilas, celebrity-owned brands, and beyond, the abundance is astounding. There are also spirits that add some confusion to the mix. They include those whose production methods are almost identical to that of tequila, but that do not meet the legal definition of the spirit, for one reason or another. These spirits are labeled "destilado de agave" or "spirit distilled from agave" on the bottle (like one of our picks, the Caballito Cerrero tequila).
To narrow down the options for this tasting, we decided to focus on one subset of tequila. Through our research, a clear picture emerged of what agave enthusiasts are most interested in right now—tequila made in a way that offers the most clear and focused flavors of the agave plant, produced in a way that honors the history of the spirit. Specifically, bottles that meet the following criteria:
Blanco: Aged tequilas used to be de rigueur in the US, but the tides are shifting toward blanco, or unaged, tequilas. The change means more people are tasting the truest expression of the agave plant, without interference from the flavors that emerge from time spent aging in a wooden barrel (think: vanilla and oak). Blanco tequilas are excellent for sipping neat or mixing into cocktails.
100% agave: Today, the NOM allows for what folks colloquially call "mixto" tequilas, or tequilas fermented with 51% Weber blue agave and up to 49% of other sugars, such as cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup. If a bottle does not say 100% agave, it is likely a mixto. The addition of alternative sugars can dilute, muddy, or alter the flavor of the pure agave; this is the primary reason we chose to test only tequilas made with 100% agave.
No additives: Producers are legally allowed to add caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin, or sugar syrups to tequila before bottling. Generally speaking, these additives are used to create consistency among batches of tequila, to mask mistakes, or (in the case of aged tequilas) to deepen the color to create the illusion that a tequila has spent more time in a barrel than it actually has. Producers must keep a record of what they add to a tequila, but this information is legally required on a label only if the percentage of additive exceeds 1%. To find out which brands are confirmed additive-free, I referenced the Taste Tequila blog's database and verified the information with each brand included in this taste test.
Pre-industrial techniques: Before the mid-1900s—when rules and regulations began to emerge that defined tequila as a distinct regional spirit unique to Jalisco (specifically near the city of Tequila)—agave spirits were made all over Mexico using traditions and techniques including wood-fired pit ovens to cook the agaves, large volcanic stones (called tahonas) to crush them, open-air fermentation with ambient yeasts, and wooden, clay, or copper stills to turn the liquid into alcohol. These slow and labor-intensive methods typically make for compelling flavor profiles in the resulting spirit.
Today, the majority of producers have abandoned many of these methodologies, favoring high-tech machinery that prioritizes speed and efficiency to meet global demand. The resulting distillates are less traditional—and typically less flavorful—than their ancient predecessors. That's why for this tasting, we prioritized bottles that employed at least one or more pre-industrial techniques.
Price: Making tequila in a way that aligns with tradition takes a great deal of time, labor, and ingenuity—all factors that cost the producers more than if the distillery used modern technologies that streamline and expedite processes. That is why you will notice our picks are all priced above $35. If a bottle of tequila costs less than that, chances are good that industrial techniques were at play, that agaves were harvested before maturity (the Weber blue takes at least five years to reach maturity), or that laborers were not being paid equitable wages.
Availability: To make sure the bottles on the list are available to most of the country, I cross-referenced online retailers like K&L, Binny's, and Total Wine, and I verified distribution areas with representatives from each company. This is also how I calculated a ballpark price for each bottle; prices can fluctuate depending on what market you live in.
To find bottles that met our criteria, I relied heavily on the database compiled by Tequila Matchmaker, where I could narrow down the search by style, production method, and other details. I cross-referenced that list with retail sites like Binny's, K&L, Total Wine, Old Town Tequila, Astor Wines, and Mission Liquor, to see what brands were available for sale nationwide.
After reading reviews on the aforementioned sites, I ran my edited list by a few trusted sources—Clayton Szczech, founder of Experience Agave, and Mike Moreno Jr. of Moreno's Liquors in Chicago—to check for any red flags or glaring omissions. (Disclosure: Szczech was hired by Patrón for an educational video in 2020.) In the end, the list consisted of 24 bottles (all from the state of Jalisco, even though tequila can be made in other states in Mexico).
