“Can you recommend a good tequila?” This is a simple question just about anyone who has an interest in agave spirits likely gets asked by friends, colleagues and family members. But when it comes to modern tequila, it demands a leading follow-up question: Good how?
Almost exactly four years ago, in the long, long ago, we compiled a list of blanco tequilas for a blind tasting with some of our favorite tequila drinkers. It was a month after George Clooney’s Casamigos became a unicorn, selling to Diageo for a whopping $1 billion. It seemed like the peak before an inevitable downslope of celebrity-backed tequila. Surely the market could only bear so many; surely this was an aberration. But this year, we gathered again on the heels of the well-publicized, and roundly criticized, release of Kendall Jenner’s 818 Tequila, as well as tequilas from The Rock, Nick Jonas and Elon Musk. Each new high-profile release has made that follow up question—Good how?—more of a mainstream concern than just an industry one. It’s no longer just a question of transparency around who is actually making the spirit, but also How?, and Who actually benefits?
Luckily, in the four years since our last gathering, there are not just more celebrity tequila brands, but a greater selection of tequilas from artisan brands who have made great farming, fair labor practices and the preservation of traditional methods their mission. In a blind tasting of more than 15 expressions from a wide range of producers, we’re happy to report that it’s those brands that win when it comes to flavor profile as well.
Within the category of blanco tequila, just what should that profile be? “It should not taste like vanilla or Crayola crayons,” said Ivy Mix, co-owner of the Brooklyn cocktail bar Leyenda and author of Spirits of Latin America, noting that even tequilas labeled “100 percent agave” can contain additives like oak extract and corn syrup. For her, a great blanco tequila, which should be as at home in a cocktail as it is neat in a glass, “should have good acidity and rich cooked agave flavor backed by robust black pepper that carries through or [a] citrusy and floral [profile].”
Lynnette Marrero, bar director for Llama Inn and Llama San and a co-founder, with Mix, of Speed Rack, insists that it also can’t be a bit player. “It has to have a presence, it has to stand out,” she says, explaining that she favors blancos that have an “earthy, saline, savory” profile that will pair well with food.
In searching for best-in-class blanco tequilas, we focused on value (all 16 tequilas were under $50, or right at that mark) and bottlings that were singular without breaking from the flavors that have come to define what we love about blanco tequila: saline, mineral, grassy, earthy and, above all, pure. For the tasting, the PUNCH editors were joined by both Mix and Marrero. At best, the field showed the incredible range that Blue Weber agave can express and, at worst, unevenness in terms of quality, most often manifesting in spirits that delivered on the aromatics, but struggled to have the kind of textural complexity and completeness of our top picks. But let’s focus on the positives, shall we?
Without further ado, here are our top five.
Tequila G4 Blanco
Produced at the groundbreaking Destilería El Pandillo, located just southeast of his brother Carlos’ La Alteña distillery (El Tesoro, Tapatio, Ocho), the bottlings in Felipe Camarena’s G4 line of tequilas exhibit a way forward for the spirit that blends both innovation (bespoke equipment, solar and wind power, recycling biowaste) and tradition (natural fermentation, zero-pesticide farming) to produce bottlings that are truly singular. This blanco shows the more floral side of Highlands tequila, with notes of lavender and cilantro flower joined by pepper, which carries over to a palate that strikes just the right balance between rich and tense.
- Price: $44
Siembra Valles Blanco
Coming from the volcanic Lowlands region, David Suro works with the Rosales family of Destilería Cascahuín (who also bottle their own excellent tequilas, now available stateside) to make his line of Siembra Valles tequilas. With the agave fermented in both a stone mampostería and in stainless steel tanks, bagasse (agave’s pulpy residue) is used in concert with the yeast to introduce more flavor, a process rarely used by commercial producers. This is complex and lush, with notes of roasted pineapple and papaya, pepper and anise. Rich but tightly knit on the palate, this was, once again, our favorite tequila in the tasting.
- Price: $50
El Tesoro de Don Felipe Blanco
Legendary tequilero Carlos Camarena (producer of Tequila Ocho and Tapatio, in addition to El Tesoro) produces this traditional Highlands tequila at his La Alteña distillery in Arandas, Jalisco. This is classic Highlands blanco through and through: earthy and peppery, with notes of lemongrass that carry into a saline, sinewy palate.
- Price: $46
La Gran Señora Blanco
Another Highlands tequila from another Camarena, this time Doña Elena of Casa Camarena. La Gran Señora, which was new to most of the tasters, is the distillery’s top line. This was a richer, more straight-ahead expression, showing notes of cooked agave and chamomile and a palate that revealed a tarry, earthy quality and touch of mellow sweetness.
- Price: $48
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 newer, introduced in 2013 in partnership with distiller Marko Karakasevic. Made from Camarena’s estate-grown Highlands agave, which is slow-roasted for four days, it is full of earthy minerality on the nose and palate, backed by intense notes of lemon curd and dried herbs. It was the most lush in the bunch, showing the same oily mouthfeel that tasters pinpointed in our previous blind tasting of it.
- Price: $48 1L