Ingredient Intelligence

The 4 Essential Types of Tequila and How to Use Them

published May 5, 2022
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Mexican tequila with lime and salt on black background.
Credit: Shutterstock/sweet marshmallow

Cocktail-lovers know that to make a really good margarita or paloma you have to start with a high-quality tequila. But did you know that there are several varieties of tequila, all with different flavors, shades, and ages? Here’s what you need to know about the different types of tequila, whether you’re drinking it neat or mixing it into a cocktail.

What Is Tequila? 

Tequila is a distilled liquor made from the Weber blue agave plant. It’s produced in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, as well as some parts of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Michoacán. The agave plant — or agave tequilana — has tall, spiked leaves on the top, similar to the top of a pineapple. The “heart” of the agave plant also resembles the outside of a pineapple — this is why it is sometimes referred to as the “piña,” the Spanish word for pineapple.

How Is Tequila Made?

Tequila is made by harvesting the blue agave plant. The piña of the blue agave plant is heated and baked in a special oven referred to as an horno. The piña is then pressed and shredded in order to extract its liquid sugars known as the mosto. To retrieve the sugars for fermentation, the piña is shredded with either a traditional stone wheel called a tahona, or a special machine. The sugars are then fermented with yeast and water to be turned into tequila. This clear tequila is distilled and either bottled immediately, such as with tequila blanco, or aged (rested) in steel or oak barrels to develop different flavors and colors, as is the case with reposado tequila. 

100% Agave Tequilas

When browsing through different types of tequila the first indicator of quality to look for is a label that reads “100% de agave,” says Alba Huerta, an IACP award–winning bartender, author, cocktail educator, and owner of Houston-based bar Julep. Artisanal tequilas, which are made from 100% blue agave, should have some version of this label. These artisanal tequilas are “the best example of an agricultural product from Mexico that is not only ancestral but also a representation of its terroir,” says Huerta. 

Mixto Tequilas 

If your bottle of tequila doesn’t say “100% pure agave,” then it is likely a “mixto tequila.” Mixto tequilas — which are simply labeled “tequila” — are blends of pure agave along with additives and sugars not derived from the agave plant, such as cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Mixto tequilas legally need to contain at least 51% pure agave, but it’s not uncommon for the remaining 49% to be made up of these other ingredients.

Types of Tequila by Age

Regardless of whether a tequila is 100% agave or a mixto, it will be further categorized according to its age. To learn more about the four different ages of tequila available and what makes each of them unique, we consulted with Huerta to get her take.

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Tequila Blanco

Tequila Blanco is also sometimes referred to as silver tequila. This variety of tequila is considered the purest form of tequila, as it is typically bottled directly after distillation. Because tequila blanco is not aged or “rested” in oak barrels like the other varieties of tequila on this list, it maintains a clear shade. Tequila blanco can have a slight citrusy flavor. This is the variety of tequila used in most familiar cocktails, including margaritas and palomas. A few quality brands to look for are Espolòn, Patrón, and El Jimador.

Tequila Reposado

Tequila reposado refers to a slightly aged tequila — reposado translates to “rested” in Spanish. Just like tequila blanco, tequila reposado is made from the blue agave plant, which is fermented and then distilled. After distillation, tequila reposado is aged between two months and one year in oak barrels. It should have a light amber hue. Tequila reposado typically has flavors of oak, vanilla, and citrus. Huerta says that tequila reposado can sometimes be used in place of tequila blanco in cocktails — especially classic ones that are fruit-forward, such as margaritas. Some popular brands that sell tequila reposado include Casamigos, Don Julio, Fortaleza, and Herradura. 

Tequila Añejo

Tequila añejo is a tequila that has been aged one to four years — añejo translates to “vintage” or “old” in Spanish. This variety of tequila is aged in American or French oak barrels, has a dark amber color, and has notes of oak, vanilla, and caramel. Tequila añejo is usually considered the smoothest of all types of tequila and is best enjoyed by itself rather than in cocktails or over ice. However, some proponents say tequila añejo’s subtle oak and vanilla undertones make it a great swap for dark liquors. For example, you can swap it for the bourbon in an old fashioned or the cognac in a vieux carré. While the lengthy aging time means that tequila añejo can be expensive, the brands Don Julio, Hornitos, and Cazadores all sell relatively affordable versions. 

Tequila Extra Añejo

Less common than other versions on this list is tequila extra añejo, which is tequila that is aged at least three years or more in oak barrels. Tequila extra añejo has a very dark amber color, and typically has flavors of oak and vanilla as well as spices like cinnamon. Huerta says that some types of añejo tequilas might be marketed as “sipping tequilas” because they are produced in small quantities and tend to be expensive, so they are considered special-occasion drinks. Brands such as Patron, Jose Cuervo, and Tequila Mandala Dia de Muertos all sell tequila extra añejo, although they come with a hefty price tag — some of the cheapest bottles sell for around $100. But if you enjoy a good aged tequila for a special occasion, it’s definitely worth the splurge, says Huerta.