There's no question that tequila is the hottest trending spirit on the scene right now. It still has only a small percentage of the spirits market share in the U.S., but that number is growing every year, and the proliferation of dedicated tequila bars in major cities is a testament to its strong future. It's not uncommon for a bar to offer 100-plus different bottles of tequilas now, so when it's time to belly up to the bar, it can be confusing for even seasoned tequila drinkers to know what to order and how to go about ordering it. With that in mind, here's a basic primer for the various types of tequilas you'll want to order, the lingo you need to drop and some of the best examples of each.
As with any other well-known brand of spirit -- "premium" vodkas being the most blatant offender -- when you're paying top dollar for a famous tequila, you're often really paying for a hefty marketing budget. There are certainly quality products from high profile distillers -- Jose Cuervo's Reserve de la Familia and Gran Patrón Burdejos Añejo are two good (if pricey) examples -- but for the most part, the first rule of ordering tequila at the bar is to forget everything you think you know. As a rule of thumb, when you're starting to explore tequilas, if you've heard of it, don't order it.
Quality of tequila
If you're in a top-notch tequila bar, odds are they'll have selected the best representations of the spirit available. That means serving only 100% blue agave tequilas. Your average bar, particularly one that is slinging out subpar cocktails, will likely use mixtos for their rail tequilas. You want to avoid the these, as they are cheaper, blended alternatives. There are hundreds to choose from, so finding a 100% blue agave tequila shouldn't be too hard. The full spectrum of Herradura expressions is a good place to start, particularly the light honey of their reposado.
Wait, what is agave?
Agave tequilana, better known as blue agave, is the spiky-leafed plant (unrelated to the cactus, despite what many people think) from which tequila is made. After it finishes its maturation process (roughly 12 years), the heart of the plant is removed and cooked. The sappy byproduct of that process is fermented and then distilled in the production of tequila.
There are a number of different types of tequila with a name that refers to how long each has been aged. The three you need to know are simple and easy to remember. Blancos, aka silver or white tequilas, are un-aged and go straight to bottling after distillation. They are clear because they haven't come into contact with wood in the aging process. These are the ones you'll want to order if you're drinking a margarita, since they are cheaper, and you won't risk diluting an older expression's complexity with juice and sugar. Milagro sells a highly drinkable silver tequila, with a light pepper taste that comes through. Another good option is Casa Noble's Blanco tequila.
Reposado tequilas begin to get some exposure to aging in wood casks, where they are smoothed out and pull in some of the oak flavor. Lunazul Reposado is one example among many, bringing vanilla and citrus to the mix. Anejos are the sweet spot for sipping tequilas. They've done time in barrels for at least a year, during which time they often pull in caramel, cinnamon and sometimes chocolate flavors from the wood.
Depending on which type of tequilas you order, you'll want to sip relatively slowly. With a fine anejo, or an extra anejo aged even longer, like the Campo Azul Grand Anejo, you do not want to drink it as a shot. Not just because a serving can cost anywhere between $15 to $200, but because you'll miss out on actually tasting it. The common tequila serving glass is called a caballito, a 2 oz. serving glass. Better still is to ask for your tequila in a dedicated tequila serving glass, like the ones made by Riedel -- slender 6.75-ounce glasses that allow you to treat the tequila like a fine wine.
What about salt and limes?
Do not. This is a rookie move, referred to as "training wheels." Unless you're a frat dude on spring break, or want to be perceived as one, skip this silly routine. Margaritas, particularly bad ones, are increasingly being seen as a waste of good tequila, as well. Make sure the bar you're at only uses fresh-squeezed citrus and quality orange liqueurs. Anything beyond the standard margarita recipe, like the addition of overly sweet fruit juices or pucker-flavored liqueurs, and you're edging into tourist-in-Margaritaville territory. When in doubt, think about what the guys on Entourage would do. Then do the opposite.
Keep in mind here that the goal is to start being able to actually taste the tequilas you're drinking, so watering them down with outside ingredients defeats the purpose. That said, there are a few refreshing tequilas cocktails you can order. The Paloma is a traditional Mexican cocktail made with lime juice and grapefruit soda, although it's made better with fresh-squeezed grapefruit. Subbing in tequila in a Bloody Mary is another great way to ween yourself off vodka. The spicier options, like Esperanto Silver, with white-pepper heat, blend well with spicier recipes. Manhattan drinkers might even consider subbing rye with a bold anejo for a spicier take on the classic.