Linger with tequila any longer than it takes to do a shot, and you’ll quickly learn that not all tequilas are equal. Sipped neat, their differences are fairly obvious. But not even a mixed drink like a margarita can hide the disparities.
In theory, tequila is supposed to be a pure expression of the blue agave plant (the spirit’s derived from its sap). And because of that, the first rule is that a good tequila is one made from pure agave. Anything that’s not 100 percent—and Mexican law dictates only 51 percent of a spirit has to be agave to be called tequila—is called a mixto. Which rhymes with hell no. Get the picture?
Now, when it comes to 100 percent agave tequilas, you have a choice: There are blanco tequilas (sometimes labeled plata, or silver), as well as darker tequilas labeled reposado (rested), añejo (aged) and, sometimes, super-añejo. Anything that’s not blanco has been aged in an oak barrel (añejos longer than reposados), picking up not just color but toasty nuances of flavor. For sipping, they’re great; for a margarita, not so much. “You throw in a bunch of lime juice and mixers with [añejos and reposados] and it kind of takes away from their natural flavors and complexity,” says Adam Geenen, general manager of Salud (now closed). Blanco tequila, on the other hand, “lends a lot better to mixers.”
Serious tequila fiends may still want to try making margaritas with an aged tequila, however. The warm, round flavors of reposados and añejos render the cocktail a little more serious and make it the kind of drink you want to spend some time with. Those who have only guzzled tequila will find that slowing down can be just as great.
THREE VALUE BLANCO TEQUILAS
• Milagro silver, $20
• Sauza Hornitos plata, $23
• Herradura Antiguo silver, $28
THREE SPLURGE BLANCO TEQUILAS
• Chinaco blanco, $38
• Tequila Ocho plata, $45
• Herencia Mexicana blanco, $55
All prices at Binny’s (locations citywide, binnys.com)
TRY THIS To test the waters of a reposado margarita, start with the CoyOpa ($7.75) at Maya Del Sol (144 S Oak Park Ave, Oak Park, 708-358-9800), made with Jimador reposado. To go even further, try the Lujo Margarita ($20) at Mercat a la Planxa (638 S Michigan Ave, 312-765-0524), which uses Casa Noble añejo and organic agave syrup. Sticking with silver? The house margarita ($8) at Zocalo (358 W Ontario St, 312-304-9977) uses Herradura Antiguo blanco tequila, triple sec and fresh lime juice.