Throughout the tasting process, the question of how to define the "quality" of a blanco tequila constantly percolated in the back of my mind. I knew that just because a tequila is made according to the criteria I set, that doesn't mean it will necessarily taste delicious. And the characteristics I find delicious might not be delicious for someone else. I got some advice from Scarlet Sanschagrin, of Taste Tequila, regarding how she defines good-quality tequila. And as I methodically made my way through all of the samples (some of which I revisited two or three times to fully gauge), I eventually decided that a good-quality tequila blanco should have a prominent agave aroma that carries through into lively and charismatic flavors in the glass, plus a well-rounded mouthfeel, good balance, and a soft or pleasing finish. These elements show that the distiller captures the essence of the agave with skill, talent, restraint, and a deep understanding of the plant material throughout the production processes.
With that broad definition in mind, there were some questions I asked myself with each sample, to serve as guardrails during the evaluation process:
When evaluating so many tequilas, I wanted to see how they tasted neat (without ice or salt or lime to get in the way of the flavor) and also mixed into cocktails (since many people enjoy tequila that way). Before formulating a testing plan, I spoke with Sanschagrin to get her professional advice on best practices for conducting brand-concealed tastings.
She recommended tasting fewer than six samples at a time (to avoid palate fatigue), at around the same time of day every day (to create consistency), and in an environment with no scented candles, perfumes, or flowers nearby (to avoid interference with the aromas). For the glassware, Sanschagrin suggested using a vessel that would concentrate the aromas, without "blowing your nose out with alcohol vapors" (a brandy snifter) or "cutting out nearly all aromas entirely" (a shot glass). She directed me toward the Glencairn whisky glass, the Riedel tequila glass, or an everyday Champagne flute, "since it directs the aromas toward your nose in the same way."
I did not have any specialty glassware on hand, but I did have four Champagne flutes, so I limited my daily afternoon tastings to four samples at a time. To make sure the marketing, bottle design, or brand reputation didn't influence the evaluation, I had my spouse pour four sips—labeled 1, 2, 3, and 4—and create a written key (which he kept in the other room while I tested).
First, I sniffed each sample to check out the aromas. Then, per Sanschagrin's suggestion, I took a small swig of the spirit, swished it around in my mouth to prime the palate, and spit that out before taking the first formal sip. Though sometimes a clear and distinct flavor note would leap out at me immediately, many times I needed a little help articulating what I was tasting. So I referenced this helpful tasting wheel, designed by Patrón, to expand my awareness of what to look for and to help better define the flavors I was finding. Sometimes I had to Google things like "soil tasting notes" or "synonyms for mineral," to make sure I was best articulating what I had tasted. In between samples, I snacked on crackers to clear the palate.
After logging notes on all of the tequilas, I lined up my top picks from each round for a second round of evaluations. This narrowed down the playing field to a group of 12 bottles that I would happily sip neat any day of the week. On occasion—and because a person's sense of taste can shift depending on hormonal fluctuations, what you ate that day, and other factors—I would revisit the top candidates solo to see how my original tasting notes lined up. And I sometimes ran a sample or two by my spouse to see how his perceptions compared to mine. In every instance, these extra evaluations simply reinforced the reasons why I ranked the tequila in the top tier.
After picking out my favorite sipping tequilas, I turned my attention to the cocktail stage of testing. For this task, I enlisted my spouse and my mother; both have excellent palates and an affinity for tequila drinks but are amateur drinkers. Their perspectives were valuable, because their tastes may align more with those of lay audiences. We blind-tasted the margaritas—served up, without ice, so that dilution over time would not interfere with the strength of the drink—in rounds of three, to prevent palate fatigue and to ensure we didn't get too tipsy.
First we tasted the tequilas in a classic margarita recipe with orange liqueur (I used dry curaçao). Then we tasted them in a Tommy's margarita (invented by San Francisco bartender Julio Bermejo), which swaps in agave nectar for the orange liqueur. (Tommy's is my preferred recipe because you taste a more complete picture of the tequila without the orange liqueur getting in the way.) All of the tequilas on the list tasted drinkable in both styles of margarita, though some did bring more structure and personality to the drink—specifically the tequilas with more than 40% alcohol by volume.
