A Handy Guide to Buying Traditional Tequila

m0916_nb_tequila_a-1227c46a-295e-44a5-8ad2-716d531ed084
 Photograph by Nigel Cox

Distilling a batch of tequila once took weeks. Huge hearts of agave had to be slow-cooked for days, then left to ferment in the open air before being crushed by millstone. The process was simple, natural, and efficient enough — at least until Americans decided they liked tequila, too. So to keep up with demand, producers introduced all manner of modernity to the ritual: industrial shredders, artificial chemicals and enzymes, pressurized steam ovens. The casualties of industrialization, though, are nuances in flavor. With every step of the process that's skipped or sped up, tequila risks becoming nothing more than vodka Mexicano. Luckily, there are a few old-school tequilas still holding the line, as well as a few newer ones looking to the past for inspiration. And whether it's sipped straight or in a cocktail, you can tell the difference in the rich agave flavor that's a bit like tupelo honey. Here are the time-honored production methods that make these throwback tequilas so special, and the best bottles to seek out.

Slow-Cooked

Hearts of agave can weigh hundreds of pounds, so in the old days they were cooked over low heat for at least a day — far longer than mass-produced brands. Fermentation took even longer, relying on temperamental native yeasts rather than artificial yeasts and accelerating enzymes. Fortaleza ($50) cooks its agave in brick ovens for 36 hours, and Siembra Azul ($37) ferments its agave with champagne yeast for nine long days.

Rock and Rolled

Once cooked, the agave is mashed to a pulp. Today most hearts are pureed in mechanical shredders, but some producers still crush their agave in an old-fashioned stone mill called a tahona. "The gentle pressing by a tahona produces a rounder, smoother tequila," says Chantal Martineau, author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila. Roca Patrón Silver ($70), Olmeca Altos Plata ($25), and Siete Leguas ($49) all use tahonas for a richer flavor.

Still Strength

Tequila in the U.S. is typically watered down to 80 proof. But before industrialization, the spirit was routinely bottled north of 90 proof, out of respect for the complexity of the spirit — and the kick is unmistakable. In cocktails like Tommy's Margarita (see below), bold flavors of ripe fruit from overproof tequilas such as Tapatio 110 ($58) and El Luchador ($55) muscle past the lime juice and take center stage.

Tommy's Margarita

You can drink any of these tequilas straight, but here's the best cocktail for getting to know a new bottle.

  • 2 oz blanco tequila
  • 1 oz lime juice
  • ¾ oz agave nectar syrup*

Shake with ice; strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

*Dilute agave nectar with an equal volume of water.