When it comes to the spirits native to Mexico, the topic can be a little confusing, if not altogether intimidating. Is mezcal a tequila? Or is tequila a mezcal? Can tequila be made anywhere in the world? How is mezcal made? What’s the difference between blanco, reposado, and añejo? To answer a few of these, in its simplest form, mezcal is any spirit made from the agave plant. Tequila is made from agave, which means it’s also a mezcal. But by law, tequila can only be made from the specific Blue Weber agave within the Mexican state of Jalisco (as well as a few other approved districts in neighboring states) in order to use the term “tequila” on the label. As for how it’s made, there’s a lot to explain, but let’s just say the natural juices from the agave plant are extracted, fermented, and distilled into a final spirit. There are traditional ways to do this (which purists feel is the only way to go) and modern ways to do this (which some feel has taken away from showcasing the true character of agave). As for the different styles of blanco, reposado, añejo, and more, this has to do with the amount of time, if any, a tequila has spent aging in oak barrels—blanco indicates zero barrel aging, whereas reposado and añejo have seen progressively more time in barrel respectively.
One thing all of these spirits have in common is their origin from agave, a cactus-like plant that grows in myriad varieties all across Mexico. In the same way wines are made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Riesling, agave spirits are also characterized by variety. Blue Weber, Espadín, Tobalá, Cuishe, and Cenizo are all examples of different agave.
But we don’t need to get too deep into the weeds on agave spirits here. Most people who are curious to dip their toe into the subject simply need to taste the different available examples. They just need a little guidance from a pro, which is where Alfredo Sanchez comes in. Sanchez is a certified Tequila expert and student of all things related to agave spirits.
Originally from Mexico City, Sanchez began his career in hospitality at the age of 15 in a restaurant office before graduating to bartender at 18. He later moved to Puerto Vallarta and then studied at the Mexican Academy of Tequila to become certified as a Tequila Expert. In 2006, he joined the Four Seasons Punta Mita team as a Bartender and Tequila Barista, building a collection of more than 200 tequilas from across the country. He later moved to the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas as Bar Manager of the resort’s Outlaw Taproom.
Now at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe, Sanchez is the general manager of the resort’s signature restaurant Terra and Terra Bar’s beverage program. Though he has cultivated an inventive, ever-changing menu of signature, handcrafted cocktails, local brews, beer, cocktails, and wines, he has never forgotten his passion for agave spirits and helping others gain an appreciation for them.
“I think oftentimes, people have misunderstood agave spirits, myself included. It’s especially true if your only experience has been with drinking tequila shots. But really, every sip of an agave spirit has a story printed on it. From the savory, wild notes of a coastal raicilla, where the ocean meets the mountains, to extra-aged tequila that competes with some of the best bourbons, or the smoky, fruity, and herbal notes of an Oaxacan mezcal, evocative of a good mole from southern Mexico,” says Sanchez.
Sanchez recalls his “aha” moment with tequila after moving from Mexico City to work and study in Puerto Vallarta. “It was very close to Tequila, Jalisco and I began to realize how misinformed I was about our national spirit,” says Sanchez. He began making time to visit distilleries throughout the region, learning from the different producers and gaining an appreciation for the pride they took in their work.
“I remember the first time I tasted an extra añejo tequila for the first time, and I was amazed at how it continued evolving in the glass. It made me think about how much work, passion, and time is required to make a single drop of this elixir,” says Sanchez. “The agave plant itself is an amazing thing. There are so many things you can use it for. It makes paper, straws, sweeteners, cooking, and more. It’s just part of the Mexican culture.”
Indeed whether tequila, mezcal, or raicilla, the unique flavor of these spirits comes from the evolution of the different varieties of agave plants. As most agave can take a minimum of seven or eight years to mature, if not longer, patience is a key factor in making good agave spirits. Depending on the different varieties, producers have to select the best plants and wait for the right moment to harvest.
Each producer adds their own fingerprint to the expression of their agave spirit. Some blend different varieties together for mezcal. Others use different yeasts for fermentation to focus on certain flavors. And each agave spirit reveals something different depending on how it has been aged, whether in cask or not.
“In my personal experience, a good bottle of tequila always opens doors and satisfies the most demanding palates around the world, no matter the culture or age. I always tell people, ‘there is a tequila waiting to be discovered by you.”
People are always asking Sanchez for a list of his favorite agave spirits, a question he confesses is always hard to pin down because there are just too many from which to choose. We managed to get him to settle on ten recommendations that most people can find out in the market. Included is his list in his own words, in no particular order of preference.
In Mexico, Tequila “Don Julio” was a legend before it became something mainstream. Don Julio Blanco was considered one of the best blanco tequilas for decades after he founded the distillery in 1942. This tequila is the creation of Gonzalez’s grandson, Eduardo “Lalo” Gonzalez, who has taken a new approach to his tequila, but with an appreciation for what his grandfather began. This tequila tastes like the good old days. It is a small-batch tequila made with blue agave grown in the highlands area of Jalisco. It smells like cooked agave and cinnamon, with light cajeta notes as well as minty and citrus. Don Lalo is your option if you’re looking for the perfect tequila to always have at home. It’s perfect for enjoying by itself or in a cocktail. Try it in a Ranch Water cocktail for the pool days.
