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Thursday, May 6, 2021

17 Of The Best Tequilas (And 4 Superb Mezcals) To Try Right Now

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“Did you know that Filipino slaves—the ones brought to Mexico by the Galleon Trade—taught Mexicans to distill?”

No. No, I did not.

That was how my first phone call with Rebecca Quiñonez, a longtime spirits educator, started. In that moment, I felt massive shame that I had zero clue that the agave spirits I enjoy today were in fact a product of a clandestine Mexican and Filipino collaboration while both nations were under hundreds of years of Spanish rule. The sharing of knowledge and skills were basically a show of brotherhood, if you will. After all, Mexico and the Philippines are colonial cousins.

“In fact, if you really want to take a deep dive, tequila was birthed out of colonialism because the Spanish-Mexicans owned the land they grew agave on,” Quiñonez explained further. “While mezcal is truly ancestral, because it’s made by the indigenous communities of Mexico, who own their own land and the agaves they cultivate in it.”

It was heady stuff to digest for sure. But it’s no secret that Quiñonez certainly knows much more than the usual spirits professional. And I’m glad she brought up all this historical information, while many others often hesitate to go that far back and shy away from inconvenient facts. In that sense, she’s fearless—talking about heritage, culture, and people without any of the usual marketing jargon. Instead, she used her 20-year career working in the spirits industry—15 of which was spent as a global brand ambassador for Diageo—shedding light and dispensing valuable intel that go way past what’s trending at any given time.

“My romance with agave and Aztec culture began as a teenager in the ’90s while growing up in Eastside San Jose, California—where I enrolled in Mexican and Aztec studies at local colleges to understand the history, language, and mythology,” Quiñonez says. “I’m a first-generation Nicaragüense and I was raised in a diverse and culturally rich community dominated by hard working Mexicanos from Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacán. My first experiences with tequila were mainly during celebratory and joyful occasions: family gatherings, weddings, and holidays. And the brands that resonated with my early years were Chinaco, Siete Leguas, and Tres Magueyes, because they had always represented quality and tradition.”

Today, Quiñones is still in the spirits industry, but she’s made the leap to become her own boss: She’s now the CEO and founder of her own boutique consulting firm, which specializes in global route-to-market strategies—focusing on agave-based beverages, cannabis, and the multi-cultural luxury world at large, where she works only on projects and clients she truly believes in.

“I can proudly say that I’ve had a unique front row seat into the world of tequila, not only within my own career and extensive travels throughout Mexico but through my mother’s as well,” Quiñonez says. “She ignited a new and early passion for the industry—as she was an amazing bartender and cocktail waitress for 25 years. I was learning about tequila, rum, Cognac, and fine Scotches from the age of 14, so my early love for history, culture, and hospitality created the perfect foundation to an illustrious path into the world of fine spirits.”

Here, Quiñonez listed some of her favorite tequilas and mezcals—many of which are not part of the “Big Boys” club she had previously worked with: Beyond that she’s also worked with the the “Big Boys” of tequila—Don Julio, Jose Cuervo, Herradura, Cazadores, and DeLeon. Instead, she wanted to highlight more offbeat distilleries than aren’t going to be in every single big box store or retailer. These picks are more artisanal in nature, and in its own way, truer to the way locals—not Americans—drink.

“The curated list is a tribute to the legacy, art, and craft of the unsung heroes in the industry: the agaveros, los jimadores, tequileros, and mezcaleros. For centuries they have honored a past that connects tradition, the magic of the land, and its people,” Quiñonez emphasizes. “The tequilas and mezcales that I selected are the finest representation of Mexican heritage, in my opinion…not only for their exceptional taste but in the manner with which they’re produced. All use mindful and sustainable cultivations practices. Several continue to use pre-Hispanic milling methods such as the tahona—an art and rarity in the 21st century. There’s the fractional aging of reposado and añejo tequilas; techniques seen in aging fine Sherry wines; and the hand selecting of the most mature agaves to deliver the most remarkable profiles, styles, and flavor combinations. And although Cinco de Mayo is not traditionally celebrated in Mexico, it does represent the most important holiday for tequila and mezcal sales in the United States. I only hope that whatever agave-based spirit that you choose to celebrate with, you appreciate not only its great taste but its unique origins.”

The Best Tequilas and the Best Mezcals for Cinco de Mayo—and Beyond


EL TEQUILEÑO REPOSADO GRAN RESERVA ($56)

“El Tequileño Reposado Gran Reserva is a favorite among tequila drinkers, judges, and connoisseurs. El Tequileño, located in the heart of el Valle de Tequila with its 60-year-old tradition and legacy, has created one of the best-tasting reposado tequilas in the market,” Quiñonez says. “This blend of eight-month-old reposados and reserve 18-month añejos create absolute perfection from start to finish. Bold notes of vanilla, nuts, dried fruit and spice. I really enjoy sipping on this with a large cube of ice and great company.”


