We’ve come a long way from the days when tequila was seen as little more than a cheap hangover helper. Over the last decade, Americans have turned to sipping the spirit instead, and the category has become among the fastest-growing in the world: According to the Distilled Spirits Council, “high-end” tequila sales are up 292 percent since 2002. (Not to mention the jaw-dropping valuations of companies like Casamigos, which sold last month to Diageo for a cool $1 billion.)
All of this stateside clamoring has lead to plenty of subterfuge when it comes to sourcing and, even worse, worker exploitation and environmental issues. That’s why it become so crucial to research who actually makes the tequila we buy, and to know where it is being produced; who and where each producer is acquiring their agave from; how they are roasting and milling it; and whether all of this is being done ethically and in a sustainable manner. This remains a challenge, but thankfully many of the better brands these days, like Selección ArteNOM and Siembra Valles (highlighted below), are now disclosing much of this information on their labels, placing transparency above eye-catching bottle design and a press release-ready story.
In searching for value-driven sipping tequilas, we focused on price (all of the 24 tequilas we tasted blind were under $50) and drinkability among blanco, reposado and añejo offerings. The blanco bottlings fared best with the panel, which struggled with both reposado and añejo; too many of them masked the inherent peppery, grassy and mineral notes that make tequila so compelling.
For the tasting, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by Contributing Editor, Robert Simonson; Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent PUNCH contributor; and Dan Greenbaum, a longtime agave spirits lover and managing partner at Brooklyn’s Diamond Reef. Below are our top five picks, which, taken together, offer a snapshot of the widening spectrum of affordable tequila expressions on the market today.
Selección ArteNOM 1579 Blanco
ArteNOM’s forward-thinking distiller, Felipe Camarena, is the biggest name in the tequila industry today, having come from a long line of tequileros. ArteNOM is produced at the high-altitude Destilería El Pandillo (which was was completed in 2011), an eco-concious distillery that has invested in solar and wind power, water harvesting and hydropower; and recycling biowaste to prevent toxins from entering the environment. Camarena’s own hillside agave is slow-roasted then macerated intact, a process that he believes makes for a more pronounced agave flavor. Indeed, Greenbaum found it “aggressively vegetal,” while the group as a whole thought this would serve perfectly as a “mezcal lover’s tequila.”
- Price: $47
- ABV: 40 percent
El Tesoro de Don Felipe Platinum
Legendary tequilero Carlos Camarena (Felipe’s brother, and the producer of Tequila Ocho and Tapatio, in addition to El Tesoro, which launched in 1990) produces this traditional highland tequila at his La Alteña distillery in Arandas, Jalisco. (His plants are also sourced from the family’s estate, which was opened by Camarena’s grandfather, in 1937.) Peppery and slightly smoky with notes of stone fruit, this balanced the leanness and acidity of great highland tequila with an almost waxy mouthfeel.
- Price: $45
- ABV: 40 percent
Tapatio Blanco 110
Another blanco courtesy of Carlos Camarena and La Alteña, this overproof offering is produced at the maximum ABV allowed by tequila standards. The Tapatio line has been around since 1940, but the 110 is a newer offering, introduced in 2013 in partnership with the avant-garde American distiller, Marko Karakasevic. Made from Camarena’s estate-grown highland agave, which is slow-baked for four days, it has a concentrated flavor of tropical fruits and spicy peppers, rounded out by an almost oily mouthfeel. While a bit hot for straight sipping, it benefits from a splash of water and is especially well-suited to use in cocktails.
- Price: $41
- ABV: 55 percent
Siembra Valles High Proof Blanco
David Suro is a Philadelphia-based tequila connoisseur who, after immigrating to the U.S. in 1985, returned to his native Guadalajara to begin producing his Siembra Valles (“Valley Harvest”) line of tequilas. Coming from the volcanic Valles region, Suro works with the Rosales family of Distileria Cascahuín (founded in 1956). Fermented in both a stone mampostería and in stainless steel tanks, bagasse (agave’s pulpy residue) is used in concert with yeast to introduce more flavor, a process rarely used by commercial producers. This is complex and tropical, with notes of roasted pineapple, vanilla and a slightly mentholated aspect, similar to eucalyptus. Rich, but biting on the finish, this was our favorite tequila in the tasting. (Siempre Valles’ reposado was also our favorite pick of the oak-aged tequilas, even if it didn’t quite crack the top five.)
- Price: $39
- ABV: 46 percent
Cabo Wabo Blanco
One of America’s first imported 100-percent blue agave tequilas was, yes, started by Sammy Hagar. Founded in 1996, Cabo Wabo was initially produced at family-run distilleries like Tequila El Viejito (established in 1937), Agaveros Unidos de Amatitan and Impulsora Rombo-Amatitan. Following purchase of the brand by Campari Gruppo, in 2007, it’s now produced at the brand’s own Destiladora San Nicolas in Jalisco. Some say the product hasn’t been the same since the switch, but it nevertheless remains quite good. The brick oven-cooked agave is shredder milled, naturally fermented and double distilled, yielding intriguing notes of mustard seed, followed by a rich mouthfeel and a clean, peppery finish.
- Price: $31
- ABV: 40 percent