Giada Weekly Talks Top-Shelf Tequila

The new generation of tequilas is best served neat, on the rocks, or with a twist.

It may surprise you to learn that one of my favorite drinks isn’t Italian at all. It’s true: I have a weakness for tequila—but I’m not talking about the tequila from which frozen margaritas are made. The tequila I enjoy is 100% agave, artisan-made and the idea is to sip it, not to shoot it. It’s more like a good whiskey, and it’s responsible in large part for tequila’s transformation from frat-party beverage to high-end spirit.​

“We don’t shoot tequila with lime in Mexico. We sip it.” —German Gonzalez, master distiller and T1 Tequila founder

I’m definitely not alone in my fondness for the good stuff! Super-premium tequila is the main driver behind the growth of US sales, which more than doubled between 2003 and 2013 (from $962 million to $2 billion). And last year, for the first time, Americans drank more 100% agave tequila than mixto, which is made from agave mixed with something else—neutral spirit, artificial coloring, chemicals. “In order to call it tequila, it has to be 50% agave,” explains Rob Krueger, the bar director at Williamsburg’s Extra Fancy. So tequilas like Cuervo Gold and Montezuma are made from agave, but Krueger describes them as “tequila-flavored” rather than true 100% agave tequila.

“You want to start with 100% agave. That’s the first important thing.” —Rob Krueger, bar director, Extra Fancy

Behind the scenes at the Patron distillery in Jalisco. Clockwise from top left: The harvested agave goes into the oven for cooking; next, the cooked agave is crushed in the Tahona wheel; fermentation with the agave juice and fibers.

So, why is it important to get 100% agave tequila? Beyond the benefit of knowing what you’re consuming, “what’s special about the agave plant is that upward of 6, 7, 8 years goes into the agave,” says Krueger. “It’s a very noble plant that develops over a long period of time.” In other words, it’s much more sophisticated and nuanced than, say, sugarcane. Where the agave comes from can also come into play. As with wine, there are different “terroir,” or, soil characteristics, that can influence the flavor of the tequila. T1 tequilas, for example, are produced from agave grown in Los Altos, or the highlands, which results in a softer, rounder, more floral flavor. By comparison, tequilas made from agave in the Tequila Valley tend to be earthier, with more pepper and a masculine quality. Tequila Ocho takes the idea of terroir one step further, producing single-field tequilas, which could be substantially different from one another.

"Tequila has all the credentials to compete with single malts, whiskeys, cognacs, and other categories that have been in the luxury-spirit segment for years.” —Bertha González Nieves, master distiller and founder of Casa Dragones

Production method is also important. The best producers, says Krueger, use ovens to cook the agave, either whole or in large pieces. This process usually takes from 48 to 72 hours, sometimes longer, and gives the agave a sweet, earthy, rooty flavor that Krueger likens to a combo of sugarcane, honey, and sweet potato.

Bertha González Nieves is the founder of Casa Dragones and the first female master tequila distiller.

German Gonzalez, the founder of T1 Tequila, noses his Anejo Tequila, Tears of Llorona.

The next step is extracting the juice, which is done with either a roller mill or a tahona, a huge wheel that literally crushes out the juice. Neither method is necessarily better, just different; the former yields a tequila that is more citrusy, while the latter produces a spirit that’s more herbaceous. Some producers use one or the other (Fortaleza is tahona only, so is Patrón’s Roca line); others, like Olmeca Altos, use a combination.

And then, of course, there’s aging. Every tequila starts out as a blanco and, says German Gonzalez, master distiller and founder of T1 Tequila, “A good blanco is everything.” It’s the true test of the quality of the tequila and also the purest form you can drink—not to mention, clear spirits are arguably better for you. Reposado tequilas are aged in oak for two months to a year, and anejos are aged between one and three years. Anejos share a lot of characteristics with whiskeys and are a good entry point into tequila but, according to Krueger, the best way to find out what you like is to try a lot of tequila. Here are 10 to get your started, including my current favorite, the Clase Azul Reposado. For tasting, a flute-shaped glass or snifter is best, ice is optional, and sangrita, a combination of orange juice, lime juice, pomegranate juice, and hot sauce, is a nice way to reset your palate.