Serious Eats: Drinks
The 7 Best Budget Tequilas
I don't know about you, but I can drink tequila year-round. I have to say, though, I especially love it in the spring and summer. I think tequila's crisp, bright flavors work very well with warmer temperatures and longer days. So now that the weather's finally getting pleasant, let's talk about which bottles of tequila you should buy.
This list includes only 100%-agave tequilas. I don't recommend any mixtos here. The difference between the two is this: a fully agave tequila is made by distilling the fermented juices of agave. That's it. Nothing else is added to the fermenter, just agave juices and yeast.
Mixto, on the other hand, starts with a blend of agave juice and other sugars—glucose or fructose, or both—usually in the form of a sugar syrup. Mixtos were invented as a way to stretch the supply of agave and lower production costs. By law, they must be 51% agave. Most of us drank more than enough of this stuff in college.
My belief is this: Tequila should taste like agave, not like sugar. There are plenty of 100%-agave tequilas available for a good price—today I wanted to introduce you to a handful of my favorites that are available for $25 and under.
Although tequila can legally be made in several Mexican states, most of it hails from Jalisco, a state in the west of the country, about midway down the coast. Tequilas from Jalisco are generally divided into lowlands tequilas and highlands tequilas. The village of Tequila itself sits in the lowlands, in the valleys formed when volcanos arose in central Mexico. Though the volcanos are no longer active, they left their mark on the soil in the lowlands region, which produces tequilas that are more herbaceous, spicy, and earthy. The highlands region (also called Los Altos) has iron-rich red clay soil; it gets more rain and has cooler nights; and it yields tequilas that are richer in minerality and have more floral notes.
If you want to taste the differences between highlands and lowlands, you're best off tasting silver or blanco tequilas. Because they're not aged in wood, the flavors of the terrain aren't masked by the oaky vanilla notes derived from barrel aging.
These tequilas are all 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), and the prices quoted are for 750-mL bottles (with one exception). The prices are for the blanco/plata/silver release, unless otherwise stated, and it's the blanco releases that I'm reviewing here. Of course, prices vary depending on your location.
El Jimador ($22)
Jimador is the Spanish word for the fieldworker who hand-harvests the agave plant. The brand El Jimador is a lowlands tequila produced by Herradura. The brand owner, Brown Forman, cites a Nielsen poll that indicates El Jimador is the top-selling 100%-agave brand in Mexico. If that's true, it's easy to see why. El Jimador's blanco is smooth and crisp, tasting of fresh agave and citrus. It's not a super-complex sipper, but if you're looking to finally graduate from plastic-jug tequila, El Jimador should be your first stop.
Espolon, a highlands tequila, is a bit earthier than El Jimador, and not as crisp and light. Spicy and mildly floral, it carries hints of grilled pineapple and black pepper. I like sipping this one on ice, though I prefer it in cocktails, especially margaritas. Espolon is always a bit surprising to me because I always find myself preferring the blanco over the reposado.
Gran Centenario ($22)
Though Jose Cuervo is known mostly for its line of mixto tequilas, Gran Centenario is one of its 100%-agave brands. (1800 Tequila is another Cuervo 100%-agave release.) Cuervo products are all, I believe, lowlands tequilas, and in fact the main Cuervo distillery is located in the town of Tequila in the Jalisco lowlands. Like El Jimador, Gran Centenario Plata isn't really a complex tequila; it's smooth and refreshing, with citrus overtones and some grassiness. Though it's a simple tequila, it's satisfying and tasty, just right for a margarita.
Grassy agave meets a bowl of mixed tropical fruit in this lowlands blanco. The flavor has a hint of pepper and herbal notes, and the finish is mildly spicy. Though this isn't my favorite sipper of the bunch, it's great in cocktails. Try it in a Paloma, in the Mexican style, with a pinch of salt, some fresh lime juice (if you can afford it), and grapefruit soda.
A highlands tequila, Milagro is rich and creamy, slightly herbal and vegetal, and freshly citrusy. It sips well, and it mixes better. Milagro is surprisingly good for its price, and it's easily one of my top three. Milagro would be nice sipped alongside Sangrita (no, not Sangria; they're very different things); the subtle herbaceous notes of the tequila would play well with the flavors of Sangrita.
Olmeca Altos ($21)
Probably my second favorite here. Altos is another highlander, with a rich entry and a long, smooth finish. It has grassy, herbal agave flavors up front and juicy citrus tones in the back. It mixes well into cocktails and it's delicious on its own, either on the rocks or neat. The brand is ramping up its US presence, so though it might not be in your area just yet, expect that to change as the year progresses.
Tapatío ($30 for 1 liter)
Yes, I stretched the budget a bit on this one, but it's a great tequila—my favorite on this list—and at 30 bucks for a liter bottle, it's about the same price, per ounce, as the other spirits listed here. Tapatío is much loved inside Mexico, especially in the highlands of Jalisco. (Drive around the countryside, and you'll see signs for it all over the place—billboards, painted signs on the sides of buildings, posters, handbills.) It's now finally available Stateside, though you might need to hunt for it. (You might actually have an easier time finding the high-strength 110-proof bottling, strangely enough.)
It's delicious stuff: rich in the agave grassiness you associate with blanco tequilas, with a crisp fruitiness and a hint of spice. Tapatío is great for mixing, though I really enjoy just savoring it neat.