Rethink the lime and salt.

Maria Yagoda
September 13, 2017

Tequila, the Mexican spirit made from blue agave, is one of the world’s most beloved yet misunderstood liquors. All too often, low-quality tequilas served internationally are blended with additives and bottled in fancy-looking containers, and high-quality ones are shot back with salt and lime, compromising the sophistication of its flavor.

While everyone should feel empowered to drink liquor any way they want, we’re offering a simple guide to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself when you order your tequila neat. The part where you embarrass yourself happens after.

Know what to look for.

If you’re interested in enjoying a quality tequila and not, say, blacking out with the boys, there are a few things to keep in mind. “Look for 100 percent agave, no additives and usually ones that come from a single producer,” says TJ Steele, chef at the Oaxacan restaurant Claro. “There are two main regions that produce tequila; the highlands typically produce sweeter and fruitier tequilas, while the ones from the lowlands are often spicier and earthier.”

Ditch the salt and lime.

If you need to take a moment to recover from this bombshell, we understand.

“Unless you're tasting a bunch of tequilas and want lime to cleanse your palate, I say no—and definitely never use salt,” adds Steele. Rather, tequila should be sipped thoughtfully.

“It’s always good to understand the expression by itself, so neat is always better, just to sip it, same as a good scotch or whiskey,” says José María Dondé Rangel, a bartender at Cosme in New York. “Once you’re used to it and know the flavor by itself, you can go ahead and mix in a cocktail.”

Skip the ice.

To maximize flavor, tequila should be served just below room temperature.

Pay attention to the type you’re ordering.

Joven (gold) tequilas are typically Blanco mixtos bottled with added coloring and flavoring. They tend to be cheaper, which is why they’re a popular choice for bartenders cranking out mixed drinks. (Though per this handy tequila guide, Joven tequila can also be a blend of Blanco with Reposado or Añejo, so check your labels. Casa Dragones has a delicious one.)

Another thing to avoid? Getting wrapped up in the star power of whichever celebrity is attached to a bottle. “The biggest mistake people make when ordering tequila is choosing based on the label,” says José María. “They need to understand the tequila beyond commercials and George Clooney and Hollywood types.” 

Use your bartender as a resource.

“A really key component of tequila’s flavor is the amount of time spent in wood,” says Steele. “You can choose from unaged Blanco to super-aged Extra Añejo. Tell your bartender what you prefer and ask what she recommends based on your tastes.”

Remember the difference between tequila and mezcal.

And remember that tequila is technically a mezcal. Basically, mezcal is defined as any agave-based liquor, and tequila is a type of mezcal made exclusively with blue agave (agave tequilana.) All tequila comes from one of five places in Mexico: Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas or Jalisco.

Know your varietals.

Tequila comes in three varieties: Blanco (silver or plato/0-2 months aging,) Reposado (2-12 months) and Añejo (1-3 years.) Blanco, which is clear, is the most common type. If complexity is what you’re after, aging the tequila for over one year in wooden barrels lends Añejo the richest flavor.

Follow the rules … but also break them.

Skip the margarita. Aged tequilas make surprisingly delicious substitutions for the brown spirits typically used in Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and other classic cocktails. Also, don’t hate us, but tequila is really delicious in guacamole.

“There is no wrong way to enjoy your tequila, as long as it’s 100% agave,” says Enrique de Colsa, the master distiller at Don Julio. So, we’re pretty sure he just gave us permission to eat tequila guacamole.