After the margarita testing, I mixed each candidate into another favorite cocktail, the Ranch Water (tequila with Topo Chico and fresh lime juice). I chose the simple and refreshing highball because it's great for when you want to relish the tequila but aren't in the mood for drinking straight booze. (I’m also from Texas, where the drink originates—you can take the girl out of the state, but you can't take the state out of the girl.) Unlike with the margaritas, we enjoyed only about half of the candidates in the Ranch Waters, with the other half tasting unbalanced or unpleasant. Topo Chico has a very specific mineral profile, so if you want to mix up a Ranch Water at home using another brand of sparkling water, be aware that your results might differ a bit.
Tequila is Mexico's most famous distilled spirit, one with roots that trace back to pre-Hispanic times, when indigenous people tapped agaves to make pulque, a lightly fermented beverage made using the sap of the plant. Some evidence suggests that distillation technologies may have existed in the country prior to the arrival of the Spanish, in the 1500s. However, records confirm that distilled agave spirits, called vino de mezcal in many parts of the country, emerged as a popular alternative to pulque by the mid-17th century.
There are many factors that dictate how the spirit must be made in order to qualify as tequila.
By the 1800s, a concentration of producers in Jalisco, near the city of Tequila, created a commercial identity for vino de mezcal de Tequila, the regional version of this ubiquitous spirit. Around this time, global demand spiked, prompting producers to find ways to streamline processes and produce higher volumes of tequila with ease and efficiency. Formal regulations regarding machinery and tools and guidelines began to emerge in the mid-1900s, and they were finessed over time until 1974, when an official denomination of origin (DO) was established by the Mexican government.
Today, per the rules and regulations (called the NOM), there are many factors that dictate how the spirit must be made in order to qualify as tequila. Below we list some of the most notable:
The process of making tequila happens in four stages, each of which influences the flavor of the spirit in interesting ways.
Cooking: Traditionally, the heart of the agave plant, called the piña, was slow-roasted in an underground earthen oven for up to a week. (This is how mezcal is largely still made today, and it's what gives the spirit a rich smokiness.) When tequila distinguished itself as a singular expression of agave spirit, producers shifted to the use of masonry ovens called hornos, which are powered by steam instead of fire, to expedite the cooking process. Over time, in order to make large volumes of tequila quickly and efficiently, the industry evolved yet again. It embraced the use of modern machines called diffusers and autoclaves to process agave piñas into fermentable sugars at unprecedented speeds of hours instead of days.
Though autoclaves and diffusers are completely legal, they are not the best methods for developing vivid flavors and aromas because they don't allow the plant to cook long and slowly (or, worse, because diffusers use sulfuric acid in the process). Many American bartenders have shared this opinion with me over the years, and that perception is corroborated by taste tests conducted by Taste Tequila, that show how tequilas made with industrial techniques consistently rank last in flavor. For this reason, I tested only tequilas from distilleries that use steam-powered masonry ovens to cook the agaves at low temperatures over the course of several days.
Crushing: To crush the large, cooked agave piñas and extract the liquids and sugars needed for fermentation, many contemporary distillers use mechanical shredders or roller mills that quickly pulverize the fibers. Historically, this job was done with the help of a horse- or donkey-drawn tahona, a large volcanic wheel that crushes the piñas slowly. Now some producers are bringing back the tahona method (or combining a percentage of tahona-pulverized fibers with ones processed with mechanized shredders), to develop more-complex layers of flavor in the final distillate.
Some bartenders and experts debate whether using a tahona makes a huge difference in the final flavor, with some swearing that you can find more multifaceted layers in a tahona-made tequila. In my evaluations, I could taste a clear and distinct difference between the two methods—see Cascahuín and Patrón—though I wouldn't necessarily qualify one as being "better" than the other; they simply create different unique flavor profiles. (Also note: To eliminate the need for animal labor, many producers today have implemented mechanized tahonas.)
