I have been making tequila since 2010. As the cofounder and spiritsmaker of Greenbar Distillery, LA’s first since Prohibition, I like to do things myself. That means, three times a year, I pack a carry-on bag that sometimes includes special white powder (yeast, dude) and head for the border.
In a little village outside the town of Tequila (yup, the town is called Tequila), I set up temporary shop in a small distillery. It’s got a great view of the local hills and some fields of agave, which is what you use to make the stuff of future Margaritas. I like to mix old-fashioned techniques with modern ones to make our brand, IXA.
And in the years I’ve been hanging out in Mexico and making tequila, I’ve witness the debunking of a number of myths. Now I’d like to pass them on so we can all look cool at the bar. Happy reading—and drinking…
Grab your favorite tequila, learn who actually makes it by finding the code of the distillery, called NOM, and look online to see what else they make that costs less. Odds are, it’s the same thing you’re drinking now with different branding.
1. If it’s called tequila, it’s totally tequila.
There’s plenty of stuff on store shelves with the word “tequila” on it but if you’re hunting for bargains on the bottom shelves, your bottle may be only about half tequila. That’s because the rest of it will be either something closer to rum or good old moonshine. Welcome to the subcategory of tequila called mixto, which means 49% of the bottle can be alcohol made from other ingredients like sugarcane or corn. There can also be additives like glycerin, caramel coloring and oak extract for added flavor and, you know, “complexity.” While the addition of corn or sugarcane alcohol aren’t necessarily a bad thing, the additives sure will add some spice to your hangover. Check that the label reads 100% de agave. Otherwise, you’re drinking mixto.
2. A guy named Don, his grandmother and their donkey make all the tequila.
What is it about a bottle of tequila that makes you think that? Most tequilas with fancy names on them don’t come from distilleries with the same name on the building. The vast majority are contract made by hundreds of small to enormous distilleries strewn across the tequila zone of Mexico. The rare outlier is a guy like me who rents out a distillery and makes his own tequila his way. The rest have the same juice from the same places with just different labels and bottles. If you don’t want to overpay for the fancy packaging, grab your favorite tequila, find who actually makes it by finding the code of the distillery, called NOM, and look online to see what else they make that costs less. Odds are, it’s the same thing you’re drinking now with different branding.
Left: The author hanging with some agave. Right: Greenbar’s tempting tequila lineup.
3. The best tequila is found in Mexico.
Think your next vacation to Playa del Carmen will come with a glass of the best silver tequila ever? Not unless they have a distiller friend who’ll break out the house stash for you. Pretty much all the good stuff is saved for export. That’s why locals drink reposado tequila (slightly aged) and hardly touch silver (unaged), the quality of which can be sketchy. They also drink reposado tequila straight, not in cocktails. When you get back to the States, take a moment to appreciate just how special your quality silver tequila really is.
4. You can make tequila anywhere.
You can make an alcohol that tastes like tequila anywhere you want but you can’t call it tequila. Just like real Champagne and Cognac, tequila has an appellation that’s restricted to five Mexican states, including Jalisco. If someone makes tequila outside of this designated zone, it must be called something else. Inside Mexico, there are three other major kinds of agave alcohols and some have their own protected appellations, including Mezcal, Bacanora and Sotol. Outside Mexico, they must be called agave spirit. Sexy, right?
5. Mezcal is better than tequila.
That’s just trends talking. Mezcal is enjoyable but it’s not a new thing. In Mexico, people often refer to anything not tequila but made from an agave variant as mezcal. The stuff we see in the U.S. is usually produced in Oaxaca and eight other Mexican states and generally made by smaller distilleries using many different types of agave. Tequila, on the other hand, is only made from Weber Blue agave and the process is highly regulated. Is mezcal better? Depends a lot on how much you enjoy the taste of smoke, because whereas distillers steam agave to make tequila, they roast it to make mezcal, which makes it a little to a lot smokier. Easy way to figure out if mezcal could be your thing is to ask yourself how much you enjoy smoky, peated Scotch. If you love it, grab a bottle of mezcal and give it a whirl. If you prefer sweeter Scotches and whiskeys, you’re probably going to love tequila more.
Lead photo: iStock/Getty Images Plus/igorr1