Skip to main content

How to taste tequila like you know what you’re doing

Put down the shot glass — this is tequila tasting for grown-ups

Tequila can get a bad rap as nothing but a party drink. Too often, we tend to either shoot it thoughtlessly or cover up its flavor with juices, syrups, and little paper umbrellas. And while of course we all love a tasty margarita, good-quality tequila on its own is actually something to be savored. Like any other spirit or wine, tequila quality varies immensely, and it’s possible that those of us who’ve always been prone to drown our tequila in Triple Sec just may not have had the good stuff until now. Or perhaps we just haven’t yet taken the time to get familiar with the popular Mexican spirit as anything but a fraternity favorite. We say it’s time to turn that around.

A group of agave plants
Lindsay Parrill/The Manual

A common confusion is the difference between mezcal and tequila. While both are spirits made from agave, tequila is made specifically and only from Blue Weber Agave plants. Mezcal, however, can be made from any type of agave and often varies tremendously in its flavor. Essentially, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

Related Videos

The process of making tequila is a complicated and impressive one. Good tequila, which is made from agave that is laboriously harvested, carved, roasted, pressed, distilled, and aged, is smooth and warming to the body and soul. Its flavor can be rich and complex, an homage to the time and care that made it, or bright, zesty, and fresh, reminiscent of a newly harvested agave.

To properly taste tequila, we must first understand its different forms and what to look for in terms of flavor.

Glasses of tequila lined up for tasting
Lindsay Parrill/The Manual

Understanding tequila as art

Master Distiller Carlos Camarena of El Tesoro Tequila painted the perfect picture, so to speak, when he recently described to us the layered flavors of different tequilas. Each tequila maker and brand has its own particular variations and bottles, but for the most part, tequila can be broken down into five categories: Blanco, Reposado, Anejo, Extra Anejo, and Ultra Anejo. Blanco is the base that hasn’t aged, or, as Camarena describes it, the “art.” Each aging step after that, as denoted by the corresponding tequila types, is represented by different frames that show off the art, with increasing adornment.

As tequila ages, flavors become more complex, and the “frames” become more ornate. While Blanco tequila is the art, Reposado tequila (the youngest aged variety) represents a thin, delicate frame around that masterpiece. Anejo is a thicker frame with some added ornament, and so on. By the time you get to Ultra Anejo — which is classified as having been aged for more than five years — the art is enveloped in a heavily gilded, ornately carved frame adorned with gems and golden embellishments.

This simple but genius metaphor from Camarena may help you understand the complexity of tequila flavor as you learn to taste and appreciate it properly.

Olmeca Altos Tequila Plata

Taste with your nose first

As with wine, tequila tasting is a multi-sense experience. The scent of a tequila’s varying notes will hit your palate long before they reach your tongue. So inhale deeply, and try to distinguish which flavor notes you can pick up on. Like wine grapes, agave adopts its flavor from its terroir: The environment, soil, and other plants growing in the area. You may pick up hints of different fruits and natural elements. Common notes detected are cooked agave, sweet fruits and honeys, and smoky flavors like pepper, coffee and oak. The more your tequila has aged, the rounder and richer the flavor will be, unlike a Blanco tequila, which will have bright, green notes.

Gran Patron Burdeos tequila

Sip it, don’t shoot it

If your only experience with tequila is a foggy memory of spring break in Cancun circa 2008, this may be a new technique for you. Or, if you’re drinking bottom-shelf swill with the sole intention of getting drunk fast and feeling sick in the morning: By all means, plug your nose and douse your hand in lime juice and salt, ’cause you’re going to need it to cover up that motor oil taste.

However, if you’ve taken the time to learn about the importance of good tequila and spent more than a few bucks to actually savor it, there’s no need to cover up the flavor. Inhale deeply, then enjoy with small, thoughtful sips.

Six champagne flutes lined up

Glassware is important

You may be used to reaching for shot glasses when the tequila comes out, but if it’s a quality brand you want to enjoy, it’s time to rethink your glassware. Just like wine, tequila needs a little air to breathe. The more surface area it gets in your glass, the more your tequila will open up to show off its complexity. That’s why champagne flutes are actually the perfect vessel for good-quality tequila. When tipped slightly, their long bodies will allow a lot of surface area to get to your drink. Hold the flute by the stem, swirl, sniff, and taste.