FORTALEZA STILL STRENGTH ($48)

“This expression comes from an incredible distillery with heritage, using tradition and artisanal methods with five generations of production and history,” Quiñonez says. “‘SS’ is a very special sipping-style blanco at 46% ABV. A must have for any tequila lover, it boasts of beautiful earthy notes combined with bright fruit and cooked ripe agave. I like to sip SS on the rocks or with tonic and a lemon peel.” 


TEQUILA OCHO SINGLE ESTATE LAS AGUILAS PLATA ($47)

“Terroir plays a vital role in tequila production, as it does in most fine spirits and winemaking—and the single estate grown agaves yield some of the sweetest piñas from the highland region,” says Quiñonez. “A wonderful bouquet of herbal, citrus, and floral aromas deliver balance and elegance with every sip. I really enjoy drinking this plata style on the rocks. You’ve got crisp notes of green apple, fresh herbs like basil, and yerba buena and sweet tropical fruit.”


CASCAHUÍN TAHONA BLANCO ($69)

“Cascahuin Tahona Blanco is a true display of harmony, ancestry, and balance,” Quiñonez says. “There are powerful notes of cooked agave, herbal, sweet fruit, and mineral essence. It’s my favorite tequila among the ‘tahona-style’ tequilas for its purity and elegance.” 


FUENTESECA EXTRA AÑEJO 7 YEAR ($214)

“I highly recommend that you record the day and time you taste this,” Quiñonez insists. “This is yet another masterpiece from destilería La Tequileña, where only the finest most mature agaves are able to make the cut. Their use of fractional aging, combined with the different styles of barrels used for maturation, such as French Limousin oak, American white oak, and wine casks deliver an exceptional liquid with an even more exceptional finish. Notes of cooked agave, dried fruit, spice and caramel offer a sensational añejo style for any agave connoisseur.”


DON FULANO BLANCO ($55)

“This expression, from destilería La Tequileña in the heart of el Valle de Tequila, only utilizes hand-selected estate-grown Highland agaves to produce Don Fulano Blanco, which provides exquisite beauty and elegance. Blanco tequilas—to be properly classified—are typically unaged. So to sample a six-month-aged tequila reinforces the bounty of the land and the maguey. The aging creates more delicate fruit, herb, and spice notes to deliver one of the best tasting blanco tequilas in the market.”


FORTALEZA BLANCO ($50)

“Fortaleza Blanco is another beauty from NOM 1493. You can pour Fortaleza Blanco in a mixed drink, neat, or on the rocks—and it will not disappoint,” Quiñonez says. “It’s all sophisticated and refined sweet notes—with hints of citrus, butter, and white pepper. Copper pot distilled, alongside the use of the traditional tahona milling method, adds mineral notes—making it a standout tequila for me.”


CASCAHUÍN REPOSADO ($56)

“This is a true beauty,” Quiñonez says. “This reposado is aged for six to eight months and it’s everything that you would want in a classic ‘valley-style’ reposado. Notes of cooked agave, honey, and vanilla produce depth and body with a silky rich finish. I prefer to sip on this reposado with orange wedges to enhance the spice and honey notes.”


EL TEQUILEÑO REPOSADO RARE ($200)

“El Tequileño Reposado Rare is absolutely unique, not only for its aging method—as they blend añejo tequilas that have been aged for over six years in a ‘pipon,’ which is a wooden oak tank that’s able to hold more than 23,000 liters of tequila—but for its depth of flavor and deep finish,” Quiñonez says. “With its elegant notes of dried fruit, ripe pineapple, honey and cooked agave, I recommend using a tequila glass or a champagne flute to truly take in the expression’s bold flavors and luxurious taste.”


TEQUILA OCHO CERRO GRANDE REPOSADO ($60)

“This is the perfect daytime drinking style reposado of the bunch! This reposado is rested for a little over eight weeks in ex-bourbon barrels. It’s got a rich fruit-forward nose with notes of honey cooked agave, tropical fruit, mango, and apricot—the perfect reposado to have neat or in my favorite cocktail, the Paloma.” 


LA GRITONA REPOSADO ($25)

“La Gritona reposado is such a special tequila from Distillery NOM 1533, not only for its great taste but for their standout master distiller, Melly Barajas,” Quiñonez says. “Only a small number of female master distillers produce tequila—and an even smaller number have an entirely female production team! La Gritona utilizes nine- to ten-year-old mature agave from the highlands region of Jalisco—so these agaves yield more sugar and tend to be sweeter and more aromatic. This reposado is incredible: so many exploding flavors such as cooked tropical fruit, honey, spice, hints of clove, and aniseed deliver a wonderful reposado style tequila from start to finish.” 