Fermentation: The process of transforming the liquids and sugars of the cooked agave into a "mosto," which will be distilled into tequila, was historically done in large, open-air wooden vats with whatever ambient yeasts might be floating around. Depending on the weather, this stage of production could take weeks—plenty of time for the microorganisms to slowly develop and contribute flavor to the liquid as it morphs into a light alcohol. Sometimes the agave fibers are included during this step to further infuse their flavor into the liquid, as is the case with Siembra Valles, Siete Leguas, El Tesoro, and Tapatío tequilas, to name a few.
To streamline this process and create more consistency from batch to batch, the industry turned to lab-developed yeasts and stainless steel tanks for fermentation. The latter approach represents that of the majority of producers today. However, a small few are returning to wooden tanks (such as Paladar, Fortaleza, and Primo 1861) and wild yeasts (like Tequila Ocho and ElVelo) to recapture the more wily side of tequila's personality. Although we didn't require a specific type of fermentation for tequilas in this guide, many picks, such as the Paladar Tequila Blanco and the Tequila Fortaleza Blanco, are open-air-fermented in wooden vats with ambient yeasts, since that creates a profound depth of flavor.
Distillation: Before tequila became a formal industry, producers used clay, wooden, or copper pot stills (also known as alembic stills) to distill. Today, many producers use a combination of modern column (Coffey) stills or stainless steel pot stills. Tequila must be distilled at least twice, per the rules that define the denomination of origin (PDF). Many experts claim that the alembic design develops a more flavorful spirit (and one that best preserves the flavors of agave), whereas the column still's shape and style simply encourage more volume to be produced in less time (column stills are often used to produce neutral spirits like vodka). For this taste test, I allowed for both pot still and column still distillation, because most of the flavor development of an agave spirit happens during the cooking, crushing, and fermenting stages of production.
Like whiskey or brandy, tequila can also be aged, and when this happens it is classified based on how long the spirit rests in the barrel before bottling. Depending on whether a tequila is sold in Mexico or abroad, the language used to distinguish different aged tequilas varies. In the US, the following terms are allowed to be printed on a label:
In the state of Jalisco, where the majority of tequila is made, there are two famous production regions that boast a high concentration of agave farms and distilleries—Los Altos, the highlands, and Los Valles (also called "the valley"), the lowlands. Tequila enthusiasts will tell you that because each region has its own distinct environment and terroir, tequilas from these regions will also differ in flavor. Specifically, many say tequila from the valley has a noticeable earthiness, thanks to the mineral-rich volcanic soil that marks the region, while tequila from the highlands tastes more fruity, thanks to iron-rich red soil and a higher elevation.
This article was edited by Gabriella Gershenson and Marguerite Preston.
Sarah Bowen, Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production
Chantal Martineau, How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico's Most Traditional Spirit
Mike Moreno, co-owner of Moreno's Liquors and Osito's Tap, email interview, April 19, 2022
Clayton Szczech, founder of Experience Agave, email interview, April 19, 2022
David Suro-Piñera, founder of Siembra Spirits and president of the Tequila Interchange Project, panel presentation at Agave Heritage Festival, Tucson, Arizona, April 29, 2022
Pedro Jimenéz, founder of Mezonte and member of the Tequila Interchange Project, panel presentation at Agave Heritage Festival, Tucson, Arizona, April 30, 2022
Salvador Rosales Trejo, owner of Tequila Cascahuín, panel presentation at Agave Heritage Festival, Tucson, Arizona, April 30, 2022
Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan, Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History
Marie Sarita Gaytán, Tequila: Distilling the Spirit of Mexico
Scarlet Sanschagrin, co-founder of Taste Tequila and Tequila Matchmaker, phone interview, May 24, 2022
Emma Janzen is a James Beard Award–winning book author, journalist, and photographer with over a decade's worth of experience traveling and reporting on global drinks cultures. Writing and editing from her home base in the Midwest, she prefers her mezcal neat, her martinis made with gin, and her Champagne served in a coupe.
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