Pick Your Poison: Buyer’s Guide to Tequila

Posted by / Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

The annual celebration of Cinco de Mayo commemorates the liberation of the Mexican state of Puebla from the diabolical (we guess) clutches of the French—also, tequila. Really, it’s mostly the tequila.

Like its Irish cousin, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo has found itself belonging to the family of cultural holidays that most people dedicate to gorging on regional food and slamming back as many drinks as possible. But unlike a hearty Irish stout that mostly just makes drinkers feel full and sleepy, tequila has the unfortunate side effect of causing rather severe hangovers. The reason? Bad tequila.

So in an effort to get everyone out there enjoying their Cinco de Mayo with only half of the regret, we’ve put together a quick buyer’s guide to landing you a better bottle of tequila.

A field of blue agave. Image: csp/Shutterstock

The reason that bad tequila has a reputation for causing monster headaches is primarily due to the fillers producers use in the fermentation process. Tequila is a spirit made primarily in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, a state known for producing tequila’s primary ingredient: blue agave.

A large (no, seriously, look at the size of these things), spiky plant, agave is known for its high sugar yield and decade long maturity time. Traditionally, tequila is fermented using 100% blue agave sugars, which gives the liquor its distinct taste. But because of the plant’s susceptibility to disease, frequent shortages and labor intensive harvesting process, many tequila producers use additives rather than 100% agave sugars in an effort to cut cost.

Mexican regulation stipulates that these “mixto” tequilas are legally allowed to use up to 49% non-agave sugars in the fermentation process, fillers that include: caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin and sugar-based syrups.

It’s these mixto tequilas and the impurities mixto’d in that causes you to hate yourself in the morning. When impurities are added to an already congener rich liquor like tequila, it compounds the effects of a hangover and usually causes quite a bad stomach ache as they linger in your system.

Thankfully, though, telling the difference between a mixto tequila and one made with pure agave is as easy as reading the label. Mixto tequilas are usually labeled simply as “tequila,” and include popular brands like Jose Cuervo Especial Gold, El Toro Gold and pretty much any tequila that comes in a bottle that’s wearing a hat, or is shaped like a handgun. Tequilas made without additives err on the more expensive side, though there are exceptions, and are labeled as being made with 100% agave, usually quite prominently. Because of an increase in popularity in both Mexico and America, there are a bajillion varieties of 100% pure agave tequilas to choose from.

What kind of tequila to purchase is largely a matter of personal taste and depends on how you plan on drinking it. Silver tequilas are lightly aged which give them a more “pure” agave flavor; gold tequilas are aged in oak barrels, giving the liquor a sweeter caramel flavor and is the standard for margaritas; after that you have the more complex, aged varieties like reposado and añejo that are best served on their own.

So when you’re out doing your tequila run for Cinco de Mayo, keep the label in mind. Drinking a mixto tequila won’t kill you, of course, but there is no need to pay a great deal for one made with non-agave fillers. But, hey, it’s Cinco de Mayo. Why not treat yourself?

Also here’s a video of Pee Wee dancing to “Tequila” by The Champs, because why not? Tequila!

- Kris King

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One Response

Agitated Says:

While this is a nice wikipedia introduction to tequila, i was looking for the namesake buyer’s guide. Oh well.

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