G4 AÑEJO ($65)

“Master distiller Felipe Camarena has created such a refined, elegantly crafted, rich sipping style añejo,” says Quiñonez. “It’s incredibly expressive on the nose with hints of cooked pear, apple, vanilla, cinnamon, and clove spice. It’s a stunning representation of flavor, complexity, and harmony—with elegant hints of oak, honey cooked fruit, and spice on the palate. Certainly one of my favorite añejos on the market.” 


CLASE AZUL REPOSADO ($139)

“This is the perfect dessert-style reposado, to sip neat or with a large cube of ice,” says Quiñonez. “It has a velvety feel with notes of chocolate vanilla, cinnamon, and butterscotch with complex spices such as chile de arbol and clove. Expressive from nose to finish. The pretty bottles make for interesting conversation as well.” 


EL TESORO REPOSADO ($57)

“I absolutely enjoy the bold earthy, smoky, and herbal notes that this reposado delivers. The honey and white pepper notes carry forward along with hints of fresh cut herb, wood, and citrus peel—creating a rich long dry finish,” says Quiñonez. “I recommend pairing this with oysters or ceviche, on the rocks or in a long drink.” 


CORRALEJO AÑEJO ($48)

“Such a great classic añejo style from the incredible state of Guanajuato. This añejo is aged for 12 months in oak barrels, is bottled at 38% ABV, and delivers bold flavors of charred wood, herbs, nuts, and sweet piloncillo. Such rustic classic flavors from beginning to end.” 


CABALLITO CERRERO BLANCO ($80)

“Founded in 1873, the Santa Rita factory has been producing tequila for 15 generations,” says Quiñonez.  “This jewel of a blanco offers complexity, harmony, and depth. It delivers a range of rich flavors—from wild honey, cooked agave, fresh cut grass, tropical fruit, citrus, and smoke. As a higher-proof blanco at 45% ABV, it creates a long rich finish, one of the best tasting blanco tequilas on the market!”


ARRETE AÑEJO ($45)

“I absolutely love this añejo: so expressive on the nose with notes of bourbon, butterscotch, dried fruit, figs, and raisins,” says Quiñonez. “Beautifully rich on the palate with a silky finish. I recommend enjoying this añejo with a dessert or cigar pairing.” 


DERRUMBES ZACATECAS TEQUILANA WEBER MEZCAL JOVEN ($83)

“This expression is the perfect link to bridge the old world to the new. This joven mezcal delivers a well-rounded body and a sophisticated finish,” Quiñonez says. “The floral hints of cooked fruit, smoke, and spice create the ideal introduction to a traditional-style mezcal made in the fashion of tequila. Produced in the small village of Huitzila, Zacatecas, near the Valley of Tequila, master distiller Jaime Bañuelos continues the tradition of pre-hispanic artisanal production methods, while maintaining complexity and balance with every sip.”


SAN BARTOLO MEZCAL ESPADÍN ($35)

“What an incredible treat to have gotten my hands on this beauty,” says Quiñonez. “San Bartolo is produced in the gorgeous village of Yautepec by award-winning mezcalero Valentín Martínez López, who was recently recognized by the CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal) for his historic 50-year contribution to the production of mezcal! So much harmony and balance: a fine blend of floral, citrus, and tropical fruit notes such as pineapple and mango—with light pepper and smoke flavors that deliver a refined and elevated liquid. This made me smile from ear to ear. A wonderfully refined representation of the category.” 


TOSBA JOVEN MEZCAL ESPADÍN ($65)

“Tosba mezcal from the remote village of San Cristóbal Lachirioag in Oaxaca embodies passion, heritage, and an outstanding commitment to community and the land,” Quiñonez says. “Bold and expressive, its earthy, herbal, vegetal, and smoky notes deliver an outstanding full body and perfectly balanced espadín mezcal. I recommend sampling this neat in a Champagne flute to truly appreciate its rich complexity and elegance.” 


DERRUMBES SAN LUIS POTOSI SALMIANA CRASSISPINA MEZCAL JOVEN ($36)

“This expression is made with wild agave that naturally grows in the high plateau of San Luis Potosí. From the village of Charcas, the mezcal cultivated in the desert delivers a more sweet, floral, and herbaceous mezcal—unlike in any other place in Mexico,” Quiñonez says. “Maestro mezcalero Manuel Perez showcases the expression’s beauty, balance, and intensity by foraging for dry salmiana leaves and quiotes to use as fuel during the cooking process.”

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