Sure, you may feel a little pretentious giving your glass a snobby swirl like they do in the movies, but there’s a good reason for it. Swirling your glass allows oxygen to circulate through the drink, separating and enriching the varying aromas. So swirl away. If you’ve spent good money on a nice bottle of expensive tequila, you can afford to be a bit of an ass.

A field of agave plants
Lindsay Parrill/The Manual

Editors' Recommendations

Is erythritol harmful? What a dietitian says new data means for your Keto diet
Erythritol is common in many keto foods - what does that mean for your health?
erythritol in keto diet advice

While sugar substitutes have been around for more than a century, they didn't really become mainstream here in the United States until around the mid-70s. According to Carolyn De La Pena, professor of American Studies at UC Davis and author of Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, between 1975 and 1984, Americans increased their consumption of artificial sweeteners by 150 percent. This timeline makes sense when you take into account that the late seventies coincided with the start of our crazed diet culture and the revolving door of fad diets.
One such diet that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, however, is the Keto diet. Still hugely popular among Americans trying to shed a few pounds, Keto focuses heavily on limited or no carbohydrates. Because sugar contains carbohydrates, followers of Keto have turned to artificial sweeteners to satisfy those late-night cravings - sweeteners that, more often than not, contain erythritol. Erythritol in particular has become hugely popular because it's much better for baking than other sugar substitutes, has less of an artificial flavor, and will keep the eater in Ketosis, which is key for losing weight on the Keto diet.
A new study has made waves recently because its findings indicate there's a link between erythritol and higher rates of heart attack and stroke (though the study did note that only an association was found — not causation. So should you be worried?
We asked Dan LeMoine, RD, the award-winning author of Fear No Food and the Clinical Director at Phoenix-based Re:vitalize Nutrition, what he had to say about erythritol, including its benefits and potential health risks. "Artificial sweeteners are still sweeteners. While many are non-nutritive or zero-calorie, we tend to view them similarly as we do regular sweeteners or sugars — moderation is key. While many have amazing implications on weight loss – being low to no-calorie options and having little impact on blood sugar, some have their downside," he says.

While some of that sugar substitution has been good for waistlines and health issues that come from obesity, it seems to be causing more and more concern when it comes to other potential health issues. "For example," says LeMoine, "some research indicates the popular sweeteners stevia may have negative effects on the gut microbiome. And the recent study showing correlation between the sugar alcohol, erythritol, and heart attack and stroke."

Read more
Feeling adventurous? 5 of the weirdest cocktails from around the globe
Would you order a cocktail with a pickled human toe? You can in Canada, apparently
unusual and unique cocktails sourtoe cocktail

We all love a good cocktail, but it's easy to tire of the classics. There's nothing wrong with a perfectly frosty, salted-rimmed margarita, or a warm-to-your-bones, cherry-topped old-fashioned, but sometimes, you just want something new. Something that makes you think. Something that, perhaps, gives you a chuckle. These are those cocktails.
Pig's Blood Piña Colada (USA)

Back in 2014, bartender Jason Brown of Chicago's Kinmont restaurant and bar, concocted this cocktail after listening to a Werewolves of London lyric about a werewolf drinking a pina colada. His creativity sparked, and the "Werewolves of London" cocktail was born.

Read more
These foods high in melatonin will help you sleep better
Get a better sleep naturally by eating these 9 melatonin foods
Hands holding wine grapes.

Getting a quality night's sleep becomes more and more of a challenge as we age. Some of us have tried blackout curtains, sleep masks, weighted blankets, or any number of supplements promising better rest. If you're looking for an all-natural solution, though, melatonin is the way to go. Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally in the pineal gland in the brain. Among several functions, melatonin plays a key role in regulating the body’s circadian rhythms, or sleep-wake cycles. Accordingly, the pineal gland produces more melatonin when the sun goes down, and levels dip at daybreak. Foods high in melatonin or even melatonin supplements are a popular way to increase the concentration of melatonin and possibly improve the quality and quantity of sleep.
Melatonin supplements are typically non-habit-forming and safe for adults and children in doses of around 0.5 to 5 milligrams. However, melatonin supplements may cause drowsiness, nausea, and dizziness, and they can interfere with certain medications.

Fortunately, if you’re looking to support your body’s own natural melatonin levels but you don’t want to rely on supplements, there are several sleep-aid foods that contain melatonin. Adding any of these foods high in melatonin to your dinner plate or bedtime snack routine may help regulate your sleep patterns over time and help you get more restful sleep. Though little nutritional data exists about the specific concentration of melatonin in different foods, the following foods are known to be particularly high in melatonin.

Read more