The first time I met Guillermo Erikson Sauza, he explained his vision for Tequila “Los Abuelos,” or “Fortaleza,” I fell in love with the brand. (It’s more commonly referred to in Mexico as Los Abuelos, but “Fortaleza” in the international market.) Sauza is the founder of Fortaleza tequila and the grandson of Don Francisco, one of the original family members of Casa Sauza. In 1976, Tequila Sauza was purchased by Beam Suntory and grew into a globally-recognized brand. Though a modern version of Tequila Sauza is distributed worldwide, trying to see how it tasted 100 years ago when it was more of an artisan product is a bit more challenging. Except with Fortaleza. This brand has revived the way Sauza was made in the original distillery. It’s like tasting a bottle full of history. It offers subtle notes of vanilla, apple, and earth and has a long and rich finish, perfect for beginners and connoisseurs. It’s an excellent tequila for margaritas, but try switch out Triple sec for Aperol, add fresh grapefruit and lime, and a little agave honey for a delicious twist on a classic. Salud!
This tequila comes from Casa Tequileña, owned by Enrique Fonseca, a fifth-generation grower and master distiller who holds one of the largest plots of tequila in the industry. Using blue agave sourced from the highlands region, this tequila is aged in French oak from the Loire Valley as well as in used barrels that had previously aged Canadian whiskey and Bourbon. I like this brand because it is a project that showcases regional tequilas from distinct altitudes, heritage, agave cultivation, and distillation. NOM refers to the distillery in which different tequilas are made. The tequilas from ArteNOM show how different tequilas are a true artistic expression of their distillery or NOM. This Añejo offers notes of spice, toffee, walnuts, and orange. It’s my favorite to sip with a spicy crême brulée.
One of the most respected families in the highlands of Jalisco, the Camarena family, takes pride in making their tequila in the traditional method from scratch. From tahona-pit extraction to small copper pot still distillation. Created by Don Felipe Camarena in collaboration with Alain Royer of A. de Fussigny Cognac, this tequila is aged five years in used Cognac barrels. El Tesoro is complex with a nice balance of sweetness, minerality, and herbs. In many ways, it tastes like extra-aged tequila with a restrained oak vanillin oak impression that doesn’t overshadow the natural agave flavors.
This is another agave spirit with pedigree. Master Disller Germán González Gorrochotequi is the son of Guillermo González Diaz Lombardo, who created Tequila Chinaco. The Tears of Llorona refers to a myth told throughout South America of a young woman driven mad by her unfaithful husband. La Llorona translates to “the one who cries.” It is said she wanders the landscape of Mexico, crying tears of sorrow and regret. This tequila is a special find. A blend that has been aged for five years in scotch, brandy, and sherry oak barrels, this tequila has notes of caramel, dried fruits, and dark chocolate and is spicy and rich on the palate. It’s delicious with chocolate desserts.
Tasting the evolution of a plant is not something you experience every day. The entire Mezcal Amaras portfolio is made with the philosophy of honoring the sun’s cycle every year. It has been described as “Bebo del sol su sangre,” or “Drink from the sun, its blood.” Made from a smaller variety of agave known cupreata, which is known in other parts of Mexico as Maguey papalote, this spirit takes a lot of patience to produce. The plant takes about 13 years to develop the maturity to be ready. The agaves are sourced from the slopes of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and are distilled in the village of Mazatlán in the state of Guerrero. This mezcal is simply delicious with light herbaceous, vegetal, citrus, and leather notes. It’s not as smoky as other mezcals. The producer describes it as taking an excursion through the forests of Guerrero.
This is one of my favorite agaves from Oaxaca. Spirits can evoke memories, and this one reminds me of my grandma’s garden in the morning after a freshly fallen rain. Madre-Cuishe grows in the wild for around 12 years. Aromas are earthy with notes of citrus and smoke. The finish is long and lingering. This is excellent for sipping with fresh raw vegetables like carrots and cucumbers with lime and Tajin. Or if you want to go sweet, this mezcal with a mandarin and cardamon sorbet is a must.
Pechuga is the “special reserve” of mezcales from Oaxaca. It’s a traditional style of mezcal typically produced in small batches with a third distillation that includes seasonal fruits, spices, and seeds. A hen breast is typically hung over the still, cooking in the rising steam with drippings falling into the final spirit. The Real Minero pechuga is a family recipe from owner Angeles Carreno. His family has been producing artisanal and ancestral mezcal, made in small clay pot stills. mezcal in Oaxaca for generations. This particular mezcal is made in small quantities each year. It offers notes of tropical fruit, anise, raisins, dark chocolate, and licorice.
If you want to be considered an agave expert, then raicilla needs to be on your list. A cousin of tequila in the way Armagnac is to Cognac, this spirit hails from Jalisco, but rather than being steamed like tequila, it’s roasted like mezcal. Raicilla is made from two different wild agaves, Rhodecantha (harvested at 12 years) and Angustifolia (harvested at eight years). This spirit is as wild as the agaves used to produce it. Rustic in nature, raicilla offers notes of wood smoke, aromas of farmyard notes. La Venenosa Costa is savory and herbal, with a touch of bitterness. It has a mineral quality to it with a menthol, aniseed character on the finish. It may be more of an acquired taste, but it’s easy to enjoy once you appreciate its uniqueness. Raicilla is perfect with some blue cheese toast with arugula and fig compote.
One of the top tequila distilleries, Caballito Cerrero was founded in 1968 by Don Alfonso Jimenez Rosales. A few of their traditionally-produced Tequilas do not fit within the guidelines of what can legally be called tequila, hence the label Destilado de Agave. Chato, the cousin of Agave Espadin, is widely used for mezcales from Oaxaca. This spirit is earthy and herbaceous with notes of tropical fruit and mineral, with hints of sweetness.