Whether you know it as a salt-and-lime-chased shot, the backbone of a Margarita, or a sipper to rival the finest scotch, one thing is for certain: Not all tequila is created equal. While the agave plant imparts crisp vegetal notes to unaged blanco tequila, oak-aged expressions such as reposado or añejo can bear more similarities to dark spirits like whiskey and cognac than to what goes into your happy-hour Tequila Soda.
No matter what you’re sipping, all tequila starts in Mexico with the native blue Weber agave plant. The spirit can be made in parts of regions including Michocoán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas, but a whopping 90% of the world’s supply is produced in Jalisco, home to the spirit’s namesake city, Tequila. Jimadores harvest the plant, which takes about seven years to mature. After the spiky leaves are removed, the hearts, called piñas, are cut into pieces and steamed in above-ground ovens to transform the agave starches into simple sugars. Next, the pieces are crushed to separate the pulp from the juices. The resulting juice is left to ferment in large vats with water and yeast, then distilled at least twice, typically in copper alembic pots, to yield tequila. After this stage, the liquid is either bottled for distillation or barrel-aged to produce reposado, añejo, or extra añejo expressions.
By Mexican law, tequila must contain a minimum of just 51% blue agave, and “mixto” tequilas can be made with a mixture of the plant’s juices and artificial sweeteners such as cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. However, most experts agree that any tequila worth its salt will be made with 100% blue agave.
Modern tequila production dates back to the 1600s, and while the spirit is technically a type of mezcal, it differs from most traditional mezcals in the way the agave is cooked: Today the piñas are most often steamed in brick ovens or industrial autoclaves, rather than roasted in earthen pits, although some tequilas employ the ancestral method of roasting the agave in underground ovens. Most tequila also relies on commercial yeast in the fermentation stage, whereas mezcal ferments naturally with airborne yeast.
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) classifies and regulates four main types of tequila: blanco, joven, añejo, and extra añejo. Generally, blanco tequilas have vegetal flavours of agave, citrus, grass, and pepper, while oak-aged expressions such as reposado or añejo will show toastier, deeper notes of vanilla, caramel, dried fruits, and warm baking spices. As with all spirits, however, specific expressions can vary according to many factors, including the terroir of the region, the types of barrels used, and how the tequila is produced.
This is what to know about the four main types of tequila—plus a blend called joven and newcomer cristalino.
Also known as: silver or plata
Aged: up to two months
If you’ve ever ordered a Margarita or Paloma, chances are you’ve tried blanco, or silver, tequila. It can be aged in steel tanks for up to two months, but it typically is bottled immediately after distillation, producing an agave-forward clear spirit with notes of citrus, grass, and pepper that blends seamlessly into citrusy cocktails. Depending on the quality of the product, you might opt to relegate blanco to mixing and, yes, shots. But there are plenty of bottles such as Tequila Ocho Plata that are prized for sipping. In fact, because blanco spends no time in the barrel, many tequila enthusiasts consider it the purest expression of agave.
Also known as: gold or oro
Aged: varies; a blend of unaged and aged tequilas
Joven, which means “young,” is a somewhat less-common blend of mostly blanco tequila and a small amount of aged tequila. Top-shelf joven tequilas such as Casa Dragones can bear similarities to blended scotch, but be sure to double-check your label: Some tequilas labelled “gold” are in fact mixtos, inferior bottles made with less than 100% blue agave and softening ingredients such as caramel colour or glycerin.
Also known as: aged
Aged: between two months and one year
Reposado translates to “rested,” and this versatile expression indeed spends between two months and one year resting in oak or steel, most typically oak barrels that once held American whiskey. Some time in the barrel imparts a light straw colour and notes that reflect the type of wood used, such as vanilla and caramel. Reposado is a bartender favorite thanks to the sweet spot it hits between a bright blanco and oak-heavy añejo. Spice and sweet aromatics render it complex enough for sipping, but it also works well in cocktails such as the Distrito Federal (Tequila Manhattan) or a Cadillac Margarita, a richer version of the classic made with reposado instead of blanco tequila.
Also known as: extra aged
Aged: one to three years
Some things are better with age, and añejo fans would add tequila to that list: The expression, which translates to “old,” must be aged in an oak barrel for between one and three years. The barrel size is limited to 600 litres, maximizing interaction between the wood and the tequila and yielding a dark amber colour, a smooth mouthfeel, and a complex flavour with oak-forward notes of vanilla, caramel, baking spices, and dried fruit. Thanks to its richer flavours, añejo is typically consumed as a sipping tequila, but it also makes a good stand-in for whiskey in cocktails such as the Añejo Old Fashioned.
Also known as: ultra aged
Aged: at least three years
This category, the name of which translates to “extra old,” is a relatively new addition to the tequila canon: It was classified by the CRT in 2006. Spirits with this classification must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels no larger than 600 litres, although many expressions are aged for more than 10 years. Thanks to all that barrel time, extra añejo has even more intense notes of caramel, vanilla, and baking spices than añejo, and as such is usually reserved for sipping. Similar in spirit (and price) to aged rums, cognacs, and whiskeys, this luxury expression is often a favourite of collectors who want to add another fine liquor to their stash. Still, agave purists might bemoan the lack of, well, agave flavours, which are sometimes masked by its complex oak notes.
Appearances can be deceiving, and such is the case with this clear-aged tequila, which is charcoal-filtered to remove naturally occurring colours and some of the oakier notes from the barrel in a process akin to white rum’s creation. The base tequila can range anywhere from a reposado to an extra añejo, and the result of the filtering process offers the complexity and character of an aged expression along with the crisp, bright notes that define a blanco. Cristalino is a relatively new category that isn’t standardized by the CRT; the legendary producer Don Julio created the first bottle in 2011 to celebrate its 70th birthday, and since then plenty of other cristalino tequilas have competed for market space alongside the main types.